Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Big free speech debate in Australia after a footballer dared to express traditional Christian beliefs about homosexuality

Who knew that Rugby Australia was a religious organisation with doctrine, dogma and decrees about the existence of hell? It looks that way.

Footballer Folau was brought up as a Mormon.  He is of Tongan origin and the Mormons are strong on Tonga.  Mormons are very family-oriented so are traditionally hostile to homosexuality

In response to an Instagram question last Tuesday in which he was asked what he thought was “God’s plan for gay people”, Israel Folau, Australian rugby’s highest- paid player and a devout Christian, was unequivocal: “HELL. Unless they repent of their sins and turn to God.”

What has followed has been a fevered week of urgent backroom meetings involving Folau, Rugby Australia and the sport’s two biggest sponsors, Qantas and ASICS.

Alan Jones writes: Folau is entitled to his opinion on gay people. The code has bigger concerns than keeping him silent

It was the worst possible moment for the story to break. Both sponsors had just endured a public relations “hell” of their own because of their Cricket Australia sponsorships and, in the case of ASICS, personal partnerships with two of the three disgraced cricketers, Warner and Cameron Bancroft.

It is understood both companies moved quickly to express their unhappiness about Folau’s comments directly to rugby’s most senior executives. What followed was a crisis management strategy by Rugby Australia and the sponsors that was straight out of the cricket scandal playbook, as they all tried to shield their brands from Folau’s views.

Rugby Australia stated: ‘‘Folau’s personal beliefs do not reflect the views of Rugby Australia … Rugby supports all forms of inclusion, whether it’s sexuality, race, or gender, which is set out in our Inclusion Policy (2014).”

Qantas said simply: “We’ve made it clear to Rugby Australia that we find the comments very disappointing.”

It is understood Qantas has told Rugby Australia that continued social media comments by Folau or any other players along these lines would cause it to re-evaluate its support of the sport.

But beyond the predictable backpedalling from Folau’s comments by the immediate stakeholders, opinions are much more divided in the broader community about whether Folau should be allowed to express such views.

Even the generally socially progressive readership of The Sydney Morning Herald showed some sympathy in yesterday’s letters section, which was headlined: “Folau has every right to express his opinions”. Several letters actively defended his right to express his beliefs.

Former human rights commissioner and federal Liberal MP Tim Wilson told The Australian he believes companies and individuals lashing out at Folau should “take a chill pill”.

“Respecting diversity includes diversity of opinion, including on questions of morality,” Wilson says. “Targeting Folau falsely feeds a mindset that he is persecuted for his opinions. Everyone needs to take a chill pill, respect Folau’s authority on the rugby field, and also recognise that he is employed in a profession that values brawn over brains.”

Wilson, one of the Liberal Party’s most vocal advocates in favour of same-sex marriage during the recent national debate, has also taken aim at the hand-wringing in the sponsorship arena over Folau’s comments.

“It is ridiculous for sponsors to walk away from Rugby Australia because of Folau’s opinions,” he says. “Companies have the freedom to sponsor organisations that share their values, but it would be absurd to make a collective sponsorship decision based on an individual player who isn’t hired based on his opinions. If Qantas and other sponsors punish Rugby Australia they’d be saying Australians can’t associate with them if they have religious or moral views.”

A source at one Australian rugby sponsor said it was unfair to judge sponsors simply for being cautious about brand damage from comments like those of Folau. “When you’re investing to have your brand associated with a team, and the values don’t line up repeatedly, then it begs the question: is it worth it?”

The source said that the problem was even more marked for Rugby Australia, which has had its own well-chronicled battles to attract sponsors in recent years amid the patchy performances of the Wallabies.

“The problem is really Rugby Australia’s,” the source said. “Comments like Folau’s are not aligned with their values when they’re trying to attract sponsors.”

Crisis management specialist Greg Baxter, partner of Newgate Australia, understands the point of view of Rugby Australia and the sponsors to some degree.

“I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say he can’t have an opinion, but it’s not the sort of attitude that modern rugby wants,” he says.

“Rugby is saying: ‘We’re all about inclusivity, and we want all sorts of people playing our game.’ There’s no question his views are at odds with that.

“It’s no different from any employee having to exercise care in using social media platforms. In this instance, he needed to think more carefully about how offensive his statement was: not just to people in rugby, but the consequences to a major sponsor.”

Baxter believes players need to become much more aware of the impact of their comments.

“You have to be highly sensitised to the fact your comments can be interpreted a certain way, not only on behalf of yourself but a sporting code or a political party,” he says. “It’s easy to say it’s a handbrake on free speech — I don’t personally think it is — but they have to understand there will be consequences if they upset people. To me, it’s common sense.

“In the absence of common sense, sporting codes will have to think of social media policies and training that goes with that for people. The higher your profile, the more sensitive you have to be. If you have a public profile, your so-called private capacity is diminished. The audience doesn’t differentiate between public profile and private comments.”

However, Sharon Williams, chief executive of prominent social media consultancy Taurus Marketing, believes companies need to avoid becoming hyper-sensitive to the views of individual athletes in the social media age.

She argues that corporates are “overplaying their hand”. “I think there is sometimes a juvenile approach by corporates and organisations to understanding the limitations of how much they can impose on the players,” she says.

“Everyone gets hung up about social media. But nothing has changed in how the world should operate if you have a commercial relationship that needs to be honoured with mutual integrity and respect.

“If you’ve got a commercial relationship with an organisation, you respect your differences and your likenesses. You have to be aware of people’s beliefs. If the sponsors don’t want players to put some of their beliefs on social media, they need to make sure they cover that off in their sponsorship agreements.”

On the flip side, she believes that the prevailing environment where there is an abundance of caution among corporates about causing offence requires athletes to be given more formal coaching.

