Rugby Australia chief Raelene Castle said the row over Israel Folau’s anti-gay sentiments was the biggest challenge of her career, as a former Wallaby slammed the fullback as a “religious lunatic”.
Devout Christian Folau, one of Australia’s most marketable players, caused a storm last month when he posted on social media that gay people were destined for hell.
Folau again courted controversy this week by tweeting a link to a video opposing same-sex marriage by late American evangelist David Wilkerson.
Castle, who has opted not to sanction Folau, said it was a delicate situation pitting a “human rights issue” against freedom of speech.
“In my career, this is the singularly most difficult thing I’ve ever had to deal with,” she told Fox Sports on Wednesday evening. “And that’s because there is no black and white answer.
“On the one hand you’re dealing with a human rights issue and on the other hand you’re dealing with a freedom of speech (issue).
“There’s someone’s right to express their views, whether it be religious or otherwise, and I think the test is whether it’s done in a respectful way. So that’s the measure we’ll continue to apply.”
A defiant Folau, 29, has made clear he will not be backing away from his staunch religious beliefs regarding homosexuality and same-sex marriage.
Several high-profile players have angrily responded to his remarks, notably All Blacks TJ Perenara and Brad Weber.
– ‘Self-immolation’ –
On Thursday, former Wallaby Clyde Rathbone tweeted: “It has become painfully clear that Australia’s best rugby player is a religious lunatic bent on self-immolation.”
Australian great George Gregan also weighed in, saying it was time for Folau to keep quiet and focus on his rugby.
“Let’s talk football. These beliefs that you talk about, keep them to yourself,” he said.
“I don’t see there’s a need to be putting it on a huge social platform because it takes away from what he is: a great rugby player.”
His stance has put Rugby Australia in a difficult position as it tries to balance its desire to re-sign Folau to a new contract with the demands of leading sponsors including national airline Qantas, which has criticised his stance.
The furore has raised questions over Folau’s future as a Wallaby with clubs in Europe and Japan, as well as Australia’s National Rugby League, reportedly interested in signing him.
Castle said she had not spoken to Folau since his latest Twitter post, but “we will continue to be in a dialogue about this”.
“I really wish I could sit here and say that this is black and white and by sanctioning him we’ll fix it or by going down this path we’ll finish it as well,” she said.
“But it really is not that simple because of the freedom of speech element.”