Standing up for what’s wrong

Where do we draw the line when it comes to doling out admiration to athletes for publicly standing up for their beliefs?

It’s brave on many levels of Israel Folau to declare on Twitter that he doesn’t support same sex marriage. Admirable, even.

But how admirable?

In an age when the commercial realities of taking a stand on just about anything are nearly always going to be negative, for an athlete to, seemingly unprovoked, ignore the potential impact on their marketability and endorsement potential and state what they truly believe is increasingly rare.

So good on Israel Folau for letting the world know he doesn’t believe gay people should be afforded the same partnership-defining niceties* as heterosexuals. Ummm, yeah. That line didn’t exactly roll off the keyboard.

When your position on the same sex marriage debate taking place in forward-thinking nations like Sudan and Australia is: ‘how could this debate actually be a thing?’ it’s pretty tough to reconcile with the views of people who strongly oppose it.

For much of humanity, the idea that a group of people should be denied the same rights afforded to the rest of the citizenry because of their sexual orientation is both bizarre and horrifying.

I fit into that group, partly, I suspect, because my world view hasn’t been impacted by religious teachings.

I wouldn’t dream of opposing something as harmless as same sex-marriage because, in my formative years, it was never suggested to me that I should. Now that I’m at the stage in life where I know everything, I can’t really imagine encountering an argument that would turn me into a supporter of unequal rights based on sexuality.

Other people though – particularly those who identify as big fans of god - and South Africans - judging by a review of the 5000 likes of Folau’s tweet – don’t share my views. (Incendently, according to my twitter feed, Black Caps cricketer Neil Wagner was among those who liked Folau’s tweet).

Having no plans to marry another man in Australia any time soon, this isn’t an issue that resonates deeply with me. Australians, though, seem pretty divided about it.

And that makes Folau’s tweet all the more intriguing. He could have simply kept his views to himself, as he most certainly has done on plenty of previous occasions about plenty of other issues.

A brief disclaimer here. Israel Folau is on a very short list (two to be precise) of professional rugby players I’d be comfortable with my daughters dating. I spent a bit of time with him promoting a rugby tournament last year and he came across a thoroughly decent human.

He’s unfailingly polite, courteous and refreshingly unaffected by ego. He’s deeply likeable, and not exactly prone to rash public outbursts of the type that will piss off half a nation.

So this issue is clearly important to him.

Folau is no dummy. He would have known he was pasting a bullseye to his forehead the moment he hit publish on his tweet.

And he did it anyway, joining the ranks of modern conscientious sporting objectors such as Sonny Bill Williams and Colin Kaepernick.

That takes bravery, and having the courage of one’s convictions is to be admired.

Given they’re seldom protesting in favour of majority view, athletes who takes stands on political or human rights issues are nearly always castigated for standing up for the wrong thing.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos weren’t exactly universally revered for their closed fist Olympic salute in 1968. Likewise, the instant public reaction to Cassius Clay changing his name to Cassius X and then Muhammad Ali wasn’t that it was actually kind of catchy.

Given his protest essentially boils down to objecting to defenceless black people being shot dead by police for no reason, you’d think Colin Kaepernick might have encountered more universal support for sitting during the US national anthem during the last NFL season. Instead, Kaepernick finds himself out of a job, while US TV networks opt not to screen scenes of fellow players who are continuing the protest.

Like his forebears, Kaepernick will have to wait for humanity’s collective moral compass to evolve a little more before his stance is fully appreciated.

Sonny Bill, too, is just another global financial crisis or two away from his protest against the financial services industry being seen in a vastly more positive light.

But history might not be as kind when it comes to revision of Folau’s stance. Humanity is moving towards a more accepting view of homosexuality, and less accepting view of human rights denial. The pace of enlightenment varies greatly depending on geography (this map is pretty handy guide as to where we stand globally), but the trend is clearly away from the death penalty and towards acceptance of same sex unions.

Folau’s stance is unlikely to grow in popularity.

In the eyes of many, Israel Folau is standing up for what’s wrong. The question is: is that better or worse than not standing up for anything at all?

*Australia currently recognises the legal validity of same sex de facto relationships but does not allow marriage

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