WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Anti-gay comments made by Israel Folau continued to engulf Australian rugby on Thursday with players in New Zealand criticising the Wallabies back, while pundits castigated the country’s governing body for its handling of the situation.
Folau, an Evangelical Christian, created a firestorm of controversy in Australia and rugby circles after he wrote on his Instagram page that gay people would be condemned to “hell” if they failed to “repent”.
His comments were described as “very disappointing” by Qantas airlines, a major sponsor of Rugby Australia, while referee Nigel Owens, who came out as gay in 2007, said such remarks could contribute to young people taking their lives.
All Blacks scrumhalf TJ Perenara joined compatriot and fellow half-back Brad Weber in condemning the comments, saying they were harmful to those within the homosexual community who were vulnerable to mental health issues.
“You don’t need to look far to know that young Maori/PI (Pacific Islanders) are overrepresented in youth suicide statistics and, as I understand it, even more so when you look to those who are part of the Rainbow community,” Perenara said on Twitter late on Wednesday.
“Comments that cause further harm cannot be tolerated.”
Weber was the first top-level player to condemn Folau’s remarks, stating that they had disgusted him.
Rugby Australia (RA) and its chief executive Raelene Castle have not escaped the blowtorch either, with media columnists on both sides of the Tasman believing the organisation had failed to tackle the issue properly.
Castle issued a statement on Tuesday that her organisation would not sanction Folau, who is out-of-contract at the end of the year, because he had not meant to harm the game.
Pundits have seen the lack of disciplinary action as a bending to Folau’s will, with Castle caught between trying to ensure the player did not defect back to rugby league or head offshore, a year out from the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
Rugby Australia, however, did receive some support from New Zealand with an academic who studies crisis communications in public relations suggesting there was little else they could do.
“I don’t really know what Rugby Australia can do apart from what they’ve already done,” Flora Hung-Baesecke, a senior lecturer in Massey University’s School of Communications, Journalism and Marketing told Reuters.
“I noticed that Raelene Castle has already sent an internal memo to the players reiterating their social media use behaviour and emphasising their contractual obligations.
“This is good. It lets the media and public know what Rugby Australia has done internally. They are also re-emphasising the values that Rugby Australia has.
“You don’t want to bring more crisis to an organisation so they should just continue to monitor Folau’s behaviour and speech... and then move on.”
One of the other issues around the furore, however, concerned Folau’s right to free speech, how that impacted on RA and whether he could be disciplined for it.
Victoria University of Wellington’s Professor of Law Gordon Anderson, who specialises in employment law in New Zealand, said legally disciplining or dismissing someone for expressing their thoughts was “tricky”.
“It’s not a fully tested area of law... there haven’t been too many cases about free speech. It’s a tricky area,” he said.
“At the moment I would have thought it’s an embarrassment but not much more.”
Anderson said the New Zealand courts had upheld dismissals of workers if they were found to have brought the organisation into disrepute, or harmed it commercially.
The fact that no-one was suggesting Folau’s views were held by the organisation meant it was unlikely the rugby body had been brought into disrepute, he said.
Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by John O'Brien