Israel Folau’s status as the unrivaled star of Australian rugby wasn’t enough to save his job in the wake of a social media post that condemned gay people and other so-called sinners to eternal damnation.
Rugby Australia on Friday terminated Folau’s four-year contract, 10 days after an independent panel found the 30-year-old fullback guilty of a high-level breach of the players’ code of conduct for his contentious post in mid-April.
Folau can appeal the decision but it appears, at least for now, that his career has gone down in flames. The saga also has thrown Australia’s preparations for the Rugby World Cup into turmoil.
A self-described devout Christian, Folau said he was merely posting a passage from the bible and he refused to take down the online post. For rugby Australia, it boiled down to a contract issue.
“We want to stress that this outcome is a painful situation for the game,” Rugby Australia chief executive Raelene Castle told a news conference in Sydney, broadcast live on TV. “… but Rugby Australia’s position remains that Israel, through his actions, left us with no choice but to pursue a course of action resulting in today’s outcome.”
The code of conduct charge sparked debate in Australia about freedom of speech and the right of players to express their beliefs. It also followed a warning Folau received from Rugby Australia last year over a social media post that drew criticism from some rugby followers, including a major sponsor of the game.
In February, Folau signed a contract extension to remain with the Sydney-based New South Wales Waratahs and Australian rugby until the end of 2022. He was set to play an important role in Australia’s World Cup campaign, starting in September. Now he’s likely to be looking abroad to continue his professional playing career.
Folau issued a statement Friday saying “I am deeply saddened by today’s decision to terminate my employment. He said he was considering his options.
“I believe it is my duty as a Christian to share God’s word,” he said. “Upholding my religious beliefs should not prevent my ability to work or play for my club and country.”
Castle said the Rugby Australia contract outlined the expectations of professional players, although there has been speculation about inconsistencies regarding when certain clauses were inserted and that reportedly could form the basis of an appeal for Folau.
“Our clear message to all rugby fans today is that we need to stand by our values and the qualities of inclusion, integrity, discipline, respect and teamwork,” Castle said.
Pride in Sport co-founder Andrew Purchas commended Rugby Australia for its decisive action.
“We know that statements of sporting figures can have a profound impact on our culture, as well as have great influence on the community - especially young people,” he said. “Homophobic and transphobic discrimination is not acceptable in sport and individuals - irrespective of their social or professional stature - will be held accountable for their words and actions.”
Folau has been the undisputed star in his 73 test matches for the Wallabies since he joined the rugby union ranks following professional contracts in Australian rules football and in rugby league, where he also represented Australia.
In his most recent Super Rugby match for the Sydney-based New South Wales Waratahs, Folau scored his 60th try, the most of any player in the tournament, breaking the record of former New Zealand winger Doug Howlett.
Folau told people in his church on the weekend that he’d had chances “to potentially make the situation a little bit easier” and he could have gone back to play the game but he refused to compromise on his beliefs.
Some players have openly supported Folau’s right to express his beliefs, and there was speculation that other devoutly Christian players may walk out on their contracts in Australia.
“Thank you also to those who have spoken out in my defense, some of whom do not share my beliefs but have defended my right to express them,” Folau said.
Castle said she’d been in touch with professional players and assured that Rugby Australia “fully supports their right to their own beliefs and nothing that has happened changes that.”
“But when we’re talking about inclusiveness in our game, we’re talking about respecting differences as well,” Castle said. “When we say rugby is a game for all, we mean it.”
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