Professional sport in Australia is the gift that keeps on giving when it comes to salacious headlines and legal disputes.
Israel Folau has been sensationally sacked by Rugby Australia for breach of contract following allegedly homophobic remarks he published on social media.
Folau’s current four-year contract is said to be worth close to $4 million to the star and as such a legal battle may well ensue.
Rugby Australia argue that Folau’s conduct in banishing homosexuals to hell on Instagram is a breach of the conduct provisions of his contract. On that basis, and in light of previous breaches of a similar nature, they say they are within their legal rights to terminate the deeply religious star’s contract.
The governing body of Australia’s third best oval-ball code say this is simply a case of an employee gone rogue being sacked by his employer.
The rules that govern Rugby Union in Australia dictate that Folau is entitled to mount a defence in a Code of Conduct hearing but it is unlikely that this will result in the decision to sack him being overturned.
Some experts argue that as a result of his employment contract Folau has all of the protections afforded to an employee under the Commonwealth Fair Work Act 2009 which includes a protection against being sacked on the basis of one’s religion. The question that must be answered then is, was Folau sacked because of his religion or because he repeatedly breached provisions of his employment contract?
Your columnist tends to prefer the latter. Notwithstanding Alan Jones and other media commentators spewing rhetoric about free speech and freedom of religion, this dispute is arguably about neither. It is about whether or not an employer can impose conditions on a person’s employment to prevent them from engaging in behaviour likely to damage the employer’s reputation. Surely the answer must be in the affirmative.
Professional sport only survives because consumers have an appetite for it. The product must be palatable or it is valueless. What follows is an obligation on athletes to conduct themselves in a manner conducive to the continued perception of their respective codes as inclusive and non-discriminatory.
Supporters of Folau say that athletes are entitled to their personal opinions and should not be punished for them.
No-one can quarrel with that. Folau and others like him however rely on the celebrity factor of their respective sports to pocket millions of dollars in salaries and endorsements.
Further, Folau’s comments were made publicly, not in private. You can’t be a public figure when it suits you but a private figure when it doesn’t.
Something about having one’s cake and eating it too springs to mind.