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Israel Folau’s cycle of sin

Jun 27, 2019 • 16m29s

Following the sacking of Israel Folau by Rugby Australia, a fissure has opened up in the debate over equality and freedoms.

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Israel Folau’s cycle of sin

23 • Jun 27, 2019

Israel Folau’s cycle of sin

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

Israel Folau is the first Australian athlete to be sanctioned for his religious beliefs. His sacking by Rugby Australia has opened up a national debate over equality and freedoms. Martin McKenzie-Murray on how faith and sport are bound together in Folau’s life.

[Theme ends]

ELIZABETH:

Marty, who is Israel Folau?

MARTIN:

He's an extremely gifted rugby player. Arguably, Australia's best rugby player.

So he started as a rugby league player in the NRL. He then code swapped to the AFL. And he now plays rugby union.

And most recently, he played for the Waratahs in the Super Rugby League.

ELIZABETH:

Martin McKenzie Murray is the Chief Correspondent for The Saturday Paper.

He grew up in Sydney, in Minto, to Tongan parents who are Mormon. And he attended church. He was a believer, but by his own admission he was quite inattentive in church. And he kind of became estranged from the faith, and that's until he started hitting some difficulties in his first few seasons as a professional rugby player.

ELIZABETH:

And how old is he at that time, during his NRL debut?

MARTIN:

His talent is such that he debuts for the Melbourne Storm when he's just 17.

Archival tape — Unidentified man 1:

“Israel Folau - oh magnificent!”

Archival tape — Unidentified man 2:

“Oh could you get a better test debut than that? Never.”

MARTIN:

And that year wins Rookie of the Year

But as Folau says, the fame and the fortune, coupled with his immaturity means there's a lot of temptations. And he doesn't have the maturity to resist them. And so he gets into a cycle of indulgence, unspecified, but the hint is: women, booze. He starts feeling that something is missing and he's still trying to figure out a way of dislodging himself from this indulgent cycle that he feels routinely shameful about.

Things get worse when he jumps to the AFL.

As gifted as Israel is in rugby league, he cannot play Aussie rules footy.

And so he has this kind of spiritual estrangement. He has this shame. But he has the additional estrangement from his original sport that he loved. And he's also deeply humbled by the fact that he can't really play Aussie rules. And so this begins his kind of journey back to the church.

ELIZABETH:

So Marty, at this point Israel Folau is in his early 20s, he's playing a foreign sport, as it were, not his first sport. What happens next?

MARTIN:

In 2011 he joins the Pentecostal church.

ELIZABETH:

And this is what Israel Folau discovers at a pretty difficult moment in his life and in his career?

MARTIN:

Yes, and he swiftly becomes a you know incredibly devout person. And he claims that it was the Lord that kind of saved him from this cycle of sin and spiritual estrangement. Emptiness, he called it.

Archival tape — Israel Folau:
This is one of the greatest thing that god hates… Is that we as people put something else in front of him to worship. It could be things like money, it could be things like our jobs, it could be things like our husband or wife, our positions… that we worship more than God.”

MARTIN:

So his renewal is a spiritual one. And instead of being a boy that plays with temptations, he's now a man who realizes that there is a pathway to heaven. So he's given a purpose.

ELIZABETH:

We know that he finds Pentecostalism when he's playing AFL. At what point does his professional life go through its own transition?

MARTIN:

So there's two seasons for the Greater Western Sydney and one of those is in the AFL. That's it. And then he leaves. It's considered a kind of miserable experiment.

Archival tape — Israel Folau:

“As you already know guys, I announced yesterday that I won’t be here next year. So, in the end I didn’t have the passion to go through with it and I wish you guys all the best, you know, so, thanks.”

MARTIN:

He then returns to rugby, albeit rugby union and he's so good at this new code that he plays for Australia that same year as well.

So from 2013 he sustains his excellence on the field and it's a particularly useful one for Australia, who's been experiencing quite a extended period of poor performance nationally for the for the Wallabies. Israel Folau is almost certainly their best player and he's a bright light. And it's not until April 2018 that his religious beliefs engulf Rugby Australia.

ELIZABETH:

OK, so things are back on track for Folau, he’s got his faith, he’s playing in a code that he’s more comfortable with. What happens in April of 2018?

