Did Israel Folau cross the line in his recent social media post that declared that non-repentant homosexuals can expect a reward of hell or was he reasonably expressing his personal religious views. There has been no shortage of comments from people who say that they disagree with his views but support his right to make such statements. The argument is that no employer has the right to direct an individual employee as to what they can or cannot say in relation to spiritual matters. The suggestion is that this is a matter of freedom of speech. Does the “freedom of speech” argument hold up?
Athletes don’t have to be “nice guys” but they do have to care about professionalism
I shouldn’t put words in his mouth, but my former boss at Southern Cross University was a believer in the idea that too much is expected of professional athletes. His thinking was that pro athletes should not be required to be role models. Their job was to play sport… and to play it as well as they could… and that the measurement of their performance by any other criteria was unreasonable and unrealistic. I never bought this argument. In my view professional sports can only exist if the participants (to at least some degree) conform to values that the sports watching public (their customers) find admirable. If the punters perceive that pro athletes lack diligence, are lazy, cheat at their sport (through drug taking or other means), do not respect the game and referees, do not work hard to achieve their skills and don’t demonstrate courage and effort while competing then punters would not turn up to enjoy the spectacle. Athletes didn’t have to be “nice-guys” but they do have to care about professionalism! In other words, pro athletes are not just paid to play sport, they are paid to behave in a sporting and professional manner. The job of a professional athlete is almost as much about presenting an acceptable sporting ethic as it is about playing well and winning! A professional athlete is not only an entertainer but an admirable character who upholds certain values.
How does the Folau “freedom of speech” debate stack up against this definition of an acceptable professional athlete as one who upholds certain values as well as plays sport?
Some time ago the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) and its subsidiaries decided that “inclusiveness” was an important central value that was critical to their sport and its customers and other stake-holders. Part of the Rugby Union product was “inclusiveness.” From that time onward, any professional athlete who wanted to play, and be paid to play, under the ARU banner, was expected to (if not openly support that value) at least, not openly stand against “inclusiveness”. If an athlete’s religious views opposed this value, they could either choose to not sign an agreement with the ARU or choose to keep their views to themselves. If the ARU believes that “inclusiveness” is an important value that its athletes need to uphold in order to provide an acceptable product to customers, then it has a right to contractually oblige its employees to not publicly oppose that value.
Freedom of speech has little to do with the matter
Perhaps the ARU agreement that it requires its athletes to sign does not make its embracing of its values clear. If this is the case, then they may have a problem in their dispute with Folau. If, on the other hand, the agreement is clear about the player’s obligations, then the ARU would argue that they cannot be expected to allow Folau to continue to present a product image that they believe is harmful to their business. Freedom of speech has little to do with the matter might be their thinking. Folau may present what ever views he likes but, in the eyes of the ARU, if his views are likely to damage his employer then he needs to choose to play sport for someone else.
Should values that relate to such personal issues as gender, race, sexuality and religion come under this banner of “sporting” values that professional athletes should adhere to? The answer is not as black and white as to whether athletes should be allowed to cheat, be lazy, lack courage, not train hard or not try to win. On the other hand, if one accepts that language that vilifies homosexuals can be damaging to the physical health, mental health, careers, personal lives and relationships of gay men and women and their families and friends then it is not too great a stretch to argue that such language is potentially damaging to rugby players and rugby supporters (customers and sponsors) and sport in general. It seems to me not unreasonable that the ARU should be allowed to expect its athletes to not openly oppose “inclusiveness.”
I would add that if the ARU have been as clear on its expectations about professional athletes supporting their “inclusiveness” policy as they argue that they have been then one wonders why any athlete who holds oppositional beliefs and who is determined to oppose such values publicly would enter into such an agreement in the first place. It seems odd to me. If you don’t agree with something, why would you sign it?