Sport Rugby

Tuesday 23 October 2018

Neil Francis: Israel Folau is great but he's no role model

A post shared to Instagram by Australia rugby union star Israel Folau and a subsequent comment on the social platform by the player in relation to homosexuality has led to a heated debate. Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
A post shared to Instagram by Australia rugby union star Israel Folau and a subsequent comment on the social platform by the player in relation to homosexuality has led to a heated debate. Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

On May 12 Leinster became European Champions for the fourth time. The match against Racing in Bilbao will be remembered as a titanic struggle with a low entertainment quotient.

On the same day, halfway across the world, the NSW Waratahs played a round-13 match in the Super 15 competition against the current champions, the Canterbury Crusaders, at the Ami Stadium in Christchurch. It was a sensational game which the Crusaders just about won.

At full-back for the Waratahs, just back from a hamstring injury, was Israel Folau. The Wallaby, in anyone's company, is considered to be one of the best players in the world. In the week prior to that match Folau, in response to a question to him posted on Instagram, said that "homosexuals would all burn in hell". Quite a statement to make.

Back to the rugby match for a moment because it was remarkable on a number of fronts. The Waratahs, who have been lamentably inconsistent since they won the competition a few seasons ago, caught fire and led at one stage 29-0 - an extraordinary feat against the champions. In a stunning reversal, the Crusaders screamed back to win 31-29. Not one Asian match-fixing syndicate in sight. They were all in Kiev at the Real Madrid versus Liverpool game.

It took me a while to cop it but eventually I did - at every break in play during the match, the stadium DJ played 'YMCA' by the Village People. Belted it out. It was, I have to say, very amusing. Folau could not but have noticed what was playing and why it was being played. Free speech has consequences.

Before we go any further, note to Frano: I do have a little bit of history here but nothing that should preclude me from writing objectively on the same matters. The podcast is still on playback in Newstalk's vault. I apologised.

I was brought up in the Christian faith. In truth, I am a 'births, deaths and marriages with Christmas thrown in' type of Christian. I am not even sure about hell. A Dante-like eternal pit of damnation, rivers of lava and devils sticking hot pokers in all your orifices? I am sure they have my number. Anyway, what's it they say: heaven for the climate, hell for the company!

I certainly do not think that if there is a hell, homosexuals will burn there. Why would somebody say such a thing? This one is worth a rummage!

Folau is a member of the Assemblies of God Fellowship - a Pentecostalist sect of the Christian church. Many Polynesians are members of this grouping. Folau's parents were from Tonga and up to his late teens he was brought up as a Mormon. Folau converted in 2009.

If we park Folau's comments for a moment and look at the constitution of the man, then we have a model citizen, unfailingly polite and courteous, bright, articulate and caring. A really nice fella! On the field I have never seen an unsportsmanlike or petulant act in any of the games I have watched him play. The perfect role model.

Lock hard there mister: how can we reconcile that type of human being with what he has just said?

Folau first came to prominence outside his sporting environment when he stated on Instagram that he could not support the then-upcoming Australian marriage law postal survey. Folau disagreed with the notion of gay marriage.

This was prompted by the fact that Bill Pulver, the then-CEO of the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) had stated that the ARU was fully behind gay marriage. Folau put his hand up and said that Pulver did not speak for him. I suppose here he was expressing his entitlement to disagree. Indeed, not all sporting unions in Australia went with the flow. Folau was now on the radar and firmly in the crosshairs.

At the start of May, Folau posted a controversial video on Instagram. The post was an 11-minute video called 'Is it time to get right with God?' It was produced by an American TV evangelist preacher called David Wilkerson. The type of podcast was called a Sermon Jam. A pop video Godmercial. I watched it all: a mix between pseudo-God piffle and well-meaning Christian rhetoric.

The punchline was, "where will you spend eternity?". I would share most people's reticence about these televangelists. Currently we have the Rev Jesse Duplantis from the State of Louisiana who is looking for $54m from his congregation to buy a Falcon 7X private jet "because if Jesus was alive today he would not travel on a donkey to preach the Gospel!"

Wilkerson had no financial or sex scandals following him up to the time he died in 2011. He seems to have been a clean-living, God-fearing man. The message from his video, whether anyone cares or not, was that everyone who has sinned had better repent or they will burn in hell

He quotes Corinthians 6:9-10: "Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practise homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor the drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the Kingdom of God."

The list of people mentioned who are due to burn in hell is a pretty broad canvas. Maybe we should all repent. These letters to the Corinthians were written 2000 years ago by people who believed that the earth was flat. Many people simply don't care or bother with the scriptures or their relevance any more. Perhaps the Church could adopt a more nuanced interpretation.

As soon as Folau's post came into the public domain, an unnamed 'Christian' asked the question of Folau that out of that list, did he believe that homosexuals would burn in hell? Thieves, the sexually immoral, drunkards, etc., were left out.

In modern society you cannot class homosexual people as evil-doers or bad people as was done 2000 years ago. That is why quite possibly the question was asked. Folau responded that if homosexuals did not repent they would burn in hell. Once he said that, World War III broke.

Cue the usual arguments - free speech is not free speech if it is hate speech. Why would Folau say what he just said? He is not an unintelligent man. He would have been well aware of the probable consequences of his actions.