MARTIN:

So, April 2018 he posts an image on Instagram which seems fairly innocuous. It's a kind of a stick drawing of a person on a cycle. There's a gentle assent to a finish line. And beneath it is the caption “an individual's belief in their pathway.” And then there's a second image which is a very rocky mountainous obstacle course and he says “this is in fact God's intention for your pathway.” In other words life is going to be more difficult than you think. But those obstacles will make you stronger. So that was the original post. And then in the comments section of Instagram a young fan asked Israel Folau directly what's “God's plan for gays?” And Israel responded, “Hell.”

[Music]

ELIZABETH:

Do we know why he responds in that way, do we know why he says that?

MARTIN:

Because he was asked the question, is his response. He also said that he felt that the young man who had asked that question was asking it in good faith. And so Israel Folau says if someone asks me a question, I'll answer it honestly. He felt compelled, in other words.

ELIZABETH:

And so he felt compelled because his faith demands this?

MARTIN:

There's a very salient element I think of Pentecostal faith and that is the obligation not just to secure your own soul for heaven, but to bring along as many people as you can. So that makes it very public. It compels someone to share their beliefs, to speak about them, as to save other souls.

ELIZABETH:

The other side of this though of course is that people are concerned by homophobia and the impact these comments have on principles of equality...

MARTIN:

Yeah absolutely. Someone like Ian Roberts, who is the first professional rugby player in the world to come out as gay. He says these are the stakes: young men in the suburbs rugby loving, but quietly gay, confused, are killing themselves.

And when they hear someone like Israel Folau condemned them in this way, that contributes to suicide.

ELIZABETH:

So what does Rugby Australia do in response to the comment that Folau leaves on Instagram?

MARTIN:

Raelene Castle, who is the chief executive of rugby Australia, calls him to headquarters in Sydney for a please explain. Raelene Castle says we can't tolerate homophobia and there's also commercial considerations. Folau it's believed is intransigent. He says my faith is my faith, and I won't compromise it. But no sanctions are levelled against Israel Folau. But amongst that a new contract is signed. Israel Folau signs a four year contract worth four million dollars. But their respective positions haven't changed and it seems that they're on a collision course.

ELIZABETH:

We’ll be right back

[Music ends]

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ELIZABETH:

So Folau has come up against rugby Australia over his faith, starting in April of last year, on Instagram. They reach a kind of what we now see is a fragile peace with both parties essentially saying, I’m going to continue the way I was already behaving. What happened in April of this year?

MARTIN:

In April, in an unrelated event in Tasmania, the Tasmanian Parliament pass legislation which no longer obliges parents to nominate a gender on their child's birth certificate. .A story about this legislation is shared by Israel Folau along with a comment, and I paraphrase, that the manipulations of the devil are afoot. In other words, the legislation is the work of the devil.

An hour or two after that he posts an image which says, “warning” and then a list of sins and sinners who are destined for hell. So the lecherous, fornicators, adulterers and homosexuals and this… he's done it again.

And so Rugby Australia has a crisis on its hands.

ELIZABETH:

So how does rugby Australia respond this time?

MARTIN:

After these marathon deliberations behind closed doors Rugby Australia tears up his contract.

Archival tape — Unidentified man 1:

“Wallabies star Israel Folau is said to have his contract terminated by rugby Australia.”

Archival tape — Unidentified woman:

“Torn up Israel Folau’s four million dollar contract.”

Archival tape — Unidentified man 2:

“It is thought that Folau will skip the option of a second code of conduct hearing and head straight to the Supreme Court.”

MARTIN:

There then exists within the administrative processes of rugby Australia a window for Israel Folau to appeal. He doesn't. The window closes. He then announces that he's going to attempt litigation through the Fair Work Commission. And the figure that he's seeking he says will be ten million dollars, which is kind of an existentially threatening amount for Rugby Australia whose finances aren't great.

ELIZABETH:

And then of course he was back in the news again this week for his private efforts to fund his legal defense through the crowdfunding platform GoFundMe?

MARTIN:

That's right. So he looked at raising three million dollars for litigation. Very quickly it raised, I think at the point it was taken down, about 700-750 thousand dollars. It was up for about three days. GoFundMe an American company had looked at his campaign and decided that it breached its code of conduct and so it removed the page and promised to refund all donations.

