Australian rugby star Israel Folau to be fired over homophobic posts

Social media posts brought widespread outrage

By Julia Hollingsworth and Emily Dixon, CNN
Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images

Israel Folau of the Waratahs looks on during the round 8 Super Rugby match between the Blues and Waratahs at Eden Park on April 6, 2019, in Auckland, New Zealand.

(CNN) - Australian rugby player Israel Folau is set to have his contract terminated following "unacceptable" homophobic and transphobic comments posted on social media.

The New South Wales Waratahs player shared an image on Instagram Wednesday, warning drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, and idolaters that "hell awaits you."

"Jesus Christ loves you and is giving you time to turn away from your sin and come to him," the 30-year-old Wallabies player, who also plays for Australia's national team, captioned the image.

Rugby Australia, the sport's national governing body, said Thursday that it was their intention to terminate his contract.

"Whilst Israel is entitled to his religious beliefs, the way in which he has expressed these beliefs is inconsistent with the values of the sport," Rugby Australia's chief executive Raelene Castle and New South Wales Union chief executive Andrew Hore said in a statement.

"We want to make it clear that he does not speak for the game with his recent social media posts."

They said they had made repeated attempts to contact Folau and his representatives following the posts, but he had failed to communicate directly with either organization. Earlier, Rugby Australia had released a statement calling the content of the post "unacceptable."

"As a code we have made it clear to Israel formally and repeatedly that any social media posts or commentary that is in any way disrespectful to people because of their sexuality will result in disciplinary action," Castle and Hore said.

"We want everyone to feel safe and welcome in our game and no vilification based on race, gender, religion or sexuality is acceptable and no language that isolates, divides or insults people based on any of those factors can be tolerated."

Folau, who broke the all-time record for Super Rugby tries earlier this month, also tweeted a screenshot of the news that Tasmania Wednesday became the first Australian jurisdiction to make gender optional on birth certificates.

"The devil has blinded so many people in this world, repent and turn away from your evil ways," he captioned the screenshot.

Both the tweet and the post are still online. CNN has reached out to both Rugby Australia and Folau for comment.

On Friday, England rugby player Billy Vunipola published an Instagram message in support of Folau.

Widespread outrage

Folau's comments have attracted criticism online, including in neighboring New Zealand where rugby is a hugely popular support. Folau's wife, Maria Folau, is a netball player on New Zealand's national team, the Silver Ferns.

New Zealand Prime Minister Ardern told media Thursday she didn't agree with Folau's comments.

"I'm very mindful of the fact that he's a role model, he's a person in a position of influence, and I think that with that comes responsibility," she said. "This is our rainbow community, there's a lot of vulnerable people there."

Qantas, a major sponsor of the Wallabies, has also condemned Folau's post. "These comments are really disappointing and clearly don't reflect the spirit of inclusion and diversity that we support," a Qantas spokesman said in a statement sent to CNN.

"We are pleased to see Rugby Australia's condemnation of the comments and will await the outcome of their review."

It's not the first time Folau has been outspoken against gay people. In April 2018, Folau was criticized for writing in an Instagram comment that gay people would go to hell unless they repented, and had previously said he would be voting against marriage equality in Australia's postal survey.

All Blacks player TJ Perenara and "Thor: Ragnorok" filmmaker Taiki Waititi were among those to condemn Folau's comments on Twitter.

Welsh rugby union referee Nigel Owens, who is gay, wrote in a column for Wales Online, "When young people in particular see comments like this, and not just from our sporting stars but from anybody, it could be enough to push those people over the edge."

Qantas expressed disappointment with the posts, but said it would continue to sponsor the Wallabies.

'Hate speech'

Folau defended his earlier comment in a column for Players' Voice, writing that accusations of homophobia "could not be further from the truth."

The following month, Folau posted a video on Twitter of a sermon by American evangelist David Wilkerson, in which Wilkerson condemns "rampant iniquity" and "sexual perversions beyond description" as footage of activists waving rainbow flags plays.

Speaking on Fox Sports' "Kick & Chase" the same month, Rugby Australia Chief Executive Raelene Castle said Folau's homophobic comments were the "singularly most difficult thing I've ever had to deal with" in his career.

Castle defended Rugby Australia's decision not to sanction Folau, saying: "On one hand it's a human rights issue but on the other hand, you're dealing with freedom of speech.

"We've had conversations with Izzy about presenting his views in a respectful way," Castle said. "He is walking the line, we will continue the dialogue."

James Lolicato, co-founder of Australian charity Proud 2 Play -- which "focuses on increasing LGBTI+ engagement in sport, exercise and active recreation" -- told CNN that Folau's latest comments "are not only demeaning to LGBTI+ people, but also are discriminatory."

"We see the negative consequences that arise from comments such as these from high-level players, be that of young LGBTI+ people feeling isolated and afraid to get involved in sport, or the modeling of these comments and behaviors in other people," Lolicato said.

"Rugby needs to look at its vilification policies and sanction Israel to show that they really are a sport for everybody," he added.

"We can no longer mask hate speech as 'free speech' and need to make sure that discrimination of all forms is properly tackled in sport."

Folau's New South Wales Waratahs team was not immediately available for comment.

Described as a "freak of an athlete" with "exceptional physical prowess," Folau has played 63 times for Australia. Prior to converting to rugby union, the 30-year-old played professional rugby league and Australian rules football.

The-CNN-Wire ™ & © 2019 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.