The Rugby Australia brand is damned after the Israel Folau ruling

Rugby Australia has blundered and caused damage to its brand by letting the Israel Folau debacle drag on for weeks, argues Patrick Southam. And with the game already suffering from poor attendances, low ratings and disengaged fans, it's only going to get worse.

Israel Folau will never wear the green and gold jersey for the Wallabies again. That much is clear after Folau was found guilty this week of a high-level breach of his playing contract by an independent panel. The panel will now consider submissions from Rugby Australia and Folau to determine what sanction to impose on the star player after his controversial post on Instagram.

It was Folau’s second controversial post in 12 months.

It’s highly likely his $4m contract will be torn up. But even if it’s not, Folau will be frozen out of rugby. Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has declared he won’t pick Folau in his team, and captain Michael Hooper has publicly stated he’d find it “difficult” to play alongside Folau.

After the verdict, sportswear brand ASICS dumped Folau as a brand ambassador.

The Israel Folau ‘issue’ has been disastrous for Rugby Australia and its brand. It’s sparked heated debate and commentary in in the media, on talkback radio and from political leaders on the election campaign trail. Fans have been polarised. Controversy-shy rugby sponsors are upset.

Depending on which side of the fence you’re on, Folau is either a homophobe who deserves to be rubbed out of the game, or a devout Christian who was exercising his free speech by quoting the Bible urging sinners to repent.

But by letting the issue drag on for weeks, Rugby Australia has blundered and caused major damage to its brand while alienating a significant section of its fan base.

Rugby Australia has committed several mis-steps in its handling of the issue, and tied itself up in knots in its public responses. The first was a letter rugby CEO Raelene Castle wrote to all Wallaby squad players reassuring them the organisation is “inclusive” and supports their rights to personal beliefs, but stressing the need to uphold “Wallabies team values”.

“I want to assure you all that I am proud of the diverse range of religions and belief systems within the Wallabies and the way players are able to present their views in a positive way. Rugby supports you and your right to belief. Nothing that has happened this week changes that,” she wrote in the letter leaked to the media.

But some media commentators were quick to point out that this inclusive sentiment clearly didn’t extend to Folau, a devout Christian who preaches in his church off the field.

Most of the media characterised Folau’s Instagram post as “homophobic” which is sacrilege in a post same-sex marriage world.

But, if anything, Folau is an equal opportunity God botherer. In his Instagram post he listed “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters” under the heading “Hell awaits you”. As a lapsed Catholic I’m not personally offended by that, and I don’t believe in Hell. But, in a free society, Israel Folau is entitled to state his views.

The other problem for Rugby Australia is the code has many Pacific Islander players, who like Folau, are devout Christians, and share his beliefs. At least two Wallabies of Pacific Island background ‘liked’ Folau’s post.

Queensland Reds player Taniela Tupou said this week Pacific Islander players felt they were being vilified by RA.

“Might as well sack me and all the other Pacific Islands rugby players around the world because we have the same Christian beliefs,” he stated.

If Folau is sacked, it will seriously alienate this group of players.

Perhaps Rugby Australia’s biggest mis-step was its failure to include a tailored social media clause in the contract extension Folau signed last year. Media reports suggest there were discussions on this issue between Folau and Rugby Australia, who urged him to tone down his religious views.

But, in the end Folau did not sign off on the social media clause in his playing contract, which arguably weakened Rugby Australia’s claim that his Instagram post was a high-level breach of his contract.

Former Wallaby captain Nick Farr-Jones stated this week Folau was told by his coach and CEO he could continue to share his Christian beliefs on social media in a “respectful” way.

A related issue for Rugby Australia is the perception that it has somewhat elastic standards when it comes to upholding “Wallabies values”. In recent years, two Wallabies players have been fined and stood down for drug use and possession. One of them is a two-time offender. Neither was sacked. Apparently sniffing cocaine is not a high-level breach of contract. Israel Folau doesn’t drink, doesn’t take drugs and is a model player on and off the field.

The Israel Folau saga has been messy and unfortunate for all parties. It has dragged free speech and politics into a game which is currently suffering from poor attendances, low ratings and disengaged fans.

Sacking the code’s best player over an Instagram post that quotes the Bible will only accelerate this trend.

Patrick Southam is a co-founder and partner at corporate PR firm, Reputation Edge


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