SYDNEY – Homophobic comments by Israel Folau amounted to a "high-level" breach of rugby's code of conduct, a tribunal ruled on Tuesday, leaving the Wallabies star's glittering career hanging in the balance.
The devoutly Christian Folau went to the hearing to challenge Rugby Australia's intention to sack him from his lucrative four-year deal after he posted on social media that "hell awaits" gay people and others he says are sinners.
The governing body declared his actions a "high-level" breach, the only level that allows termination of a contract, and the three-person panel agreed after three days of legal wrangling.
Folau, Rugby Australia chief Raelene Castle and Wallabies coach Michael Cheika all gave evidence.
A decision on his punishment has yet to be made, but it could range from the unlikely scenario of allowing him to return to training and playing with the NSW Waratahs, firing him, or issuing fines or suspensions.
"The panel has today provided a judgement that Israel Folau committed a high-level breach of the Professional Players' Code of Conduct with his social media posts on April 10, 2019," Rugby Australia said.
"The panel will now take further written submissions from the parties to consider the matter of sanction."
No timescale was given, but legal experts have warned that whatever happens an appeal is likely, potentially followed by a drawn-out court battle.
Earlier Tuesday, Waratahs chairman Roger Davis called for a "common-sense" settlement, saying it was important to bring the matter to a close and prevent more negative headlines dominating the sport in the weeks and months ahead.
"This is a no-win situation for the game and fans and I'd like to see it resolved as quickly as possible," he told the Sydney Morning Herald.
"I think a settlement is a common-sense approach... it would be smart. If this goes for a long time there are definitely no winners."
Over the weekend, Sydney's Daily Telegraph newspaper said an Aus$1 million (US$700,000) offer was made to Folau in a bid to avoid the tribunal, although Rugby Australia has denied the report.
Folau, Super Rugby's record try-scorer, has not played since posting a banner on Instagram that read: "Drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators – Hell awaits you."
Despite his career being at a crossroads, the Herald said Folau had been training alone to stay fit.
Folau escaped without sanction for a similar tirade last year and Rugby Australia has made clear it now wants him out of the game.
His legal team reportedly argued that the governing body did not include a social media clause in the contract, and said his posts were quoting sentiments from the Bible.
The case has proved complex and divisive, pitting Folau's right to free speech against the offence he has caused to others.
Several Pacific Island-origin players have supported him, while others, including within the Wallabies camp, have been critical.
On Tuesday, Australia's first gay rugby club, the Sydney Convicts, joined condemnation of his stance.
"As a proud gay man who's been a rugby supporter my entire life and a kid who idolised the Wallabies, there's a danger those comments could have really severe effects on kids' mental wellbeing," club president Don Rose told broadcaster ABC.
He added: "The entire rugby community wants this to be dealt with and to move on."AFP