By Martin Parry, AFP
Australian sport has been taking a hard line against racism, homophobia and gender inequality, but plans to sack Israel Folau over his religious views have some bemoaning “political correctness” gone too far.
The devoutly Christian player, one of rugby union’s highest profile stars, has been pilloried for his Instagram post which said “hell awaits” homosexuals and urging them to “repent their sins”.
Rugby Australia contend he committed a “high-level” breach of the players’ code of conduct by failing to adhere to their policies and values and intend to sack him after issuing a warning for similar comments last year.
Folau, who has refused to back down, has opted to appear before a tribunal on May 4 to save his career, with freedom of speech and religious expression likely to form part of his defence.
The case comes as Australia ratchets up support for women’s sport to address gender inequality, while confronting issues such as racism, sexism and homophobia that have long blighted codes such as rugby league and Australian Rules.
But censoring someone for their religious views is an issue largely untested in Australian sports, with experts warning of a legal and moral minefield.
It has hit a nerve among more conservative commentators who champion free speech.
The most high-profile pushback against Rugby Australia has come from outspoken former Wallabies coach Alan Jones, now a highly influential radio broadcaster.
Jones, who has frequently railed at how the governing body is run, said the decision “completely corrupted” free speech in Australia, while praising Folau for his “conviction and Christian commitment”.
“It’s got nothing to do with Israel, or rugby, or religion, or homosexuals. Where are we in this country on free speech?” he said.
Rugby Australia insist it is simply an employment contract issue, while making clear they would not tolerate “disrespect to people because of their sexuality”.
They have won plenty of support, including from Sport Australia boss Kate Palmer who commended the tough stance and urged other sports to follow suit.
“Everyone is entitled to their own views but expressing divisive and discriminatory beliefs is harmful to sport and the broader Australian community,” she said, while key sponsor Qantas, Wallabies coach Michael Cheika and several high-profile players have distanced themselves from Folau.
Jones took aim at Cheika and Australia captain Michael Hooper for “selling out their former teammate” and “singing the company tune to keep their gravy train rolling”.
“How odd that Rugby Australia preaches ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusiveness’ when what they really mean is uniformity or exclusion,” Jones said in a column for The Australian newspaper.
Rugby Australia’s position has also been criticised by sections of the New Zealand media.
Sports columnist Mark Reason wrote in an opinion piece for stuff.co.nz that Rugby Australia wanted to “be all touchy-feely, it wants to be modern, it wants to be a beacon of inclusivity”.
“But inclusivity means including all, it means including people whom you may not agree with, it means including Israel Folau,” he said.
Like Jones, Reason pointed to apparent hypocrisy by Rugby Australia whose key sponsor Qantas, run by openly gay chief executive Alan Joyce, has called Folau’s comments “really disappointing”.
“It seems very peculiar that Rugby Australia can partner with Qantas, whose sister airline is Emirates, the flagship of a state where homosexuality is a jailable offence, and yet cast Folau out into the wilderness,” he wrote.
“In Islam homosexuality is an incontrovertible sin. Yet I have not noticed Australia boycotting the Dubai Sevens.”
Folau has also won unlikely support from Australian Liberal MP Tim Wilson, who famously proposed to his husband in parliament while speaking on a same-sex marriage bill in 2017.
He told broadcaster ABC there was a need for people to be able to express their views, including on religion, without censorship.
“Rugby isn’t just a game for people who are agnostic or atheist. In a free, pluralistic democracy, that should have space for everybody to express their opinion,” he said.
“Quoting the Bible or reciting a well established position around morality and private morality I don’t think crosses that line.”