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Sunday, 14 April 2019

Izzy Falou

This has probably been one of the darkest weeks for rugby that I have experienced in my lifetime of watching the sport. We’ve seen over the past couple of months in particular the pervasive problem of racism within football, and now it appears it’s time for rugby to make the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The actions of certain individuals have, rightly so, created a massive stir and sparked an intense debate about issues such as freedom of expression, speech and religion, as well as the problem of hate speech. I should say straight away that I am not, in any way, suggesting that any of the people I talk about in this post are not entitled to their religious beliefs – everybody is, and it’s a fundamental right that should be protected. But there are limits. Freedom of speech does not mean that you can say anything that you like with zero consequence. Whilst they may not be legal consequences, there will still be a response to what you say. And that is even more important for people considered public figures, such as sports stars. With that said, I’ll start with the person that started all of this: Israel Folau.

As I am sure all of you have seen by now, earlier on this week Folau decided to post, for whatever reason (and there is a lot of speculation about this), an image on Instagram listing groups of people that he claimed would be going to hell if they did not repent their sins. Surprise, surprise this did not go down well. In fact, the backlash was so bad that he has now all but been sacked by Rugby Australia. Everyone is still waiting for official confirmation of this, but after meeting with Folau the organisation announced that their plan to terminate his contract has not changed. Whilst most people condemned his post, and in particular the heavy anti-LGBTQ sentiment, there were some people that questioned why he was fired, claiming that he has a right to express his beliefs in whichever way he wishes. Let’s briefly put this, inaccurate assumption, aside for a minute and actually look at the real reason for his firing – not because the organisation didn’t like his views, but because he broke his contract. That’s right, he had a clause in his contract about social media, and the responsibility he has when using it. His post is an obvious breach of this clause and, as would happen in any industry, he has now likely lost his job. This is actually after he was warned just last year for again stating that gay people would go to hell. Yep, he’s done it before, and that means he’s already been given a chance to alter his behaviour, and he has not. Remember, no one is asking him to change his beliefs, but if your employer is telling you not to tell people they’ll go to hell, maybe don’t do it? One person tweeted to say that it’s not fair that, because him and others are famous, they cannot say what they like. I’m sorry, but it’s entirely fair. They are public figures, who know exactly what their position gives them in terms of visibility and power. They don’t have to like it, but their status means they do have be aware of who their audience is, and they have to be careful what they say as a result of this. And to be honest, I don’t think Folau even remotely cared about this. 

Now let’s have a real conversation about freedom of speech here y’all, because this needs to be discussed. The most important thing to consider here is that freedom of speech does NOT equal freedom from consequences. It does not give you blanket immunity to say whatever the hell you want. People may think it should, but I’m hoping that most of you out there don’t subscribe to this point of view. There’s a reason hate speech is a crime after all. But these consequences can be as simple as people disagreeing with you on social media platforms, or more serious such as losing your job or even being arrested. Do I think that what Folau meets the threshold to be labelled as hate speech? No I don’t, but I think it is very close. Part of the definition is speech directed at a certain group based on a certain attribute, and he certainly does that, but I don’t think it incites violence. Don’t get me wrong, what he said is hateful, of that there is no doubt, but saying that people will be going to hell is not inciting others to commit violence against them. It may have that affect, as he has a large follower base, some of whom may agree with his sentiments, but it doesn’t seem to me to be his intention. So, whilst he is probably not guilty of a crime, he fully deserves, in my view at least, the condemnation and the loss of his job. The truth with freedoms is that they are always a balancing act, but we should always remember that they are not absolute. People have been commenting that this signals the death of free speech – not only is that overly dramatic because his firing wasn’t actually anything to do with this issue, but it just isn’t true. Folau, along with everyone else, can express their beliefs and their religion on social media, and I wholeheartedly agree with this, but limits exist for a reason: to protect people from being subjected to hate. Folau chose to ignore those limits, and he is rightfully paying the price.

