Israel Folau and Three Myths of a Changing Society

As Australians celebrate Easter, I want to assert, as a Christian, that because of his love, Jesus died and rose again to bear the sin and judgement of we sinners who deserve his condemnation. So, with all Christians, in obedience to our Saviour, I would call on all to repent and find forgiveness while they may.

However, I write this article not as a Christian but as an Australian citizen and lifetime rugby supporter, who happens to be a Christian, seeking what I see as the good of society. Furthermore, I am writing simply on the basis of public media information, without knowing the full details of Israel Folau’s employment. As a Christian, I don’t expect the Government or anybody to defend me, or my preaching of the gospel. They crucified my Lord and I am not to be surprised by any hostility towards his people. But as an Australian rugby supporter, I do think it is in the best interest of everybody to identify the issues behind this present imbroglio and do something about them, in order to protect our society and the game of rugby.

Whether you agree or don’t agree with Israel Folau, his sacking is a test case revealing the deep unresolved problems of our changing society. It’s much more than simply breaking a contract. That may be the presenting issue but the real issue is one of deep-seated division within the society. Amongst the many arguments of the last week have been three myths that have confused the discussion and are confused by the debate.

Myth One: Sport is still sport when it is professionalized.

Sport is playing games for fun, exercise or pleasure. But once we professionalise sport other goals, aims and behaviour take over.
• No longer is sport simply playing or even competing to see who is the best in a particular physical skill. Rather it is crowd entertainment, which connects consumers to advertisers via public media.
• No longer is there honour in winning graciously and losing nobly – now it is making money by winning at all costs – even the cost of sandpaper or whatever undetectable chemical friend is available.
• No longer do representative players or their coaches represent us – they represent themselves in the contracts and advertisers they can attract; the club that can afford to pay them, and the sponsors whose naming rights are blazoned on their uniforms. It’s not the Australian Wallabies but the Qantas Wallabies who will play at the ANZ stadium.
• No longer do players represent those of us who love the game – now they represent the sponsors who pretend to love the game but will disappear the instant their brand name is threatened.
• No longer are the players answerable to their captain, coach and selectors – now the players as well as the captain, coach and selectors are answerable to the administrators who are answerable to commercial interests.
• No longer do we leave it all on the field – now players work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week under the constant scrutiny and demands of a controversy driven and conflict fuelled media.
• No longer do we play sport – now we watch trained colossi achieve seemingly impossible feats. To call the Commonwealth Games ‘friendly’ is an obscene joke. Where is the friendliness in rich nations, like Australia, putting their professional ‘gladiators’ into the ‘colosseum’ to destroy the poorer nations’ athletes?

Israel Folau is one of these gladiators, who is being reminded that ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’. His employment is not limited to the field or the training schedule or the sponsors’ advertisements. He is owned like the early gladiators of ancient Rome: a slave to the masters who control his life. It is argued that even without a Rugby Australia logo, his Instagram is still not his but his masters.

Myth Two: We have an inclusive multicultural society.

As a nation desiring to be multicultural, we want to include everybody in our nation. Our method is to pursue peace by tolerance, the liberty to be ourselves and the freedom to choose our own way of life. There are laws, which define the limits of that inclusion but, short of such criminal activity, we are all free to do as we please.

But there are problems with inclusive multiculturalism. How can a society hold together with mutually exclusive cultural norms? How can the ideology of inclusiveness work? In the name of ‘inclusiveness’ a football code is trying to ‘exclude’ a model player for expressing his cultural, religious beliefs. Can we genuinely include, or must we exclude, people whose morality, culture or religion we find immoral? But who is the ‘we’, in that question? Whose morality, culture or religion is included or excluded in an inclusive multicultural society? Whose morality, whose cultural norms, are going to be enforced and why are theirs chosen above others? Is there a genuinely rational morality that all Australians must or do adhere to or is that just the morality of the rationalists? Why should they be in control instead of the emotivists or the nihilists? Why are the wealthy business people who use their money to bully others via sponsorship in control of moral dialogue? Since when is bullying the essence of morality?

Israel Folau sincerely holds a particular moral view. It’s the view of his Tongan culture and his Christian religion. Are we to say that our multicultural society has no place for Tongan Christians? Or are we saying, they can have a place provided they shut up about their views – or “pull your bloody head in” as one public media pundit expressed it? But what if preaching their views is part of their culture and religion? Are only non-preaching religions allowed? Are we saying that you can practice some of your religion, privately but not the whole of your religion and certainly not in public? Who owns the public square and when was it decided by whom as to who owns it? Is not the democratisation of knowledge one of the supposed virtues of the internet? Which brings us to the third myth.

Myth Three: We have freedom of speech in an uncensored liberal society.

Fifty years ago, Australia changed our censorship laws and practices by telling the reader and viewer to beware. The onus changed from the speaker to the hearer. If you don’t like what is said or shown, or are going to be offended by it – then change channel, don’t read it. Anybody who pays attention to somebody’s Instagram has nobody to blame but themselves. There are many offensive things written or said about Christians. Some I pay attention to, others I avoid. But if I choose to watch material I find offensive, it’s nobody’s problem but mine.

The best argument against censorship is that genuine testing of ideas requires that they are freely expressed and challenged. Truth is the best and only defence against error. Censorship never works at silencing error it just drives it underground. Truth may be slow to work but it is the truth, not the censor, that sets us free.

Why, then, should a footballer be excluded from representative football because of an unrelated activity e.g. stating his religious beliefs? If he was excluding others or refusing to play with others because of their religion or morality it would make sense. If he was speaking on behalf of the Rugby code or on their website, it could make sense. But it makes no sense for a multicultural inclusive national football code, to force members to hide their culture – not even speak about it – if they want to play.

Where to now?

The tribunal and courts will decide on the presenting issue of whether Israel did or did not break his contract. But never again should a footballer be asked to sign a contract or give undertakings that deny him the right to speak freely about his religion or culture outside the context of football.

It is argued that he is a poor role model for the young followers of the code. But seriously! A code, which has the scandals of crass, drunken, drug taking, violent players is not in a position to criticise a man of moral principle and courage.

The case of Israel Folau is not an isolated infringement of a religious extremist in a minor and failing football code. Other players in Rugby here and overseas, as well as other players in different football codes are facing the same censorship. And such censorship is not limited to football. Israel Folau is a test case for our national culture. What kind of multicultural society do Australians want to be? How or where can we ever resolve these issues? We should not leave it to the power brokers of a football code to determine the morality of society, the freedom of our speech and the acceptance of alternative cultures and religions? The internal tribunal of the code is insufficient to test out this debate – the law courts are far too expensive to pursue the matter. Both major political parties promised to address freedom of speech and freedom of religions when the plebiscite on same sex marriage raised similar issues. Nothing has happened so far and the politicians’ reticence to discuss it during the election is quite telling.

One thing is certain, whether Christianity is or is not excluded from professional sport we will continue to proclaim the gospel of Jesus and call upon all people to repent.

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