The line between freedom of speech and what can be considered as a hate comment is increasingly thin and Rugby has become a central feature of how that debate is currently being played out across the world.
In the early hours of this morning, our time, the bosses of Rugby Australia met with star player Israel Fulau amid a firestorm of criticism of his negative views on homosexuality expressed on social media last week.
Speaking this morning to 9 News in Australia Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle said the sporting body is “proud” of controversial Wallabies star Israel Folau’s commitment to his faith, but warned he needed to learn to express his views respectfully.
The meeting seems to have been the first in a series that will take place in order to try and defuse a situation that has brought religious groups, equality campaigners and sponsors into the spotlight on inclusiveness.
Castle said afterwards it was a “very open, very calm, very honest” meeting and that Rugby Australia would continue discussions with the player.
“We’re proud of the fact that he’s a strong believer and that he’s prepared to stand up for what he believes in,” she said.
“But at the same time, Rugby Australia also has a policy of inclusion and of using social media with respect.”
Main Sponsors Quantas, as well as Asics and Land Rover, have all expressed concern over how the star has expressed his views.
Quantas issued a statement saying that “As a sponsor of Rugby Australia, we’re supportive of their approach towards tolerance and inclusion, which aligns with our own.”
“We’ve made it clear to Rugby Australia that we find the comments very disappointing.”
The debate has set Australian media alight over the past number of days, hot on the heels of the recent high profile trial of Ulster Rugby players in Belfast.
A poll for RTÉ last night revealed that 55 percent of people questioned by Amarach research said they would not like to see Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding play for Ireland again, despite their being cleared of all charges in the courts.
This is twice as many as say they should play with just under 20 percent saying they do not know.
The IRFU and Ulster Rugby are currently reviewing all aspects of the trial and the coverage of social media comments, a process which quite rightly could not begin until after the conclusion of the trial.
A petition started by supporters of the players was heading towards 10,000 online signatures but has been, perhaps temporarily removed from Change.org which states that
“This petition isn’t available. Either the URL is incorrect, it violated our Community Guidelines, or the starter removed it.”
Ulster Rugby play their first home game since the trial ended in Belfast this Friday.
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