Unfortunately, this issue did not end with Folau. In comes Billy Vunipola. I’m not why he decided to get involved and you’d think, considering the outcry, that he would be smart and stay silent, but no such luck. His Instagram post, whilst not as bad as Folau’s, is still very problematic, hence why both Saracens and the RFU have seen fit to get involved, which I’ll come back to later. What he said actually didn’t start off too bad – he wanted to stand up for his religious beliefs, which, considering it had been widely criticised, is understandable. It must be very difficult to see something you believe in get quite heavily trashed, and as such he said ‘there just comes a point when you insult what I grew up believing in that you just say enough is enough’. Freedom of speech and religion is alive and well, and he is fully entitled to say this. What he is not fully entitled to say, however, is what came next. First, to say Israel Folau wasn’t saying that he didn’t like or love the people he was talking about is complete crap. I don’t know about you, but telling people they’re going to hell, where they’ll suffer eternal damnation, is not something someone says to a person they like or love. It’s hateful. But Vunipola doesn’t stop there, and it gets worse. He then decides to single out one group from Folau’s list (you guessed it, homosexuals), and preceded to say that men were meant to procreate with women. This doesn’t outright condemn gay people, but we are smart enough to read between the lines. And between those lines is the message than men and men, or women and women, should not be together. It’s homophobic no matter how you look at it, although some people did try to argue he didn’t target anyone. I think it’s safe to say that he did.

As a result, Vunipola is in trouble, and he fully deserves it. There are some people who have a problem with this, and I don’t really understand why. This situation is the same as Folau’s – he’s a public figure who has a responsibility on social media. Saracens issued a positive statement, although there are some questions about what ‘handling it internally’ actually means. There is a concern that not much will be done, but I have to disagree. The rest of the statement is a strong message about the importance of inclusivity, and that Vunipola’s post is at odds with this. I think it is a good sign that Saracens were very quick to get involved, and is indicative of their plan to take it very seriously. Now, some people had a problem with this too, arguing that they were being non-inclusive of Christianity by seeking to punish Vunipola. That is absolutely not what they were doing. He has a responsibility to his club and country, and he failed in that duty. His views, though he is entitled to them, do not give him the right to demonise people, and it is this that Saracens had a problem with, and not the beliefs in of themselves. We will have to wait and see what happens to him. As Saracens are keeping it internal, it is likely that we will never know the full details. I personally have a problem with this. I think the issue is severe enough that everyone is owed transparency. However, I do also understand the argument that, as with other disciplinary action, it possibly should remain private. Here’s hoping though that the RFU do plan to keep everyone informed. Rugby Australia and the New South Waratahs have done a good job of being completely open, and this is a model that should be followed. As I said previously, Vunipola’s post is not quite in the same realm as Folau’s and he does not have any previous. As such, his punishment won’t be anywhere near as severe, instead being much more likely to be a fine. But we are at an important crossroads in rugby – this needs to be stamped out before it becomes a much larger problem, and this is why I argue that transparency is key.

