The absurdity of Israel Folau being cast as a victim

The absurdity of Israel Folau being cast as a victim

In today’s instalment of ‘how did we get here?’ let’s discuss Israel Folau.

The talented athlete, who was raised as a Mormon before converting to the Pentecostal Church as an adult, has dominated news headlines in Australia for the better part of 2019.

For the past week it’s been wall-to-wall coverage on every medium.

In 2017 Folau publicly announced his disapproval of Rugby Australia’s support for the ‘Yes’ vote in the national plebiscite on same-sex marriage. He expressed the Pentecostal view that gay people should ‘repent or face Hell’ and he earned a rebuke from his employer Rugby Australia because of it.

Just before Easter this year, shortly after signing a four-year contract with Rugby Australia worth $4million, Folau shared a biblical quote on social media again indicating that homosexuals would go to hell.

Rugby Australia said his post constituted a “high level” breach of its “inclusiveness” commitment and announced their intention to sack him. The matter was considered in a high profile disciplinary hearing and his contract with Rugby Australia was terminated.

Folau decided to fight back and mount a legal challenge. He says he’s being persecuted for his religious views. Others say he’s pedalling hate speech. Rugby Australia say he breached his contract.

Last week Folau, who has played Rugby, AFL and Rugby League professionally and been remunerated richly in each code, set up a GoFundMe page to fundraise for the ‘fight of his life’.

He said his livelihood is under threat due to the legal fees. This is certainly at odds with his income over the past decade and reports in the Sydney Morning Herald that his property portfolio is worth $7million.

It proved extremely contentious with many Australians, including at least one former Wallabies teammate, who were appalled at what they described as Folau’s ‘greed’.

A number of tragic situations in which families are desperately raising money for potentially life-saving medical treatments and procedures for acutely ill children were highlighted as far more worthy. Yet guess who raised more money within a few days?

On Monday, after more than $750,000 had been contributed for his legal fees, Go Fund Me announced they were pulling Folau’s campaign and would refund the donations because it breached their terms of service. “We do not tolerate the promotion of discrimination or exclusion,” Nicole Britton from Go Fund Me Australia said in a statement.

Folau was “disappointed”.

On Tuesday morning the Australian Christian Lobby set up a fundraising campaign of its own for Folau and kicked in $100,000 to get it started. A few hours later a further $290,000 had been volunteered.

This subject dominated the ABC’s Q&A program on Monday night.

One panellist, Sally Rugg, executive director of Change.org Australia, author and activist  was inexplicably calm in the face of the absurdity of what Fairfax columnist Neil McMahon described as appearing on national television “being invited to take part in a civilised debate about whether she and her like should be condemned to burn for eternity”.

“I feel like we have been doing Q&A for, what, four minutes now, and already we’ve had several people repeat the claim that someone like me is going to hell unless I repent or there is something vague about me needing to be saved and that was an act of kindness for someone to say that I would need to be saved … as if these words don’t mean things. And they don’t do things.”

When asked how Folau’s views impact her she was frank.

“How do they make me feel? They make me feel sick. They make me feel tired.”

Yesterday I asked how we have found ourselves in a place where the president of the United States can be accused of sexually assaulting multiple women without it causing a ripple.

Today I ask how have we found ourselves in a place where an individual like Israel Folau, who has enjoyed the trappings of wealth and talent and success that others might dream of, is viewed as a persecuted minority for facing consequences?

Where his right to make public comments that make other individuals ‘feel sick’ about something they can’t change about themselves ranks above their right not to be derided?

Above the terms of an employment contract? Above an organisation’s right to be intentional about promoting inclusivity?

Frankly it’s astonishing that anyone could conceive of Israel Folau as a victim. The fact that enough people believe it and are willing to give him hundreds and thousands of dollars because of it? That’s a miracle I am happy to have no part in.

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