If Israel Folau really wants to stay in Australian rugby union, he’s got a funny way of showing it, writes Scotty Stevenson. Oh, and Rugby Australia is being played.
On Monday, the Australian rugby union player Israel Folau released what he described as a ‘context’ piece on his recent social media comments regarding homosexuals, and his subsequent meeting with Rugby Australia officials in the wake of the public relations fall out.
In the article published on the Players Voice platform under the byline ‘Founding Contributor’, Folau defends his world view through the prism of his own religious experience, which is, he and his supporters would argue, his right.
Folau is indeed entitled to hold whatever views he likes, even those that would seem to run counter to the views of his employer, Rugby Australia, and the views of a number of the sport’s participants, fans and families, and commercial partners.
Many media outlets have shared the article since its publication on Monday, with most focusing on Folau’s assertion that he was prepared to walk away from his contract with Rugby Australia, rather than his firmly-held belief that homosexuals are going to hell unless they somehow un-gay themselves, presumably through baptism.
Yes, well, the devil is in the detail.
In the article Folau, who claims Rugby Australia “misrepresented” his position, says,
“I told Raelene [Castle, Rugby Australia CEO] if she felt the situation had become untenable – that is 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.”
That is a cleverly-worded paragraph, placing Castle and the Rugby Australia Executive in a clearly invidious position. Folau implies that it was up to Castle to make a call on whether or not she believed the fallout from Folau’s statements constituted a serious enough situation to warrant his ‘resignation’. Any executive worth her chops – and Raelene Castle certainly has a reputation for effective management – would understand the trap here.
It is a well-trodden path to victimhood here, but it is Rugby Australia who finds themselves in a no-win situation. If Folau felt his comments were out of line (and his article makes it patently clear he does not) he could have offered a resignation which, in turn, may have been gladly accepted. He did not do this. He placed the onus on Rugby Australia to make the suggestion that his comments, and his continued belief in those comments, made his contract unsustainable. That, in turn, would have opened the door for Folau to claim discriminatory policies on the part of his employer.
Even if this was not Folau’s intent – and the benefit of the doubt is offered here – it is most certainly the outcome.
He goes on to say that “there have been offers from the UK, Europe and Japan that are way above anything I could earn in Australia.” It is inconceivable that there have not been such offers, given the respective spending capabilities of clubs within each of those jurisdictions. However, this hardly provides leverage at this particular time as World Rugby regulations are in place to prevent players jumping contracts. If Folau wanted to take up another rugby union opportunity in his current contracting period (which comes to a close at the end of this year) he would need clearance from Rugby Australia to do so.
It is no secret that Folau is also being courted by clubs in the NRL, and his representative Isaac Moses is one of the most active agents in Australian rugby league. It is almost certain given Folau’s on-field ability that there will be a bidding war for his services. Resigning from his current rugby union contract before the end of its term could be detrimental to any negotiation post-2018. It would effectively take a bidder out of the market.
So, we end up here, between a stone tablet and a hard place. Rugby Australia are powerless to prevent Folau from expressing his religious beliefs, and Folau insists on being able to do so. This is contract brinkmanship of a kind rarely seen in rugby union, and there is one party to this palaver that has a clear upper hand.
Tip: it’s not the one you think.
The above was written before the announcement today that Rugby Australia would not take any further action over the comments made by Folau in his social media post on April 4.
This story originally ran on RugbyPass.com – the premier destination for rugby fans in Asia, streaming International Test Matches including The Rugby Championship, Super Rugby and more to your device wherever you are in Asia.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.