Wallabies star Israel Folau considering his options Friday after being sacked for homophobic comments in a case that looks to have ended his glittering career in Australia, said he was “deeply saddened”.
The devoutly Christian fullback was found guilty of a “high-level” breach of Rugby Australia’s code of conduct last week, with a three-person tribunal deciding it warranted the termination of his lucrative Aus$4.0 million four-year contract.
He has 72 hours to appeal, with reports that he plans to take the case to the Supreme Court.
“It’s been a privilege and honour to represent Australia and my home state of New South Wales, playing the game I love,” Folau said in a statement.
“I am deeply saddened by today’s decision to terminate my employment and I am considering my options.”
He went to the tribunal to challenge Rugby Australia’s intention to fire him after he posted that “hell awaits” gay people and others he says are sinners.
It followed a similar tirade last year, with the case proving complex and divisive, pitting his right to free speech against restrictions on hate speech.
Rugby Australia chief Raelene Castle said the outcome was “a painful situation for the game”.
“Rugby Australia did not choose to be in this situation, but Rugby Australia’s position remains that Israel, through his actions, left us with no choice but to pursue this course of action,” she said.
“Our clear message to all rugby fans today is that we need to stand by our values and the qualities of inclusion, passion, integrity, discipline, respect and teamwork.”
While Folau’s post sparked outrage from some quarters, RA’s handling of the case has also upset players of Pacific island heritage who fear their religious beliefs are under attack.
Castle said she had communicated the decision to key players to make clear “Rugby Australia fully supports their right to their own beliefs and nothing that has happened changes that”.
“But when we are talking about inclusiveness in our game, we’re talking about respecting differences as well,” she added.
“When we say rugby is a game for all, we mean it. People need to feel safe and welcomed in our game regardless of their gender, race, background, religion, or sexuality.”
Folau said in his statement that “upholding my religious beliefs should not prevent my ability to work or play for my club or country”.
“Thank you also to those who have spoken out in my defence, some of whom do not share my beliefs but have defended my right to express them,” he added.
Several Wallabies teammates paid tribute to him, including Samu Kerevi and Sekope Kepu.
“Will miss going to battle with you my Toko (brother),” Kepu wrote on Instagram.
– Not part of the deal –
The three-person tribunal heard evidence from Folau, Castle and Wallabies coach Michael Cheika.
Its decision effectively ends the 30-year-old’s sporting career in Australia, after rugby league vowed he would not be welcomed there either. Playing for an overseas club remains an option.
Folau, who has been capped 73 times and was one of the sport’s most marketable players, has been unshakeable in his convictions, vowing to continue uploading religious material.
Australian LGBTI group Pride in Sport commended Rugby Australia for its “leadership and courage”, but former Wallabies coach Alan Jones, now an influential radio broadcaster known for his conservative views, was not impressed.
“They’ve alienated him, they’ve destroyed his employment and internationally destroyed his name for quoting the bible for God’s sake,” Sydney’s Daily Telegraph quoted him as saying.
Super Rugby’s record try-scorer has not played since posting a banner on Instagram last month that read: “Drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators — Hell awaits you.”
The row upset backers of the game with sportswear company ASICS dumping him as a brand ambassador while Qantas, the Wallabies biggest sponsor, made clear it was not happy.
The airline is run by openly gay chief executive Alan Joyce who warned last week: “We don’t sponsor something to get involved in controversy. That’s not part of the deal.”