Forget Folau - the kids are all right

COMMENT:  I guess if Israel Folau considers himself qualified to comment on my lifestyle, I am not overreaching by reflecting on his. In fact, it’s arguable I start from stronger place: whereas I am a gay man who knows something about the game of rugby, Folau is a rugby player whose knowledge of LGBTQ issues wouldn't fill all the way to the edges of a postage stamp.

In my past life, I dealt with dozens of athletes in various moments of crisis, albeit mainly Australian Football League players (although I doubt the underlying issues are all that different in any male-dominated sport). I have media trained more than a hundred football players across three codes.

And this is what I learned: these guys might look like titans on the field, but most of them have the emotional and psychological maturity of somebody in their early teens. My operating theory as to why young football players are so emotionally stunted is that they emerge in their towns and communities and school as heroic figures at a very young age. They are elevated and venerated. It is hard to blame them for believing the breathless hyperbole that surrounds their sporting prowess.

When they enter professional sport, clubs are desperate to craft them into more than simply good players, but into role models as well. This is noble I guess, but I suspect motivated in large part by the desire of these sporting codes not to alienate families, mothers in particular, by allowing a flurry of scandal to dominate coverage of their sport. Competition between codes —  for clicks, bums on seats, subs and eyeballs — has never been more fierce. This is why sporting franchises take have come to take public relations so seriously over the past decade or so.

As Israel Folau showed, there is not enough media training in the world to save you from stupidity, ignorance or bigotry. That his homophobic remarks have triggered such outrage directly results from efforts to elevate these players into something more than talented athletes – a recipe for awkward press conferences if I have ever heard one. Your average super rugby player’s moral and political views are likely to be as interesting and worthwhile as an Anglican priest’s lineout throw-in.

We care what these boy-men think because we are are told that what they think matters. But it doesn't. They can pass and kick and run. Whatever the church uses to wash their brains come Sunday could not be less relevant to their performance on the field, let alone to the broader public discourse.

I don't get to New Zealand as often as I’d like, but one highlight is always watching my nephews and nieces play sport on the weekend. That is where you see real role models in action: the players, the teachers, the coaches and ancillary staff, committee members, spectators and supporters. With the occasional over-reported outlier exception, the behaviour you witness every weekend at a New Zealand sports venue is impeccable and speaks very highly of our country and the values it holds. It also brings Kiwis of all backgrounds together like nothing else. (With respect to rugby union, this is far less the case in Australia, the UK and elsewhere where the sport tends to be favoured by elites).

If you don't make it to a footy ground or at netball court at the weekend, just talk to any kid in New Zealand under the age of 18 and you'll find an open-minded, generous and accepting attitude towards difference – racial, sexual, gender or otherwise. It takes my breath away. Take comfort in them. Tune Israel out.

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