Are You (F)Allowed to Say That…? Rugby, Religion and Rights.

I have written before in my blog about contemporary issues in sport, for example, lad culture and Serena Williams. Often, these posts are triggered by conversations with friends or sporting scandals, this past month has been no exception and a topic that has caught my attention is the fallout around Israel Falou.

Christian Post headline “World’s top rugby player Israel Folau won’t recant statement that sinners, gays will go to Hell” April 23, 2019

The Irish Times headline “Aki says he ‘mistakenly’ liked Israel Folau’s homophobic post” April 25, 2019

The Guardian headline “Rugby Australia risks galvanising Pasifika around Israel Folau” April 22, 2019

What has intrigued me about this particular sporting scandal is the complex set of issues entwined within one social media post, that then involves national and international sport and non-sport communities. I tried to map it out below using the 3 elements – law, ethics and politics – my comfort topics because that was the structure of my Masters course (International Law, Ethics and Politics).

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A couple of reflections and unanswered questions…

In terms of politics, it is an important year for rugby and tapping into the East Asian market with the Japan Rugby World Cup. A strong stance against the freedom of speech/faith of athletes is a big gamble in my view. As not all East Asian or wider Asian countries share the same perspective on religion, social media and sport.

In this situation, I am not too familiar with academic literature on religion and/or Christians and sport, although there is plenty of it. For example:

Christianity and Social Scientific Perspectives on Sport – Sport in Society Special Issue

Sports and Christianity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives

Global Perspectives on Sports and Christianity

In the coming weeks, months and years it will be interesting to how academic and non-academic debate develops… three questions I immediately have:

Has Rugby Australia set a historic precedent here?

What will the reaction of the religious sports community be?

Will this issue carry into the Rugby World Cup and continue to divide opinion?

The other major complexities of this issue are the ethical and legal aspects. It is palpable the Western influenced climate towards inclusion and tolerance in the modern era of sports governance. I have written about this before in the context of the Sochi Winter Olympics and sexuality. In my opinion, there is no international sporting law that definitively dictates how sporting bodies, athletes or leagues should act. Instead, the individual, organisational and external pressures (such as, sponsors, faith, public or media) are prompting the actions and/or regulation.
So, based on the Folau fallout. Does sport need a universal stance on inclusion? Alternatively, is this a Nation State matter on the right for athletes to have freedom of speech? Jack Anderson outlines the legal position for Rugby Australia and Folau, and concludes in sporting terms:

“Given the unique employment environment of sport, it seems reasonable to suggest that even if Folau succeeds in the hearing, it is highly unlikely he will ever play again for the Wallabies or even the Waratahs.”

The Conversation headline “Explainer: does Rugby Australia have legal grounds to sack Israel Folau foranti-gay social media posts?” April 29, 2019

As ever, sport intersects many points of society. The Folau fallout intersects significantly with international law, ethics and politics. A need for considered and critical thinking is a must… finally, I decided to consult the Pope (as I was born/raised a Roman Catholic) and found this piece of considered thinking:

The future of humankind isn’t exclusively in the hands of politicians, of great leaders, of big companies. Yes, they do hold an enormous responsibility. But the future is, most of all, in the hands of those people who recognise the other as a “you” and themselves as part of an “us.”

Why the only future worth building includes everyone, His Holiness Pope Francis at Ted2017

I am not sure sport and rugby can solve “the future of humankind” but this Folau fallout certainly has put the “you” and “us” notion to the test.



I did not think I would ever quote the Pope in a blog!


    • Thanks Moira. Such a tricky question, and in writing the blog all I seem to do was come up with more questions!! I would recommend watching the full Pope Francis talk I linked. It is really interesting. Interested to know your thoughts…


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