The societal and financial penalties could have been catastrophic yet he chose to say these things and repeat them. Nor would he issue an apology, a forced apology or a retraction. Clarification was published in an online publication called 'Players Voice'. Folau penned a compelling insight into how he thought and why he said what he had.

The line here is how he walks between interpretation of Christian values and dogma and how it is recognised and regarded in contemporary society. Folau was following his religious beliefs and would not or could not compromise on them. No compromise to the point that he would walk away from rugby.

"After we'd all talked, I told Raelene (Castle, CEO of ARU) if she felt the situation had become untenable, that I was hurting Rugby Australia, its sponsors and the Australian Rugby community to such a degree that things couldn't be worked through, I would walk away from my contract immediately," he said.

"After the meeting I went home, turned on the TV and was really disappointed with some of the things that were said in the press conference. I felt Raelene misrepresented my position and my comments and did so to appease other people, which is an issue I need to discuss with her and others at Rugby Australia."

The episode polarised Australia but Folau has escaped sanction. How did that happen? Maybe in the scheme of things it is a long way down the list. In the recent Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast in Australia, the English diver Tom Daley noted stoically that 37 member states in the Commonwealth had anti-LGBT statutes in their constitution. Inclusive games? Not really.

There are 13 states in the world that regularly execute people for having homosexual relationships. In the Muslim world of 1.8bn people, homosexuality is on a spectrum of being barely tolerated to strictly forbidden and punishable by death.

This brings us on nicely to Anthony Mundine. Mundine was one of the best and most highly paid rugby league players in the NRL. Mundine converted to Islam in 1999 and when he finished in rugby league he became one of Australia's best boxers. In February of this year, in a 15-minute interview, the details of which could not be printed anywhere, Mundine stated that all homosexuals should be executed. Out-and-out hatred.

The consequences of freedom of speech in Western society seem, in this instance, a selective thing. Maybe there might be a commensurate response from social media if they get their wish to try and push Sonny Bill Williams, another Muslim convert, on his views on homosexuality. In the unlikely event he did make a statement, what would be the reaction to his views on homosexuality just because Islam forbids all homosexual activity?

Minorities are at the heart of this episode. The recent census in Australia showed that there were roughly 25 million people in the country. Roughly three per cent of that total were classified as LGBT - somewhere in the region of 750,000 to 800,000. That's a big number. A vocal minority. So when a rugby star says something that would be repugnant to that group, irrespective of why he said it, there would be only one winner here.

Also in that census it was estimated that there were about 225,000 Polynesians living in Australia, with the vast majority based in Sydney. Australia is a land of opportunity yet not much of the milk and honey that goes around arrives at the islanders' doorsteps. Poverty is their portion, even in Australia. The majority of them are devout Christians who read their bible every day and adhere to the teachings of their church. Sometimes a strong faith compensates.

Israel Folau is a superstar to these people. When he puts on the green and gold he represents all of the islanders living in Australia. When he stuck to his guns, repeated what he said and issued a statement saying that he would not pull back from his faith, his star rose. No sanction, no fine, no sacking, not even a stern warning. Everyone backed off because you ran a huge risk of alienating and offending the Polynesian community. It is a complex existence living in a multi-cultural and diverse society such as Australia.

Michael Cheika, ever the pragmatist, was a beacon of common sense. A month after meeting with Rugby Australia CEO Castle and New South Wales Rugby Union CEO Andrew Hore over his controversial social media use, and asked what his message would be to a young gay rugby fan who idolises Folau, Cheika said on Fox Sports' Kick & Chase programme: "Support systems and learning to 'detach' from such messages was key. The self-esteem in people, no matter who they are, is extremely important."

He added: "Self-belief, self-esteem, and if that's something that you don't agree with, you detach from that. The way it will be is he is no longer my idol." Simple.

Cheika at all stages wants his best player to be available to him but his response was utterly correct. Sports people are only vaguely aware of their responsibilities and obligations and are not there to be role models to anyone in the first instance. Very, very few superstars behave as society expects them to nor do all sports people tick all the boxes. Why are we disappointed when they consistently fall short of society's aspirational standards?

It also leaves Cheika in a tricky situation on how Folau and David Pocock get on with each other since the Wallaby squad was announced last Wednesday. Pocock is a humanist and environmental campaigner who has chained himself to the gates in mining towns and been involved in many protests and sit-ins.

He famously refused to marry his girlfriend until there was marriage equality for all in Australia. Folau and Pocock have clashed on social media (where else!). Does simmering tensions and political and religious beliefs get in the way of rugby brotherhood ?

Cheika also has a major problem in that within his squad he has had quite a number of cocaine sniffers, revilers, drunkards and spouse abusers who are all going to burn in hell once they are done on this earth, if not before.

Maybe Folau should take a leaf out of All Black legend Michael Jones' book and simply say in an understated way, I will not play rugby on Sunday because it is the Lord's day, and leave it at that. Get off Instagram too while you're at it. I wonder what Jesus Christ would think of Instagram or Twitter. If you have nothing positive to say, say nothing.

Hope to God I haven't offended anyone - including the sensitivities of any Asian match-fixing syndicates.

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