Israel Folau has let down many of his young fans with his recent social media posts despite knowing the harm anti-gay comments can cause, an academic who has previously worked with the Wallabies star has said.
Folau attended a code of conduct hearing on Saturday to determine whether Rugby Australia has grounds to sack him after he posted on social media last month that homosexuals, drunks and atheists, among others, were “destined for hell”.
But Rugby Australia has said the panel won’t deliver a decision on the future of Folau’s $4 million contract this weekend, with the matter expected to stretch into at least the first half of next week.
Monash University researcher Erik Denison, who has worked extensively on researching homophobia in sport and previously worked with Folau on an anti-homophobia campaign, said ahead of the hearing that the high profile player’s stance was “hard to understand”.
Writing for Monash University, Denison said Folau’s social media post implying homosexuality is a choice akin to lying and cheating had “broken the spirits of many girls and boys who idolised him, while at the same time emboldened the homophobic bullies who target these young people.”
Denison said research had found lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are at increased risk of suicide if they’re the target of homophobic slurs in any environment.
He said according to research, teenage rugby players who described themselves as “highly” religious were significantly more likely to use homophobic slurs with teammates and also agree with statements such as “gay men are disgusting”.
Denison said in 2014 he had organised a photoshoot with Folau and a teammate that appeared on a Star Observer cover that year to support the Bingham Cup, the World Cup of gay rugby.
“Sadly, I know first-hand that Folau is aware of the harm caused to young people from homophobic bullying and language use in sport, and every environment,” Denison said.
“I chatted with Folau while the photographer set up, and he told me he has gay family members, and knew about the high rates of suicide among gay youth.
“He also told me he believed it’s wrong that gay people feel excluded from sport due to homophobic bullying.”
In an article for Player’s Voice last year, Folau defended his first social media comment declaring “hell” was “God’s plan” for gay people.
“It was never my intention to hurt anyone with the Instagram comment, [but I] could never shy away from who I am, or what I believe,” Folau said at the time.
“It has been suggested that I am homophobic and bigoted and that I have a problem with gay people. This could not be further from the truth.
“I fronted the cover of the Star Observer magazine to show my support for the Bingham Cup [because] … I believe in inclusion. In my heart, I know I do not have any phobia towards anyone.”
Denison said there was “no clear explanation for why Folau, and many others, strongly defend their right to share some sections of the Bible [yet] ignore other sections that endorse slavery and denigrate women.”
“It’s hard to understand why Folau says he cares about gay people, and knows their suffering, yet uses his powerful social media platform to compare gay people to thieves and adulterers,” he said.
“By doing this, instead of helping to stop the bullying of gay kids, Folau is essentially passing a stone to bullies and online trolls to throw at these young people.”