The Folau lesson: think before you post
For the latest installment of our Rugby In Focus series presented by Canon, Jim Kayes catches up with Rugby Players' Association chief Rob Nichol to talk about lessons from the Israel Folau situation.
There is a silver lining in the Israel Folau saga for all sports. In fact, for anyone who uses social media.
It’s a stark reminder of the need to think before you post.
“That message has gone out to our players again in various forms,” says Rob Nichol, the head of New Zealand’s Rugby Players Association.
It is, he says, a chance to educate the players again about the perils of posting, but also a reminder that, when used well, it can be a positive platform.
Folau, in case you’ve been living under the proverbial rock, is Australia’s star fullback who was a dead-cert to play at this year’s rugby World Cup in Japan till he condemned all gays to hell. Twice.
To be fair, he sent a few of us there because his instagram post said hell awaits drunks, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters too.
It’s quite the list, and should have been dismissed as the silly views of an extremist, but because of his profile and history, Folau was charged with a serious breach of misconduct by Rugby Australia, who said they would terminate his four-year $4 million contract.
Folau asked for a code of conduct hearing, as is his right, and after a three-day session the panel found the charge was proved.
His punishment, at time of writing, is not known. But this case is surely headed to the courts where a precedent will be set for employment law.
It has huge ramifications for sport on both sides of the Tasman.
Nichol, who is also chair of the New Zealand Athletes Federation, despairs at how the drama went wrong, so early.
It should have been sorted, he suggests, when Folau suggested on social media last year that hell awaits gays who did not “repent of their sins and turn to God”.
Rugby Australia boss Raelene Castle met with Folau after that post and later said she was confident he understood his social media obligations.
And this is where things get murky. What was said? What was agreed too? And who determines what is offensive?
Wallaby legend Nick Farr-Jones explained the confusion on Australian breakfast television.
“Everyone, including myself, had assumed that he was told by Rugby Australia, whether it was the chief executive Raelene Castle or coach (Michael) Cheika, ‘Do not do this again’,” Farr-Jones told Seven’s Sunrise.
“But from the 90 minutes I had with Israel, and I strongly believe him, he was basically told by Cheika once, not four or five times as the coach would say in his statement.
“He was basically told do it in a non offensive way. You can continue to communicate like this and communicate your faith, just do it in a respectful way.”
Adding to the complex nature of this case, Farr-Jones says Folau hasn’t apologised for his posts because “he doesn't believe he's done anything wrong”.
"If you asked Israel was it offensive and was it disrespectful, he'd say 'absolutely not'.
"To this day, he believes he's done nothing wrong and is not in breach of any contract."
And he’s not alone. For all of those who condemn Folau as a homophobe who needs to be sacked, there are those who support his right to freedom of speech or who defend his religious views - and both.
Nichol knows many of the players he represents fall into either camp and bemoans how it got so out of hand.
“We feel they got off on the wrong tangent at the start, going back 12 months or more. As a result they are really struggling to deal with it.”
Much of what Nichol says will have parents down the generations nodding their heads in agreement. His message to his players is akin to the age old adage that if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing.
And that you need to think, before you speak. Measure your words and their potential impact and ask yourself, is it worth it?
“With respect to Israel, he could have said something similar in a way that didn’t cause the widespread offense it has caused but still was true to his beliefs and faith. That’s the frustration we all feel.”
Nichol is adamant the case isn’t about religion, but about how views are expressed.
“I think everyone respects the rights of individuals to have their own beliefs and to pursue their faith.
“In New Zealand we have a high level of faith among our players and we encourage it, we love it, and it adds a lot to our environment.
“This is more about how you chose to take your views and express them, and how that relates to you as an employee and your obligations to your employer.”
Nichol says athletes need to understand what is a “reasonable expression of views” but admits there is “a lot of grey space in that”.
So working out what is acceptable to say in public is important - before you post it.
“How is this going to reflect on me, on my family, my team and my employer?”
If in doubt, get advice.
“That’s not happened here (with Folau) and that’s why it has lead to where it’s led to.”
New Zealand’s rugby players use the “nana protocol”, Nichol says.
“A rule of thumb is to think about the person you respect the most in the world, and for many of us that would be out grandmothers. If they are not happy with it you probably need to stop and think (about whether it should be posted).”
Nichol is confident his players understand the potential harm they can do to their reputation and career, along with their families and the teams they play for.
But what he is less sure of and what he has been working hard to promote in the wake of the Folau case is the need to ask for help if you’re unsure.
“We have had plenty of players over the last 15-20 years who have made statements in public via social media platforms that were wrong, that were, as we like to say, contrary to the interests of the game.
“But the way we have dealt with those is as a learning experience.
“We have to be realistic. These are young people, they are growing and maturing and they are going to make mistakes.
“It is when someone continues to repeat the mistakes, then you have a bit of a problem.”
Which brings us back to Folau.