This was intolerable to many and obviously those who donated but especially intolerable to the Australian Christian Lobby, who promised to set up their own public fundraising page, donated a hundred thousand dollars themselves. And at time of speaking, just in a matter of hours, has almost matched that seven hundred thousand dollars created by the Go Fund Me page.

Archival tape — Unidentified man:

“Our charitable purpose is to advocate for changes in law and public policy and the advancement of the christian religion and this is a religious freedom issue which has implications for law and public policy and…

There’s a lot of juice left in this you know, people are finding their voice and that’s what they see that’s so attractive about it.”

ELIZABETH:

So Marty, what are we really talking about when we talk about this story?

MARTIN:

I think Israel Folau’s intransigence now exposes what I describe as a wicked problem in that it's intractable. It's a policy wonk term to describe something of such contradictions and complexity that there's just really no answer and you're going to have to compromise some element.

Now if Israel Folau had rolled over and offered his repentance to rugby Australia as opposed to his God, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation. But he didn't.

For Israel Folau or, generally for the devout, there's a question of how, when, why do you prevent someone from expressing their faith? And I think if you start from a position of contemptuousness for religion you would overlook the complexity of of this question.

Israel Folau doesn't believe he's done anything wrong and he's compelled to share the word. There are contracts that govern employer and employee everywhere, and things can be privately settled. But Israel Folau has made sure that it's very, very public.

I think in Australia perhaps we respect that there are consequences to speech. We have defamation laws for instance we have copyright laws. We respect that there can't be full freedom of expression. But this is also married to our freedom of religion as well. And it's incredibly complicated. Israel Folau becomes as far as I know the first Australian athlete to be censured or sanctioned for expressing religious belief.

ELIZABETH:

Even if you're not a religious person, it strikes me that if you attempt to occupy Folau’s faith, even temporarily, it appears as though, by his reckoning, he has no choice. That he has to respond in this way and in fact not responding would be to challenge his faith as a devout Pentecostal.

MARTIN:

I think that for Israel Folau, his friends, his family, his church goers, this only confirms the persecution of Christians and it only confirms for them his status as a modern martyr. One of his friends said before their church in Sydney that the real, meaningful game for Israel Folau isn't rugby. It's maintaining his faith.

Archival tape — Unidentified woman:

“He doesn’t care how he’ll be persecuted in this world where it’s temporary, but it’s in the afterlife when we all die.”

ELIZABETH:

And where do you think this is going to end up from here? I mean there’s speculation it could go as far as the High Court.

MARTIN:

It's an incredibly interesting test case. The government has mentioned itself that it finds it intolerable that the state might intervene in private contracts. We don't know if there is to be any future legislation or a legislative enshrinement of a protection of religious freedom, how that would play with contractual law, sport administrations beyond rugby Australia are being engulfed in this. There's no easy answers at all. It's remarkable how, almost daily, the story grows in controversy and starts engulfing different individuals and organisations.

[Music]

ELIZABETH:

Thank you so much, Marty.

MARTIN:

Thank you.

ELIZABETH:

As of Wednesday evening, the fundraising page hosted by the Australian Christian Lobby had reached $1.85 million dollars in donations toward Israel Folau’s $3m goal.

[Music ends]

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[Music]

ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

John Setka’s wife has identified herself as the woman harassed by the Victorian union boss. Emma Walters said her husband was not a misogynist and that he had apologised to her - which she said she’d accepted. Setka pleaded guilty to using a carriage service to harass his wife and to breaching a court order. He’s been placed on a 12-month good behaviour bond and directed to attend a men’s behavioural change program.

And five Australian families of victims of the MH17 disaster have reached a confidential settlement with Malaysia Airlines over the incident. The plane was shot down over Ukraine in 2014, killing all 298 people on board. Last week, four men were charged in connection with the attack.

This is 7am.

I’m Elizabeth Kulas.

See you Friday.

[Music ends]

Israel Folau is the first Australian athlete to be sanctioned for his religious beliefs. His sacking by Rugby Australia has opened up a fissure in the debate over equality and freedoms. Martin McKenzie-Murray on how faith and sport are bound together in Folau’s life.

Guest: Chief correspondent for The Saturday Paper Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Background Reading:

In God we trust in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz and Atticus Bastow with Michelle Macklem. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Equate Studio.

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23: Israel Folau’s cycle of sin