“I have no doubt that Israel Folau is sincere in his religious beliefs,” she says. “Maybe there can be more education and mentoring of athletes on the consequences and implications of their actions on social media. ‘‘We’re in an environment where political correctness is going mad, and the athletes need to be aware of that on social media.”

Williams contrasts Folau’s post with Stephanie Rice’s infamous homophobic 2010 tweet “Suck on that faggots”, which also had a rugby union connection, after the Wallabies beat South Africa in a Test she was watching. Rice ended up losing personal sponsorships based on the tweet.

“Folau was answering a direct question, based on his religious beliefs, but Rice was deemed to be derogatory,” she says.

Folau’s comments have emerged at a time when protections for religious freedoms are being examined by a panel headed up by former federal immigration minister Philip Ruddock, in the wake of last year’s same-sex marriage plebiscite result.

There were suggestions at the time the process was set up by the government largely as a way of keeping conservative interests in the Coalition onside, amid their concerns about the effect legalising same-sex marriage could have on religious freedom.

Ruddock said yesterday there had been 16,500 submissions to the panel, which would commence “formal sessions” by the end of next week. “We’ve been embarking on the program to identify how we can effectively secure our international obligations on freedom of religion, with regard to broader human rights obligations.”

One key advocate of religious freedoms, in discussing Folau’s social media comments, cites the adage: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Peter Kurti, an Anglican priest who runs the religion and civil society program for the Centre for Independent Studies, says: “My own personal view is that Israel Folau is wrong. I don’t believe that being gay is incompatible with being Christian.”

Despite disagreeing with Folau’s view, Kurti says the vilification of him is “troubling”.

He is also concerned about the possibility of sponsor departures over the opinion. He believes major sponsors of rugby such as Qantas could turn the matter into a public relations win by showing tolerance on the matter.

“In a sense, if their response is heavy-handed, it ratchets the whole controversy up,” he says. “I’d like to see Qantas and Rugby Australia defuse the tension in this. If Qantas were to come back and say along the lines: ‘This is an individual’s point of view. We continue to support rugby in Australia’, it would defuse the situation.

“Tolerance means we tolerate views we don’t agree with, allowing people with whom we don’t agree to say things that may be offensive.

“We all know Qantas has a strong position on many social issues such as same-sex marriage. And it’s driven from the top by Alan Joyce. The worry is if they decide as a major sponsor they don’t like the points of view of any member of the organisation they are sponsoring.”

He believes that rather than shut Folau down, corporate organisations should simply “debate” him. “What he’s doing is embarking on a theological debate about what will happen to a certain section of community after death. What we have to do is debate him on those terms. But we don’t vilify him for holding a point of view.”

However, Baxter says the problem for Folau is that with an Instagram following of more than 338,000, he is a large-scale media outlet in his own right. “The higher the profile, the more the scrutiny,” he says.

“A comment is much less likely to be made in a private capacity and stay private — particularly if you’ve got hundreds of thousands of followers. The point at which you press the button to publish those comments on any platform, you make them public and you have to be answerable.”

Baxter argues there is a critical lack of awareness among sports stars and others about their reach through social media. “There’s a naivety among a lot of people. Some people can write whatever they want on these platforms behind a cloak of anonymity, and not face any consequences. But people like him, who earn a living from sponsorship and from having a public profile, need to understand that it carries with it more responsibility than another private citizen who has no public profile.”

Kurti, on the other hand, argues the Folau affair and the pressure for him to bite his tongue show that the balance is in danger of tipping in favour of censorship.

“It shows that we are forgetting just how important freedom of speech is in our society,” he says.

“We only want people to say the things we agree with. That seems to be the prevalent mood on social media. But in a society where freedom is truly valued, people have to be free to say things with which we don’t agree.”



Paul Weber said...

Nature is all about reproducing, to continue life unto the next generation. Humans who aren't heterosexual aren't going to reproduce. That's not natural.

Anonymous said...

I do not feel a need to accommodate people with twisted minds.

Anonymous said...

God's plan for every type of sinner is repentance and redemption, hell is the consequence of their failing to follow the plan.

Anonymous said...

Firstly, while Israel was raised a Mormon he no longer is one. However he is still a conservative Christian.
He was asked a direct question about his religious beliefs. He answered that question honestly according to his beliefs.
Turns out that people are ok with Israel being religious - as long as he keeps it to himself.
A belief in religious freedom - but without the right to share those beliefs - is a weak freedom indeed.

Anonymous said...

Paul Weber (12:51) seems unaware that non-heterosexual humans do reproduce, and quite often!
As for prominent sportsmen/women, they do have the right to express their personal opinions, but not necessarily to be protected from the consequences; while companies have the right to protect their investments and their corporate images and in so doing may think it wise to distance themselves from statements they consider damaging.

Anonymous said...

9:14 PM
Homosexuals do not reproduce if they stick to their preferred sexual perversion.

Stan B said...

Anon 9:14PM - prominent sportsmen/women So when they become prominent, is there a notification they get? "Warning, saying the 'wrong thing' will have unrealistic consequences - better that you had stayed mediocre?" Where is that written?

This is what happens in a dogmatic society, where one and only one version of the "truth" is allowed to be publicly expressed. The Left have become what they long accused the Right of being - repressive, inflexible demagogues, finding bogies under every bed and in every closet, and demanding doctrinal purity in exchange for participation in society.

Anonymous said...

12:05 - Paul Weber did not qualify his statement in that way!

Stan B - if this sportsman was not as prominent then nobody would pay such attention or be so worried by the assumed consequences (eg. corporate investments and image). Why don't you read properly what 9:14 said - the man is indeed "allowed to publically express his "truth" as he saw it" but it had repercussions, whether or not he personally cared, or wanted to be a kind of martyr for his religious beliefs.