There isn’t a top rugby team on the planet who would turn down the opportunity to have Israel Folau in their ranks.
He’s big, fast, powerful and brave. He’s also a deadly finisher with sublime attacking instincts.
Too bad he’s a bigot.
The Waratahs and Australia fullback caused a row with a (now deleted) Instagram post in which he said that God’s plan for gay people was “HELL . . . Unless they repent of their sins and turn to God.”
Strangely, he hasn’t been censured by his employers, instead receiving applause for his “strong beliefs” and an instruction to express his views “respectfully”.
That’s a staggering response to what appears like plain hate speech, and is sharply at odds with what occurred in England this week.
Denny Solomono of the Sale Sharks was banned for four weeks for an alleged homophobic slur towards a Worcester player.
The words were said to be the same as those which saw French centre Mathieu Bastareaud banned following a European Champions Cup match earlier this year.
If there’s any doubt about the damage inflicted by remarks like Folau’s and Bastareaud’s, consider the view of prominent referee Nigel Owens, who happens to be gay and spoke of the pain at reading such toxic opinions.
“Yes, you are entitled to your opinion, but one should understand what that opinion can do to young and vulnerable people’s lives, in particular ones in a bad place dealing with their sexuality… it’s not a choice of being gay.
“I spent years and years trying not to be gay, because I didn’t realise I was gay until I was about 19.”
Gareth Thomas, the Welsh Test centurion, was more direct, tweeting a middle finger shot that emphatically stated his feelings towards Folau. He, too, is gay.
Folau tweeted biblical readings to try and justify his message, oblivious to the pain and hurt he caused to many.
Social media went into overdrive, with the unambiguous message that his views are nonsense.
His drivel also goes against the grain of rugby’s broad value system; a system that heartily celebrates differences and inclusivity.
Rugby even has an international tournament for gay players, the Bingham Cup, named after Mark Bingham, the hero who died on board United Airlines Flight 93 when it crashed during the 9/11 attacks.
(In a bizarre twist, Folau himself was the poster boy for the event in Sydney in 2014, even appearing on the cover of a local gay magazine at the time).
Locally, the Jozi Cats were launched three seasons ago and play in a variety of events. They even toured overseas last year.
Freedom of speech is a noble freedom, but it’s a dangerous road to go down when comments are laced in hate and prejudice.
It doesn’t matter a whole lot whether you talk about your faith, but loaded remarks like Folau’s are demonstrably offside.
The player’s elevated public status means he’ll catch more wind for whatever he says, but it doesn’t alter the offensiveness of his remarks.
I’d love to be a fly on the wall the next time he shares a change-room with Wallaby loose forward David Pocock, who has long been a strong advocate for LGBTI rights.
He even held off marrying his fiancé until gay marriage was legalised in Australia, so no-one can be in any doubt about his feelings on the subject.
It might be easy for some to laugh off Folau’s comments, but what of those conflicted kids Owens talks about?
There must be rugby fans among them, fans who agonise daily over their choices and now vilified by an extremist like Folau, who thinks it’s okay to bash out a hateful message on social media.
Of course, Folau can hold whatever views he likes, but propagating such views is another matter, especially as he is held to a higher standard.
That’s the lot of a celebrity player, whether he likes it or not.
The irony of Folau’s remarks is that he is deeply religious, and yet his intolerance of people who are unlike him is palpable.
With a view like his, he’d be better off shutting up. Decent people don’t care for his hate-filled bile.