Israel Folau's motivations in his fight with Rugby Australia have been questioned.
Israel Folau's motivations in his fight with Rugby Australia have been questioned.

Folau just proved it was all about money

COMMENT

I AM all in on freedom of speech. I have defended it, been attacked for it and been abused with it.

I also don't buy the absurd and dangerous line that free speech does not extend to beliefs or opinions that are offensive. Free speech that is constrained to whatever some random observer deems acceptable or appropriate is, by definition, not free at all.

I am also acutely aware that, unlike in the US, there is no explicit legal protection for free speech in this country. That is why those who value it must constantly defend it, often from an authoritarian hard left which demands the policing of language while at the same time dishing out the most vicious personal abuse.

And I am acutely aware that plenty of people on the right often use the fig leaf of free speech to say ugly, ignorant or obnoxious things. That is horrible and deeply regrettable but it is still a smaller price to pay than censorship dictated by government or the angry mob.

Israel Folau's infamous post about drunks and homosexuals and adulterers, et al going to Hell, is the perfect example of this. It is stupid, it is offensive and - for what it's worth - it is a hopeless misinterpretation of the biblical passage he is quoting.

So, do I support what he says? Absolutely not. But should he be banned from saying it? Also absolutely not.

However, now that's out of the way, let's cut the crap.

The notion that Folau is a humble martyr for his faith or a flag-bearer for freedom of speech is nothing short of horses---.

Israel Folau with his wife Maria in Melbourne on the day they settled with Rugby Australia. Picture: Aaron Francis
Israel Folau with his wife Maria in Melbourne on the day they settled with Rugby Australia. Picture: Aaron Francis

When he was first asked by Rugby Australia to remove his inflammatory Instagram post he refused, so staunch were his spiritual convictions. In both word and deed he declared that his faith was more important than his football career and he was prepared to walk away from fame and fortune rather than compromise his beliefs.

Never mind that up until that point, Folau had no problems pocketing millions of dollars thanks to the Wallabies' primary sponsor, Qantas, whose CEO is a proudly gay man and whose corporate ethos explicitly embraces the lifestyle Folau condemns.

Strangely, Folau didn't have any problem profiting from such profligate sin, nor - were he so concerned for their mortal souls - did he ever pick up the phone to Joyce and attempt to save him and his wayward flock from the ravages of hell.

And even after he decided to become a martyr, he couldn't even do that right. The whole point of being a martyr is that you sacrifice whatever it takes for your beliefs. Folau lasted about five seconds before he decided that he didn't want to sacrifice anything at all. He wanted to have his faith and eat it too.

And so after making a big song and dance about being willing to forsake his brilliant football career and all the gold and glory that came with it, he decided that he'd actually still like the money thanks very much and sued a punch-drunk Rugby Australia for an eye-watering $14 million - a figure pumped up to the rafters by the humble Folau's conviction that he was a sure bet to become captain of the Wallabies and rake in those big sponsorship bucks once more.

Even more nauseating is that this narcissistic crusade was bankrolled by thousands of ordinary Australians who genuinely believed that Folau was fighting for free speech - perhaps the only good faith shown in this sorry saga.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. Thanks to Rugby Australia folding like a house of cards and offering him an apology and a confidential multimillion-dollar payout, no legal precedent has been set and no principle has been determined. The only thing that changed was that Folau got an apology and walked away with even more money.

Indeed, if Folau had any genuine interest in protecting freedom of religion or freedom of speech for anyone other than himself, he would have insisted the matter go to open court so these issues could finally be settled by law. Instead, yet again, he took the money and ran.

After all the disruption, all the upset, all the donations and all the offence, the only person who benefited in the end was old Izzy-or-isn't-he himself. Who knew being a martyr was such a nice little earner?

But of course the only reason that Folau has been able to walk away from this with both his pockets and ego bulging is because he was blessed enough to stumble across the only entity in Australia as obsessed with public pontifications as he was - but even more incompetent at standing by them.

Maria and Israel Folau leave the Federal Court in Melbourne last Monday. Picture: Darrian Traynor
Maria and Israel Folau leave the Federal Court in Melbourne last Monday. Picture: Darrian Traynor

Say what you like about Folau, at least he seems to believe the dumb sh-- he says. By contrast Rugby Australia, like so many institutions these days, appears desperate to say all the right words without having any idea what they actually mean.

How else could you possibly explain the nonsensical ramblings of CEO Raelene Castle in the aftermath of the fiasco.

"No we didn't get it wrong," she said, a day after Rugby Australia apologised to Folau and his family - apparently for getting it right  -  and refused to go to court to stand up for the values of her organisation.

"At the end of the day we stood up for the values of Rugby Australia."

Frankly, RA can't have it both ways: Either the sacking was wrong or the settlement was. Yet this is an organisation that when offered the choice between two crap alternatives somehow managed to do both.

Rugby Australia chief executive Raelene Castle. Picture: Bianca De Marchi
Rugby Australia chief executive Raelene Castle. Picture: Bianca De Marchi

Whatever this sorry saga teaches us, and I'm not sure it's much, it is certainly not a victory for free speech and it is certainly not a victory for values. If anything it is further proof that precious few people in public life have the courage of their convictions and none of them was in that mediation room.

On that note, it will be interesting to see what Folau does with his reported millions once the lawyers have had their lunches.

The only Christian thing to do would be to donate it to the poor - and if Izzy won't take my word for it, perhaps he'll listen to the bloke whose every word he claims to follow:

"Again I tell you," he said, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God."

Joe Hildebrand is editor-at-large for News.com.au and co-host of Studio 10, weekdays from 8.30am on Channel 10. Continue the conversation @Joe_Hildebrand

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