RA vs Folau – a ground breaking media circus gone mad

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” – Evelyn Beatrice Hall

For a couple of months now, on and off, I’ve been discussing the Israel Folau versus Rugby Australia slow motion ‘train crash’ that has been unfolding via the media.

I expressed the opinion to friends, that I suspected that Israel Folau had made himself into something of a crusading martyr for his Church/congregation. Recent events seem to strongly support that idea.

Following on from his initial controversial social media comments, Folau has made further inflammatory theological comments in the quasi-privacy of his chosen Church – in a sermon to his congregation – and he has further stoked the growing controversy by starting a GoFundMe campaign. The campaign aims to raise $3 million AUD in donations towards his upcoming legal costs. According to reports it has raised $250,000 after 12 hours of operation.

This signals to me that Folau is emphatically making a public statement that his religious views are far more important than continuing his professional rugby career (which potentially ended when RA sacked him anyhow, in the Southern Hemisphere at least).

His stance, and refusal to cease and desist, seems very likely to ensure the end of his current career in Australia. Regardless of the outcome in court.

Folau belongs to the Assemblies Of God (AOG) denomination of Christianity. AOG is a branch of the Christian faith that is widely considered to be very conservative in its theological philosophies. For lack of a more articulate way of describing it, you could say that AOG practitioners are very old school. At least, this is how I believe they are regarded by many more open minded Christians who consider themselves to be of a more progressive, contemporary, leaning.

Basically, some Christians believe that their faith has to move with the times and that there has to be a more fluid interpretation of the biblical teachings, and not the completely literal interpretation of the bible’s teachings that has been the case historically for Christianity.

Folau’s bigoted public statements and bullish attitude about his right to free speech frustrates me and, to significant degree, disappoints me too. But I can also understand, to some extent, why he is behaving the way he is.

His Church will be 101% behind his views and his right to be ‘militant’ in publicly campaigning those far-right theological views. When it comes to the 10 commandments and our community acceptance (for or against) of homosexuality, AOG followers will be seeing this debate in black and white: against.

Which means that Folau has basically allowed himself to become a mouthpiece for his particular Christian community. He is now basically on a crusade, very likely with thousands of like-minded conservative Christians privately supporting him. He may be relishing this role, or he may be succumbing to huge pressure from fellow AOG members. It’s impossible to tell at this point.

A few weeks back, I read a news article that indicated that a sizeable number of professional, mostly Pacific Island origin, rugby players in Australia are very unhappy about the stance that Rugby Australia has taken by terminating Folau’s employment.

I can understand where they are coming from. In my view Folau is being fired for expressing somewhat extreme religious views. As I understand our Democracy, we are all entitled to express our religious views, regardless of how extreme, illogical, hurtful and distasteful they may be to many others. We often have to tolerate bigoted, unhealthy, inflammatory and hateful comments from religious figures practicing other faiths – there have been high profile examples in the UK and Europe.

It has been widely reported that RA failed to insert a social media clause in Folau’s contract. Which surely, to my mind, severely weakens their case for termination. It has been reported that RA will go after Folau based on the ‘reputational harm’ clause that is in his contract. Many people, working in corporate environments (or previously in my case), have this kind of clause in our contracts.

It’s a pretty vague, all-encompassing, nebulous, concept isn’t it: ‘reputational harm.’ I imagine it can be very open to interpretation. I suspect it’s a very grey area of employment law.

In the case of the Folau debacle, it’s a very subjective kind of argument: ‘Israel Folau has harmed the reputation of Rugby Australia by making comments on 10 April via his personal Instagram account, condemning the immorality of unnamed people: “homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators and thieves.”’

The same account urged these people: “WARNING: HELL AWAITS YOU. REPENT. ONLY JESUS SAVES.” It’s all pretty silly, very archaic, religious rhetoric.

The debate I had, and continue to have, with friends (a debate that I’m sure many people are having) is, does this constitute reputational harm to Rugby Australia?

In my (non-legal) opinion, it does not. To my mind, Israel Folau is massively out-of-step with contemporary Christianity, the majority of which I think would not see this issue in stark black and white. He is also even more obviously out-of-sync with the large majority of the Australian public.

It’s as if Folau (and his Church) has got himself stuck in a time-warp. This reflects badly on him. This reflects badly on his Church. But I do not see how this reflects badly on Rugby Australia.

Are our employers responsible for our personal views? No.

Conversely, do we accept that our employers have the right to dictate our religious / political / philosophical views? No.

Israel Folau’s views are damaging his reputation. I think they are damaging his Church’s reputation. But I struggle to see how they are damaging Rugby Australia’s reputation.

Maybe if Folau was expressing these views while wearing the Wallabies, or Waratahs, jersey, then maybe he would be correctly perceived as acting as a mouthpiece for the ‘brand.’

If he was giving sermons during after-match interviews or press conferences, then that would definitely be a fair perspective. That is an employment issue.

But he hasn’t done that and of course he won’t get the opportunity to do that, going forwards.

At the worst, in my opinion, Folau is being inflammatory, disrespectful, foolish and stubborn.

At best, and this may leave a bad taste in many peoples’ mouths, he is rejecting the idea that his employer can tell him how to think and what he can say outside of work – with regards to social issues and religious views.

It’s going to be a fascinating court case and one that I think (as far as I am aware) is fairly unprecedented. It could also potentially be an extremely damaging Public Relations situation for Rugby Australia.

Would it really have been so difficult to renounce Folau’s views while also allowing him to continue his professional rugby career in Australia? Including representing Australia in test matches? Ultimately, I think Rugby Australia have a lot more to lose in this scenario than Folau does. Both in terms of credibility and financial loss.

The opinions expressed in this blog are entirely my own and should not be interpreted as reflecting the views of anyone else; friends or family.
I am opposed to organised religion but respect the right of others to practice their religion of choice (within reason). 

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