Former crap rugby player and current sports philosophy blogger, Tim Edwards, was uncomfortable about influential radio broadcaster Alan Jones’ defence of Israel Folau’s public social media proclamations about the dim future that homosexuals can expect in the next world. Well, actually, he was more than uncomfortable. He was down right horrified and perplexed. It was all because of “Superbloke.” Tim’s memory of “Superbloke” was so raw that he felt that he had to say something… so he wrote Alan a letter. Here it is.
I played quite a bit of rugby when I was a kid and I was crap. Some of the people I played with and against were not crap at all. Some were champions. Manly legend Tony Cox, Gordon’s Wally Freeman and “Doc” Cowlishaw, Randwick’s Bruce Malouf and Queensland’s David Codey were a few of the better players I knocked around with. Coxy’s mercurial speed and magical hands used to make me giggle with delight, as a kid. Some of the bruises I got packing down in scrums against Bruce and some of the tackles I suffered in back yard games of rugga against Dave still hurt. There was another player who was even better. In my adolescent opinion (of the time), he was the best of them all, by far! This guy not only had talent and skill to burn but he had more guts than any other person I had ever met. To say that I admired him was an understatement. To me he was the best young rugby player in the country. Maybe, the world.
The bloke’s athletic prowess was only a small part of the picture. He was one of the highest academic achievers in a high school known for high academic achievement, he held senior leadership positions at his school, and he was respected by his mates, other fellow students and the school’s teaching community as a young man of extraordinary moral courage and integrity as well. This young bloke was such an exceptional character that even though he would be horrified at such a “preposterous” proposition, it would not be too inaccurate to brand him with the pseudonym “Superbloke.”
Alan, you coached the Wallabies and Manly way back then. If I remember rightly, you also coached top level school boys teams as well. You may have even heard of the courageous young bloke that I remember so well. This kid certainly played rugby at State representative level though, I think, injuries prevented him from gaining selection in an Australian Schoolboys team. “Superbloke” never became a famous rugby player like some of the blokes I mentioned above. For what its worth, I reckon that if his life had turned out differently, he could have become a Wallaby. I’m sure of it. It was never to be. This young fella took his own life during his second year of university.
To say that his family, friends, university colleagues and fellow athletes were shocked by this tragedy is an understatement. Fair dinkum. The shock and horror were so intense that people that knew him and knew of the events only talked about his passing in the most hushed of tones. It was almost as if (if no one said anything), we would all be able to go on believing that it had never happened. Horribly, nearly fifty years later, the feelings of distress and horror still linger for many it seems. I have tried talking to friends about this guy and responses to questions about “why” and “what do you think happened” are met with confused responses and blank stares. It is as if friends, even today, want to but are emotionally unprepared to think about the issues. Is there anything more horrible and distressing than teen suicide?
I remember when I was that age. Maybe, for many, the teen and early adult years are a breeze. I don’t know. For me, it wasn’t. If I had had half the guts of “Superbloke”, I might have taken the same decision that he did. For years, every aspect of my life was filled with existential panic. Was I a worthwhile human? Why was I scared all the time? What would become of me? What was my sexual nature, and would the world find me acceptable when I found out whatever I was? Did anyone like me? Was I worth being cared about? All this stuff is as self-centred as hell, of course… but many teens struggle with such questions about their value. Many teens hover at the edge of a horrible precipice.
Geez, I’ve got no idea what life was like for you at eighteen, Alan. Maybe you were one of those cocky bastards (that I was jealous of) that knew who they were, knew what they wanted and knew how they were going to get it. Maybe you weren’t. Given that you are anything but main-stream it would not be hard to imagine that you suffered your fair share of self-doubt as a teenager too. Even if you didn’t have a care in the world as a kid you have spent a lot of time with young people over the years. You had a successful career as a school teacher. You were a wonderful sports coach who achieved enormous success at school, club, representative and international level. That means you spent a huge amount of time dealing with young people (kids and adults) and the stuff that they are going through. As a coach and teacher, you must have been aware of the anxiety that many young people experience, even if you didn’t experience it yourself. Even the toughest, bravest and most seemingly durable young people on the planet can also be fragile and this must have been clear to you.
