Pride in Sport Op-Ed: Israel Folau - Why All the Fuss?

What is God’s plan for gay people?  “HELL … Unless they repent of their sins and turn to God” The following is an op-ed from Dawn Hough, Director of ACON's Pride Inclusion Programs.


When one of Australia’s leading sport stars states that gay people are destined for hell on his social media page, it is not surprising that social media spirals into meltdown, particularly on the back of some debate that occurred during the marriage equality campaign.

The debate it seems, taken up by many media outlets since, focuses on the right to freedom of speech vs the work of inclusion. Rugby Australia chief executive Raelene Castle herself stated on last night’s news coverage that it is a difficult thing to manage freedom of speech, the right to express one’s religious views, social media and the work of inclusion.  And I don’t think anybody would argue that.

However, Castle’s comments that Folau “has been a really strong role model in the Pacific Islander community and we would like to him stay in rugby” brings to question what is viewed by Australian sport as acceptable behaviour. Particularly when it comes to a star player who is without doubt a role model to many young people from within and outside of the Pacific Islander community.  Let’s not underestimate the influence that Folau’s words have on the hearts and minds of his fans.

In an interview, Ms Castle stated that Israel could have put a positive spin on the same message and done it in a more respectful way. Perhaps not the best choice of words as it would be hard to see how gays going to hell could be framed positively. But it is obvious that a conversation has been had, albeit very delicately, with their star player.

This is not to say that Folau hasn’t expressed his views more sensitively before. During the marriage equality debate he did publicly state “I love and respect all people for who they are and their opinions, but personally, I will not support gay marriage”. This is freedom of speech, he has every right to say this, and it was respectful.

The argument here is not so much about freedom of speech but the extent to which public figures, and more importantly, role models are permitted to express their views publicly (some would argue, hatefully) in a way that almost guarantees a devastating impact on a significant number of young people in Australia and across our region.

By default, this also brings into question the role that Australian sporting organisations play in either allowing or sanctioning such behaviour. Does their response compound the message to young people? And what message does this send to a new generation of Australians who identify as LGBTI and want to play or have a career in in sport?

Does the argument for freedom of speech still hold its weight when the consequences and influence of that speech can be so dire?

To really understand the impact of this situation, shift the focus slightly to the many young people across Australia and the Pacific that idolise Folau. Whatever figures you choose to accept in terms of the percentage of the population that identifies as non-heterosexual, 8 to 10% is a significant number of Folau’s fans. Young people who have recently experienced the stigma and impact of hate speech witnessed throughout the recent marriage equality debate, now hear from their hero that they are destined for hell.

We have all read about the alarming numbers of young people who suicide due to their struggle with their sexuality compounded by stigma, bullying, social media and at times expulsion from their family, social groups and communities.  Depression, mental health, anxiety are still today an aftermath for many LGBTI people, despite their age, life experience and maturity. How on earth do we expect young hearts and minds to cope with the weight of comments such as this by their hero?

Are we really prepared to let our young people be subject to such damaging commentary for the sake of freedom of speech?

Rugby prides itself on being a sport for all and we absolutely applaud Rugby Australia for its work in promoting inclusion. Chief Executive Raelene Castle is absolutely right in her comments that all sports, and the public, will be watching to see how it responds. This won’t be the last time that sport will need to address this issue.

Folau’s comments go beyond his prior respectful expressions of faith, they move into an area that may have dire consequences to not one, but many young people.

Pride in Sport has offered to speak to Israel, not to argue against his faith or beliefs, but to help him understand the impact that his words may have had on many of young people struggling with their sexuality. There have been no repercussions for Israel. We would hope that with an understanding of the impact he may have had, there would at the very least, be an apology.


Dawn Hough is Director of ACON’s Pride Inclusion Programs established to help make the places we work, play and live more inclusive of LGBTI people, thereby reducing the high incidents of mental health, stigma and social exclusion within LGBTI communities.  Pride in Sport is a program that supports Australian Sporting Organisations and clubs in all aspects of LGBTI inclusion and are the publishers of the Australian Pride in Sport Index, benchmarking LGBTI Inclusivity within sport.

For more information on the Pride in Sport Program, contact Casey Conway on 02 9206 2140 or 0429 196 108.

Give Volunteer Spread the word

ACON Social Media Platforms