SYDNEY, Australia, May 17 – Devoutly Christian Wallabies star Israel Folau was sacked Friday for homophobic comments in a case that sparked a bitter debate and looks to have ended his glittering career in Australia.
The fullback was found guilty of a “high-level” breach of rugby’s code of conduct last week, with a three-person tribunal deciding it warranted the termination of his lucrative Aus$4.0 million four-year contract.
He has 72 hours to appeal, with reports that he plans to take the case to the Supreme Court.
Folau went to the tribunal to challenge Rugby Australia’s intention to fire him after he posted that “hell awaits” gay people and others he says are sinners.
It followed a similar tirade last year, with the case proving complex and divisive, pitting his right to free speech against restrictions on hate speech.
Rugby Australia chief Raelene Castle said the outcome was “a painful situation for the game”.
“Rugby Australia did not choose to be in this situation, but Rugby Australia’s position remains that Israel, through his actions, left us with no choice but to pursue this course of action,” she said.
“Our clear message to all rugby fans today is that we need to stand by our values and the qualities of inclusion, passion, integrity, discipline, respect and teamwork.”
While Folau’s post sparked outrage from some quarters, RA’s handling of the case has also upset players of Pacific island heritage who fear their religious beliefs are under attack.
Castle said she had not spoken to Folau but had communicated the decision to key players to make clear “Rugby Australia fully supports their right to their own beliefs and nothing that has happened changes that”.
“But when we are talking about inclusiveness in our game, we’re talking about respecting differences as well,” she added.
“When we say rugby is a game for all, we mean it. People need to feel safe and welcomed in our game regardless of their gender, race, background, religion, or sexuality.”
– Not part of the deal –
The three-person tribunal heard evidence from Folau, Castle and Wallabies coach Michael Cheika.
Its decision effectively ends the 30-year-old’s sporting career in Australia, after rugby league vowed he would not be welcomed there either. Playing for an overseas club remains an option.
Folau, who has been capped 73 times and was one of the sport’s most marketable players, has been unshakeable in his convictions, vowing to continue uploading religious material.
Australian LGBTI group Pride in Sport commended Rugby Australia for its “leadership and courage”.
“This decision sends a strong message that homophobia and transphobia will not be tolerated in rugby.” it said.
But former Wallabies coach Alan Jones, now an influential radio broadcaster known for his conservative views, was not impressed.
“They’ve alienated him, they’ve destroyed his employment and internationally destroyed his name for quoting the bible for God’s sake,” Sydney’s Daily Telegraph quoted him as saying.
Super Rugby’s record try-scorer has not played since posting a banner on Instagram last month that read: “Drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators — Hell awaits you.”
The row upset backers of the game with sportswear company ASICS dumping him as a brand ambassador while Qantas, the Wallabies biggest sponsor, made clear it was not happy.
The airline is run by openly gay chief executive Alan Joyce who warned last week: “We don’t sponsor something to get involved in controversy. That’s not part of the deal.”
The saga could also have broader repercussions for Rugby Australia.
According to Sydney’ Telegraph newspaper, the governing body has already spent more than Aus$350,000 in legal fees and if Folau opts to take it to the Supreme Court it could cost millions more.
Rugby Australia is already bracing for a loss in 2019, a scenario that often plays out in a World Cup year when there are fewer home Tests, and a lengthy legal fight could leave it in a precarious position.