Image Credit: David Molloy
ISRAEL FOLAU’S re-signing into the game of rugby league is a huge embarrassment and an awful advertisement for the game.
After rising to global stardom, starring for the Australian rugby union team against the British and Irish Lions in 2013, his career took off and he was a star of the sport for years, until he spoke out very openly on social media.
He made numerous comments which were homophobic, and was warned by Rugby Australia, and subsequently sacked, after tweeting a post which stated that “homosexuals” and other groups of people will be “going to hell” for who they are.
He was then rightly vilified by the rugby community in both Australia and across the globe, especially in a sport which has very important role models who have done so much for the homosexual community in sport – Gareth Thomas, Nigel Owens and Keegan Hirst for example.
After all the clubs in the NRL (the Australian equivalent of Super League) collectively agreed that none of them would be allowing him back into the game, it seemed as if his rugby career had reached an end at the age of 30.
Even the game which started his big career, rugby league, had seemingly accepted that those types of comments can’t go unnoticed and are unacceptable. After strong stints at the Brisbane Broncos and Melbourne Storm, he was an incredible league player, but chose rugby union instead. It seemed his move back was one of desperation, and sadly the French side of Catalan Dragons took their chance to sign a talented player and dismissed the nature of his homophobic comments, and took an ‘everyone deserves a second chance’ rhetoric to justify it.
It’s just unacceptable from Super League, allowing a player to play whose comments the Catalan Dragons’ chairman himself said they “do not share or condone”. But despite this obvious admission, they have decided that he deserved a second chance to show his talent on the pitch. This is a ridiculous contradiction of views, showing they clearly condone his views to the extent that they see it as a mistake, and not a view which he has built up through his religion, which is the case, being a Christian Fundamentalist. As a player who himself stated in 2015 that there “is no place for homophobia in the game of rugby”, on that logic he wouldn’t even support his own reintroduction to the sport.
The response from clubs since has been good, with teams expressing their concern and disgust at the allowance of Folau to play in Super League. Wigan announced that their fixture on 22 March against Catalan would be ‘Pride Day’, in which they will invite LGBTQ+ groups to help promote equality in the game. It’s a good move from the clubs, but the fact is that they didn’t have any power to combat the decision to sign Folau (which they have since voted on, and decided that they do now need more power in future).
Furthermore, Hull KR chairman Neil Budgell has addressed the possible financial backlash which the signing of Folau could have on Super League, and the rest of the clubs in the league. With sponsors possibly pulling out due to not wanting the association with a player who carries such views, there are fears that his overall influence will just be completely negative - which I agree with.
Contrast this, for example, with the signing of Sonny Bill Williams by the Toronto Wolfpack at the end of summer. He was signed to the very new Canadian experiment team, which has worked well so far and will genuinely attract people to the sport.
Folau’s introduction is just a big punch in the face to the people who have worked so hard to get rugby league to where it is today as a forward thinking, progressive sport.
Halifax prop Keegan Hirst, Britain’s first openly gay rugby league player, has expressed his disdain at the decision to allow Folau back into the league. He thinks that it will show that people with similar views are allowed into the league and accepted - as long as it is on a talent basis.
How far does talent trump a viewpoint which simply isn’t acceptable in the sport? Folau’s inclusion sets a terrible example and I hope sponsors do pull out to show Catalan the mistake they made in deciding to look past his views.
Religious free speech should obviously be accepted, but when someone openly says that “homosexuals... Hell awaits you” in a social media post, this is him imposing his views on others, saying they must repent for their sins. This is completely too far and not something which has a place in rugby league or any sport for that matter. Folau’s Catalan career started at home for the Dragons, so it will be interesting to see how the English fans react in his match in Hull.