If you think that’s the end of it then I’m sorry to disappoint. Obviously deciding that what had happened to Folau and Vunipola was not enough of a deterrent, Courtney Lawes decided to get involved. Having liked Vunipola’s post, he also decided to leave a comment. I’m not sure if all of you have seen this as it was not disseminated as widely as the other two posts, so I’ll copy it here for you: ‘I don’t have a faith like yourself my brother so I don’t share the same views in this matter but I do believe you should be able to voice your own opinions and beliefs as you see fit. To everyone getting worked up about these posts I ask you if you don’t believe in the same things as them then what do these statements matter to you? Can we not disagree with someone without calling them a bigot or a homophobe or every other name under the sun? And by the way if you’re going to say you’re accepting of everyone than be accepting of everyone, not just the people you agree with’. Pretty much everything he said in this comment is, in my opinion, wrong, and also contradictory. I understand the motive behind this – he starts off by wanting to stick up for Vunipola’s freedom of speech, and considering he doesn’t follow the same religion, it’s somewhat admirable. But it goes drastically downhill from here. I’m going to say here the same thing I said in my reply to his comment, because I really stand by it and I think it’s important: I find his comment to be a really tonally deaf response. For starters, I don’t believe in the same thing he does but his statements definitely matter to me and they should to you. Views like his and Folau’s are the reason there is still systemic persecution against the gay community, and others, in many countries around the world. In fact, in this post he chose to only pick out the anti-gay portion of Folau’s post, which is not a good look. And to say he can express his beliefs, which can be anti-gay, yet we can’t express our belief that it’s homophobic? Sorry but it does not work like that and you cannot have it both ways. He is absolutely entitled to have and express religious beliefs – he can quote scripture from the bible and talk about his religious beliefs generally, but we have just as much right to respond. And when expressing his views he does not have the right, on a public platform as a public figure, to single out groups of people that he believes are living their life wrong. He has a responsibility as a famous sportsman to take care over his words and actions which he wilfully ignored.

I’d like to expand on a few of the points I made in my reply. First, why should his statements matter even if we don’t believe in them? Because the statistics show us that LGBTQ youth are much more likely to commit self-harm and suicide than heterosexual people, and a large reason for that is statements like Folau’s and Vunipola’s. Young people can be extremely vulnerable, even more so if they are LGBTQ, and those statements can be so very dangerous. People do not have to believe in the things Folau and Vunipola do to internalise them and hate themselves as a result. By saying that the statements shouldn’t matter to people, you are suggesting that the plight of the LGBTQ community, and the disgusting things people say about them, are not important, whether you meant to or not. That is incredibly ignorant, and it makes me incredibly angry. Coming back to Vunipola being able to express his beliefs but us not being able to call them out for their homophobia – freedom of speech is for everyone. You can’t advocate for it, but then proceed to say that people’s responses should be limited. This doesn’t even make sense as an argument. And as for him being able to say things as he sees fit: not only will most people tell you that’s wrong, so does the law. You’re suggesting it’s entirely up to him and Folau to decide what they say, and it doesn’t matter what that is, which is implicitly advocating hate speech, even though again I’m sure that was not your intention. No one gets to say what they want ‘as they see fit’. We all have to follow the law, and we all have to follow our work contracts as well as basic human decency. Then we come on to your last sentence, which makes no sense at all. You can’t tell responders to be accepting of everyone even if we don’t agree with them when you’re commenting on the post of someone who does not accept everyone, and who in fact specifically singles out a group he does not accept. Why should it apply to us and not Vunipola? Finally, I’d like to put this to you – if this was about race instead would you be as accepting and understanding? I don’t think you would. So why should it be different for sexuality? This comment went about things the complete wrong way and, as a Saints supporter in particular but also as someone that really does believe in acceptance of everyone, I’m actually very embarrassed and ashamed that you would write this.

What this demonstrates is that, right now, rugby is not in a good place. In fact I’d say it’s in a very bad place. Not only do we have this, which is bad enough in its own right, but we have salary cap investigations, with Saracens failing to disclose information and Wasps now under investigation by the Financial Conduct Authority for falsifying information, and then we have general issues with the game such as the ongoing lack of consistent referees. I for one find myself having fallen out of love with the sport a bit, and it’s a World Cup year for goodness sake. This year is meant to exciting, with everyone gearing up for the tournament, but instead everything feels very flat. One thing is for sure – there need to be a huge response from the rugby world after what has happened this week. We shouldn’t just forget and move on. Instead we need to take this as a sign that rugby has a long way to go and really push hard for inclusivity. Because the truth is that every club, at least in England, has at least one player who has liked Vunipola’s post, and if you aren’t worried about that then you should be. This sport is in crisis, and we all need to come together to ensure that it comes out better on the other side.

@JessKebbell

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