Mixed responses to Folau's 'gagged' return to NRL

Israel Folau appears to have agreed to limit the public expression of his religious beliefs in order to, possibly, join the NRL’s St George Illawarra Dragons.

News broke yesterday that the Dragons have offered Folau a $1 million deal to join the club for the next two seasons. St George’s application to sign Folau is reportedly being considered by the NRL, which would meet with the club – and Folau – before reaching a decision.

Folau recently returned to Brisbane after the birth of his first child to be near his ill mother-in-law. In order to stay in Australia, he is apparently prepared to ask for a release from his contract with French Super League side the Catalans Dragons – and also adhere to St George’s strict conditions.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald: “As part of any potential agreement, the Dragons have informed Folau that he would need to cooperate with the club and the code when it comes to his social media activity in light of the controversy surrounding his exit from Rugby Union two years ago. Folau has told the Dragons he has learned a lesson and has agreed to keep his views and beliefs to himself.”

Most St George sponsors are reportedly willing to welcome Folau into the club, although key sponsor St George Bank has expressed concerns. It has said it will honour its contract, which is not due for renewal until the end of 2021.

The bank said, “St George Bank plays no role in the selection of players and we don’t comment on individuals”, while at the same time asserting it “upholds an inclusive environment that does not discriminate on the basis of gender, ethnicity or sexuality”.

“While his beliefs don’t align with our beliefs … rugby league is a game of redemption.” – Norm Black

Meanwhile, another St George sponsor TripADeal made the point that to deny Folau a second chance also may be a form of discrimination.

Referring to the return to the NRL of disgraced Brisbane Broncos player Matt Lodge – who committed a home invasion in New York in 2015 – TripADeal founder Norm Black said: “If home invaders can come into rugby league, surely people who have religious beliefs can come back into rugby league. While his beliefs don’t align with our beliefs … Rugby League is a game of redemption.”

“You can kick someone’s head in, go to jail and still come back.

“If you are making statements – and certainly we don’t want to hear them or condone them – I don’t think you can be left out of a sport forever based on what you’ve been brought up with.

“My take of it as a major sponsor is that I watched footage of what Matt Lodge did – I would say that the people involved in that home invasion are scarred for life.

“I think it would be hypocritical to say [Folau] can be gone from the game forever when you compare [with] a home invasion.

“I’m a strong believer in second chances.”

Pre-empting the inevitable backlash – which is already rife on Twitter – about rehiring Folau, St George Illawarra chief executive Ryan Webb told the Sydney Morning Herald: “We are always on the lookout for great players. We have enquired with the NRL about Israel and we will work with them to hopefully see him join us in 2021. We understand there will be a range of opinions in regards to this decision, but we believe he would be a good addition to our club.”

Folau’s $4 million contract with Rugby Australia was ended in 2019 after they deemed one of his Instagram posts in breach of his employment contract.

The post was an image with text that listed “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators” as going to hell, and called them to repent.

Following an out-of-court settlement with Rugby Australia, Folau changed codes to rugby league, joining the Catalans Dragons in France last year.

In taking up that position, Folau said: “I’m a proud Christian, my beliefs are personal, my intention is not to hurt anyone and I will not be making further public comment about them. I look forward to my return to the great game of Rugby League …”

“It would appear Israel Folau has agreed to the suppression of his speech so he can get back on the footy field.” – Lyle Shelton

Meanwhile, several Christians have expressed concern about Folau’s “gagging” in order to, possibly, sign with St George.

Neil James Foster, Associate Professor of Law in Newcastle, said on his Facebook page: “I am deeply concerned about the suggestion that Israel Folau would be bound by contract imposed by the NRL to not speak publicly about his religious beliefs! He would be the only person in Australia so fettered.”

“Even if this outrageous suggestion were limited to ‘comments on homosexuality’ it would be unacceptable. To be clear, he said nothing that would inspire hate or violence against a same-sex-attracted person. He was not guilty of ‘homophobia’. The reason I am concerned is that knowledge of this contractual provision will encourage other private companies to think that such conditions can be added to other people’s contracts.

“Take him back to play, make it clear that your club does not endorse all the views expressed by players outside work, move on.”

Moderator-General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia, Peter Edward Barnes, commented on Foster’s post. He suggested Folau should not concede to restrictions on his social media. “This would be capitulation. Stand strong, Israel,” wrote Barnes.

Former Australian Christian Lobby managing director Lyle Shelton made similar comments on Folau’s “gagging” when he signed with the Catalans in 2020, saying it “came at a price”.

“It would appear Israel Folau has agreed to the suppression of his speech so he can get back on the footy field,” Shelton wrote on his blog, adding that Folau “consented to the gag as the price of resuming his livelihood and passion.”