April 12, 2019 / 4:56 AM / 10 days ago

REFILE-Rugby-Folau keeps his counsel on social media row despite sacking threat

(Fixes literal in headline)

SYDNEY, April 12 (Reuters) - Israel Folau declined to address questions about his future on Friday despite Rugby Australia saying he would be sacked if he could not offer a good reason for a social media post that said gay people would go to “hell” if they did not “repent”.

The 30-year-old fullback, a fundamentalist Christian, escaped sanction when he posted similar comments last year but RA took a much harder line when, having repeatedly warned him against it, the offence was repeated on Wednesday.

The multi-million dollar contract Folau signed in February looks certain to be torn up unless he can convince RA and the New South Wales Waratahs that there are “compelling mitigating factors” for sharing the post.

RA and the Waratahs said they had made repeated attempts since Wednesday to contact Folau, who has not posted anything further on social media, nor deleted the offending meme, since the furore broke.

Media reports said he had visited RA headquarters on Friday and an Australian television news channel questioned him on the street. He declined to answer.

The fallout, however, continued with numerous media columnists opining on what the decision meant for the country and Australian politicians wading in.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who is a Pentecostal Christian like Folau, said it was a decision for RA to make.

“Israel’s comments were insensitive and it’s important that when you’re in public life, you’re just very mindful of being sensitive to other Australians and that you speak with that empathy,” he said.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten said RA and the Waratahs had taken the right action.

“There is no freedom to perpetuate hateful speech,” he told reporters in Sydney.

“Some of the comments which have been seen are far closer to hateful than I think appropriate for what people should be doing on social media.”

Former Wallabies coach turned radio host Alan Jones said the decision endangered free speech in Australia and had been driven by RA’s concern not to upset sponsors.

“It has nothing to do with Israel, or rugby, or religion, homosexuals, or whatever. Where are we in this country on free speech?” he said.

“We’ve got an issue here because we’re going down a very, very narrow road here.”

Folau’s chances of switching back to rugby league in Australia were also dashed late on Thursday with the governing body the Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) ruling out any return to the sport.

“Israel Folau doesn’t pass our inclusiveness culture, which is a policy strongly supported by the ARLC,” its chairman Peter Beattie told The Sydney Morning Herald.

“And after talking to some commissioners tonight (Thursday), we don’t support him playing rugby league again.”

His best chances therefore lie offshore, although the chances of joining French club Toulon appear to be non-existent with their outspoken owner Mourad Boudjellal criticising him in an interview in French newspaper L’Equipe. (Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Nick Mulvenney)

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