Damian Barr, Glasgow-born columnist, playwright and author has been in New Zealand. Before he left, he gifted us some witty and warm observations about this country. One of those is about our relationship with sport:

‘Sport, all sport, is taken far too seriously here.’

He’s right about New Zealand in this instance, even if he was wrong about our cheese. If he’d spent three months in Australia, he’d have found it to be a nation equally as obsessed with sport.

Sport is woven into the very fabric of our identities. Although we’ve evolved past ‘Rugby, racing and beer’ to a certain extent, sport and sports stars still dominate headlines, unite us in pubs, stadiums and living rooms across both countries and cause the collective swelling or sinking of our Australasian hearts.

Our sports stars turn up everywhere – they sell undies, deodorant, heat pumps, and banks, they appear on reality TV, they become brand and charity ambassadors, go into our schools, and carve out high-profile, life-long careers off the back of former sporting glory.

And yet for all their influence, our sporting bodies and heroes both here and in Australia remain distinctly apolitical, somewhat shielded from having to acknowledge the broader societal shifts and context in which they operate.

Because sport and politics don’t mix right? One of the most divisive events in New Zealand history, the 1981 Springbok tour, was essentially a battle between those who didn’t want to see their beloved game mixed up in politics and those who saw sport as the platform to make a bigger point.

And yet, religion and sport seem to have become acceptable bedfellows. Faith plays a big role in the lives of many of our Pasifika sporting stars both here and across the ditch. It’s complicated. Wallaby rugby player Israel Folau’s comment about homosexuals going to “HELL” unless they “repent their sins” is based on what his church, the Assemblies of God, teaches. ‘Homosexual Behavior Is Sin’ because scripture says so. No ifs or buts.

His wife and Silver Fern, Maria Folau, has implied endorsement of these comments through a post on Instagram saying ‘Stand with God no matter what’. Never mind that they’re kind of selective about which scripture they choose to live by, ignoring vast tracts of Leviticus including 19:19 which, unless there’s something biblical I don’t know about the Wallabies jersey or Silver Fern dress, strictly forbids wearing ‘clothing woven of two kinds of material’.

Selective scripture interpretations aside, Folau’s comments saw him having to front up to Australian Rugby who have a clear policy on inclusion:

‘ARU’s policy on inclusion is simple: Rugby has and must continue to be a sport where players, officials, volunteers, supporters and administrators have the right and freedom to participate regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race or religion and without fear of exclusion. There is no place for homophobia or any form of discrimination in our game and our actions and words both on and off the field must reflect this.’

Despite this pretty unequivocal position, Rugby Australia chief executive Raelene Castle let Folau off with slap on the wrist with a wet bus ticket.

“We’re proud of the fact he’s a strong believer and he’s prepared to stand up for what he believes in and we want athletes in our code that are prepared to do that. That’s really important.”

It seems Castle is trying to have her star player cake and eat her inclusion policy at the same time. With the bank of Pride and Mardi Gras, ANZ, being a key sponsor of NZ Netball, there’s likely to be a similarly awkward conversation with Maria Folau as soon as the dust settles on the Silver Ferns’ abysmal Commonwealth Games performance.

I don’t wish to impinge on either Folau’s right to practise their faith. Their right to have and practise their faith unimpeded by law is enshrined in both the Australian Constitution and the New Zealand Bill of Rights. I would however like to impinge on the freedom they think they have to express and endorse comments that are not only hateful, cruel and stupid, but also damaging to both the codes they so proudly represent and the young people who look up to them as role models.

What I would like to impinge on is their use of their star player profiles to imply anybody deserves some kind of real or imagined awful afterlife because of who they love. Hiding fear and prejudice behind the ‘word of God’ might not be a sin in the Bible but to imply any of your fellow human beings are somehow lesser than you and deserve some kind of horrendous fate is a far greater sin than anything their church preaches.

I’d also like to impinge on Rugby Australia and any other sporting body’s right to be a bunch of hypocrites. You cannot have inclusion and diversity policies unless you’re going to enforce them. For all that Folau’s words are incredibly hurtful, mean-spirited and damaging, theirs aren’t worth the paper they’re written on unless they’re going to walk the walk. For all that sporting bodies wish to remain seemingly apolitical and protective of their players’ rights, they also wish to be seen as progressive and inclusive and these days that means being seen to live those values through your actions. The response to Folau’s comments are all mild-mannered bark and no bite.

My own relationship with playing sport is akin to my relationship with Catholicism; somewhat enforced during my years at school but abandoned after that. My commitment to volleyball, tennis, netball and water polo went the same way as my Hail Marys and the Holy Trinity.

But my Catholic education was a good one. I frequently defend it. My religious education was steeped in the principles of social justice. I was lucky to have teachers who were as passionate about injustices in the Third World as they were the third station of the cross. I delivered the homily at the opening mass of the year in seventh form, blasting Aretha Franklin’s Respect and we talked about kindness, compassion and tolerance.

Ultimately I abandoned the church due the insane hypocrisy of it all. I could not reconcile the words I heard about love and compassion with its ongoing intolerance of homosexuality. The church had a great policy on kindness towards your fellow man but it turns out it had exclusion clauses. The institution itself couldn’t walk the walk and that kind of hypocrisy rendered it irrelevant to my life despite its many merits.

I feel the same about these sporting bodies who refuse to wake up and realise the world has changed. Who, through silence, inaction or implied endorsement, support a culture of fear, secrecy and rejection. Who have policies on inclusion that come with exclusion clauses when it’s your star player.

Draw the line guys. Accept your players have a faith but make it clear its practice cannot be at odds with what you as an institution stand for. You are their employer, you are within your right to enforce a code of conduct and have zero tolerance for those who step outside it.

When it comes to Folau, there is no grey area, no moral quandary or ambiguity. The Rugby Australia policy spells it out in black and white and the rights of LGBTQI people to live their lives free from hate are more important than the rights of one player to incite it.

Leave a comment