Folau, ball tampering, protection for religious belief

The Israel Folau case is about more than “inclusion”. It is about religious belief, honesty, integrity, the corruption of sport by commerce, the corruption of commerce by personal interest, and the duty of individuals to stay true to their own moral code, even against overwhelming pressure.

Australia is still reeling from cricket’s ball-tampering scandal, where dishonesty, winning-at-all-costs and caving to peer-group pressure, were on display to the nation’s shame.

Qantas and Rugby Australia are repeating these mistakes.

Israel Folau has a legitimate right to his own views. In this case they are theological views that are held by significant numbers of not just Christians but Muslims, Jews and Hindus as well.

Australia’s legal protection for religious belief is lacking, and Folau’s case is an example of why it needs to be strengthened (see our submission to the Ruddock Panel on Religious Freedom).

But even without legal protections Rugby Australia should respect Folau’s right to freedom of religious belief. They haven’t done that, even though they’ve decided to take no action for now. The mere act of calling him in is intimidation and has no place in Australian society.

It is clear that Australians see sport as more than winning – they demand character of their sportsmen.

Many schools have rugby teams, not just for fitness, but because this sport is meant to teach life and moral skills, like teamwork, bravery, sacrifice, persistence.

An important element of teamwork is the sort of honesty that Folau has shown in answering a straight question with a straight answer. (He didn’t volunteer his views on homosexuality and the after-life, but someone on twitter asked him.)

You want your teammate to give you a straight answer, even if you are not comfortable with it. That is one of the lessons that you learn from being in a team – you don’t have to agree with everyone on everything, and often the person who does is not a team player, they’re just weak. Weak people won’t be there in the tough moment when the team really needs them.

Ironically Rugby Australia draws its strength from Pacific Islanders, many of whom are evangelical Christians, or Seventh Day Adventists; and Independent Schools, many of whom are Christian.

Yet it chooses to marginalise their values for those of one of its sponsors. So there actions are dumb, as well as unethical.

Rugby is struggling. There is competition from other sports, and it is really only played in two states. Yet Rugby Australia puts sponsorship dollars ahead of the game, as well as its support base.

To what end? If it disappears the sponsors will move on to another vehicle. And it will disappear if it alienates its base. The game exists for players and supporters, not sponsors.

By putting money before its people it is corrupted.

Qantas has every right to decide who it will and will not sponsor, but what about its social licence to operate, that nebulous concept which says businesses are about more than accounting values, a concept to which Qantas subscribes?

This is a business that wraps itself in the Australian flag, and borrows the Seekers’ lyrics to suggest that “we are Australian”.

Is Qantas promoting Australian values?

How about we try asking the WWII serviceman who will be marching in two weeks’ time on Anzac Day what they thought they were fighting for. Were they fighting for a free country full of free people, or was it so a rich Australian corporate could tell a first generation Australian Rugby Union player what to think?

I think they’ll give Alan Joyce and Qantas the one-fingered salute, just like they did to Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito. We’re a democracy. No one tells us what to do, and we’re allowed to think for ourselves.

Why has Qantas taken this position? It is hard not to think this is a personal crusade by the CEO and has nothing to do with accounting outcomes, or even licence to operate.

This type of corporate corruption never ends well. When a company reaches out beyond its boundaries to try and crush a single dissident on a matter in which it has negligible commercial interest, imagine what is happening within the company.

We’re in the middle of a banking royal commission because bank executives have turned themselves into corporate princes. It’s not unique to commercial corporations. The Child Abuse Royal Commission revealed that it happens when clerical princes have too much power.

And the antidote to that is to encourage a culture of inclusiveness which includes the dissident as a vital part of the whole.

We need to encourage the Izzy Folaus who stand up for what they believe. They are what makes a team a real team. Shame on Rugby Australia for not understanding this and not standing up to Qantas.

This article was first published on On Line Opinion.