Israel Folau, the Australian full-back, is one of the brightest stars in Rugby Union, a wonderfully skilful and exciting player. He is also a handsome man. Indeed, you might say he is beautiful, though, if you’re male, you might be well-advised not to express this opinion in his presence. He might think you were gay, and take offence.
This week however it is Folau himself who has given offence, not for the first time, and in consequence Rugby Australia seems set on tearing up his contract. If they do so, Australia’s chances in the World Cup this autumn will be diminished.
His offence is to have declared on social media that “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters” are all heading for Hell.
“Only Jesus Saves”, he says; so they’d better mend their ways before it is too late.
This is all good old-fashioned stuff, the meat of many a hell-fire sermon, but whether you sympathise with Mr Folau’s views or not, such talk is certainly out of date, or at least out of fashion.
Rugby Australia makes it clear that it will not tolerate “homophobic language”. The drunks and fornicators etc may feel a touch aggrieved, and say “what about us? Don’t our hurt feelings matter?” An understandable response, of course; yet there is a significant difference. Homosexuality may reasonably be considered part of someone’s identity. Being homosexual is therefore not like being an adulterer or a thief. This is why it’s the word that Rugby Australia and Folau’s many critics have fastened on. Displays of homophobia are now as disgraceful as homosexual acts were generally thought to be two or three generations ago.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
Fair enough: we are all – well, lots of us – liberal and non-judgemental about these matters now. Joe Root, England’s cricket captain, was widely praised a few weeks ago, for remarking to a West Indian fast bowler’s “sledging” that there’s nothing wrong in being gay (which Root isn’t); so the word shouldn’t be used as an insult.
Fair enough; good for you, Joe, just as good for Rugby Australia. Good also for fans not only on social media, but in the stands watching rugby, cricket, football or indeed any sport who express disapproval of the word “gay”, or some more offensive term being directed as a form of abuse at a player. Indeed, homophobic language is now deemed to be almost as unacceptable as racist abuse.
Well, yes, or perhaps only up to a point. There is however one significant difference. Almost all sports, certainly all popular ones, have accepted that discrimination on account of race or the colour of your skin is forbidden, very wrong, utterly deplorable. There are still, as we have recently been reminded, many cases of footballers suffering racist abuse. All the same it’s hard to see how a young person can grow up racist if his or her hero is Raheem Sterling or Marcus Rashford, Maro Itoje or Moeen Ali.
It’s different in the case of the gay community. Nobody can hide his race or colour, but pretty well everybody can hide or disguise his sexuality if he thinks this advisable. Statistically it is probable that a number of professional footballers, rugby players and cricketers in the country know themselves to be gay but think it better to keep the knowledge to themselves and perhaps their family and a closed circle of friends. It still takes courage for a sportsman to come out as gay, and it’s not surprising that very few professional ones have done so, at least during their playing career.
Change is slow in coming. I doubt if a footballer who was identified as gay would now be driven to suicide like poor Justin Fashanu more than twenty years ago, but I reckon he would still have a rough time of it. It is perhaps easier in individual sports and in what are called minority ones. The diver Tom Daley’s announcement that he was gay didn’t seem to cost him fans, may indeed have won him new ones. But then he wasn’t sharing a dressing-room with the likes of Israel Folau. One supposes that some footballers who know that they are gay keep silent for fear of embarrassment in the locker-room as much as dread of moral or social disapproval.
It appears to be easier for women to come out. In tennis Billie-Jean King and Martina Navratilova set the example of openness a long time ago and were followed by another Wimbledon Ladies Champion, Amelie Mauresmo. But male tennis players who are gay seem to remain closeted. Hard to believe there aren’t any. Bill Tilden, the greatest American champion of the first half of the twentieth century, was gay, and indeed served a prison sentence in consequence. However, he wouldn’t do as a suitable role model today, because he was attracted to boys in their late adolescence rather than to fully adult men. He would therefore be identified today as a pervert, guilty of sexual abuse.
Now of course it’s Israel Folau who is held to be guilty of abuse or, at least, of abusive language, perhaps even of a “hate crime”. No doubt he can argue that he is obedient to the teachings of his Church – “Only Jesus Saves” – and indeed that he is calling sinners to repentance. One might say he is simultaneously clear-minded and confused: clear-minded because he knows what he believes; confused because he really doesn’t know what is deemed permissible today. Tyson Fury, the former World heavyweight champion, got in hot water two or three years ago when he gave vent to opinions much like Folau’s. But he had the sense to realize where the wind was blowing – or lucrative endorsements come. So he repented or at least ate his words. I suppose if Israel Folau can bring himself to do that, Rugby Australia might welcome him back – and Australia would have a slightly better chance of lifting the William Webb Ellis Cup in Japan come October.