As a former coach, mentor and advocate for young adults it surprises me that you sympathise with Israel Folau in his confrontation with Rugby Australia over his persistent “warnings” to homosexuals on social media. While you are correct in that Folau has every right to hold any religious view that he chooses to hold and while it is also true that he has every right to express those beliefs, it is not also true that he has the right to publicly declare opposing views to an employer that has a duty of care to protect and defend it’s stake holders. The Australian Rugby Union has a lot of faults, but can they be faulted for standing against people from within their ranks whose actions may potentially cause enormous distress and hurt to their fellow rugby players and supporters. “Inclusiveness” and even more importantly, the forbidding of the vilifying of rugby folk based on sexuality, race or religion are central elements of the role that rugby plays in Australian society. To suggest that rugby is a “broad church” and can embrace publicly professed homophobic views is a bit like saying card carrying Nazi or Communist members can reasonably exist within the Liberal Party.
Folau’s views don’t stop at expressing moral concern with being homosexual. He has repeatedly stated that hell awaits homosexuals who don’t repent. It is hard to imagine a crueller suggestion. I am not knowledgeable enough to enter into a theological debate over whether Folau’s version of Christianity is reasonable within the broad Christian tradition but it seems to me that when Jesus and his apostles taught, they didn’t broadcast blanket rules on social media about which human behaviours would banish individuals to eternal damnation. Surely Jesus’ and his later follower’s teachings were addressed to specific groups and individuals at specific places and times and each of these teachings were designed to elicit a specific response from those groups and individuals. To universally damn a population group, even if that does fit within your religious beliefs, does not seem to me to be okay and to suggest that the Rugby Union has no right to bar its members from publicly broadcasting those views also seems wrong to me.
When mates of “Superbloke” do discuss his death the one common theme comes up every time. Most of his friends believe that he mentioned in a final letter his distress at his discovery of his homosexuality. I have no proof that this final confession happened or indeed if there even was a suicide note. Many family members have now died and other family members and friends who would know whether this is true or not, are not talking. Silence still reigns… even fifty years on!
That’s why I am not going to mention “Superbloke’s” name. I, for one, would love to talk about him personally. I would love to say that his name and memory deserve to be celebrated. I would love to shout out that he was a fantastic young man who I wish I had gotten to know much better. I would love to say that “Superbloke” would have made a huge impact in the world if he had had the chance to live longer. I am sure that he would have achieved great things, not only in sport but in other spheres as well! But I cannot say those things because I cannot find anyone who can confirm the facts about his passing and because there are, most likely, people who do not want his life and death discussed. I do not even feel comfortable writing about him using a pseudonym. If any of his surviving family or friends do read this letter and recognize the story, I hope that they do not find the contents distressing.
Alan, I do think the story deserves being told though because it illustrates why it is important for people to stand up to Israel Folau and to say that his social media posts are not okay. Such views may deeply hurt young people at the most vulnerable time of their lives. Even the most courageous and durable young people may be walking a tightrope between deciding to carry on and throwing the world away. To publicly broadcast a view that homosexuals are destined for hell vilifies those people in the cruellest way. It implies that heaven and earth find them unacceptable. Finds them vile! All people, and young people in particular, should not suffer such vilification. Millionaire athletes are paid to not only entertain but to represent their sport and its values. Any athlete that is not willing to support those values and embrace inclusiveness (and support young people on their journey into adulthood) should not accept the huge amounts of money that they are offered for performing this role. Rugby Australia is not only entitled to expect its athletes to embrace it’s expressed values but athletes who don’t agree with them shouldn’t sign up in the first place.
Alan. You are one of rugby’s greatest ever coaches. You, most likely, positively influenced the lives of hundreds (maybe thousands) of young men. Many of those young men must have been experiencing existential panic, serious mental health issues and feelings of low self-worth. As a leader and mentor of such people I find it hard to believe that you think that Israel Folau should be allowed to express his views in direct contradiction to Rugby Australia’s policy of supporting inclusiveness. Even if “Superbloke” did not take his own life because of his distress over his sexuality his case still reflects the fragility of young people in their march towards discovering their place in the world. Views like those expressed by Israel Folau are their right, no doubt, but organizations like the ARU should stand against those views. I hope you do too.
Some former and current professional athletes have supported Folau by suggesting that people need to “harden up”. I don’t know anyone who was braver, harder and tougher than “Superbloke” but we still lost him despite his decency and durability. Do you really think that the Australian Rugby Union are wrong to insist that it’s stake holders reflect it’s inclusive values?
John Robert McKay says
Great article Tim, you should send it around to other services, ie Roar etc so more may read it.
TIMOTHY EDWARDS says
Thanks. The story means a lot to me!