In early April Israel Folau, for the second time, used social media to voice his religious stance against various groups of people that do not act in accordance with his beliefs. The first time such comments were made, the player was warned and removed them from his social media platforms. Later that year he was offered a contract extension to the tune of about $ 4 million. This time around however both the Australian Rugby Union as well as the player himself are taking a much harder stance. The player having declined a $1 million payout could now be left with nothing.
The ARU has found the player guilty of a high level breach and intend to cancel the player’s contract, on the other hand, Folau has now taken the position of being unapologetic and his refusal to remove the post indicates his lack of remorse in this regard. Hence, the current impasse in Australian Rugby.
Had the player shown remorse the breach would have been at the low to mid-range level and could have warranted a fine or suspension instead of the termination currently envisaged. Folau does have the opportunity to appeal the decision taken against him and should he do so, a new panel will hear the matter afresh. The player however also refused to commit to curtailing further posts of this nature and this stance counts heavily against him.
In addition to handling the disciplinary process, the ARU has also had to tread carefully with its sponsors as Land Rover has taken away the players car, Asics has parted ways with the player, Qantas has shown its disappointment and placed pressure on the ARU to handle the matter appropriately while Network 10 has shown its support for the ARU. A large scale sponsorship fallout is the last thing the Wallabies need so close to the World Cup and they will surely do everything they can to avoid one.
Since the Folau saga started up there have been various players, both for and against the comments which have spoken out. Billy Vunipola was the first, when he liked the post on social media, he was however disciplined quickly by both club and country. Samu Kerevi posted an apology for sharing a religious post and Taniela Tupou ruffled feathers when he posted: “might as well sack me and all other Pacific Island rugby players around the world because we have the same beliefs”.
Players such as TJ Perenara, Nehe Milner-Skudder, James Haskell, Joe Marler and Gareth Thomas to name a few, have all shared their distaste in the comments made by Folau and shown their support for people of all walks of life. Players speaking out in this fashion illustrates the inclusivity that World Rugby stands for. Perenara has come out again to address the comments made by Tupou as he took offence to the player speaking on behalf of all Pacific Island players.
This weekend’s Super Rugby game, between the Rebels and Reds, saw the players came together in prayer. This comes after it was reported that Folau had been in contact with several players who share his faith to stand with him in solidarity. It is however unclear at this point as to whether the players were uniting behind Folau or simply carrying out a common practice seen on the rugby field as players pray post game.
In light of all that is going on and the comments coming from both camps, the issue has become somewhat clouded. The issue is not the beliefs held by Folau as Tupou believes; the issue comes in when those beliefs are shared over inappropriate platforms. The use of a social media platform as a professional athlete is subject to contractual conditions as the misuse of the platform can have dire consequences for the employment body. Any athlete in breach of these conditions should be dealt with accordingly. Everyone is entitled to hold any belief they choose, what they are not permitted to do is to discriminate based on their beliefs, especially not in a public domain. Folau knew there would be consequences and he must now face them.
Written by: Nicholas Halsey