The drama and controversy that has ensued over Israel Folau’s anti-gay religious bigotry has continued to make headlines as other athletes are using their platforms to speak out following Folau’s comments. Rugby players from all over the world have come to Folau’s defense while others have shown their support for the LGBT community who are hurt by Folau’s intentional comments.

John Hopoate, a retired Rugby Australia player who is known as “the most suspended player in rugby Australia history” for a variety of sexual and criminal assault incidents as an athlete. Most notably for his bizarre finger incidents in which he would shove his finger into an opponent’s anus during the match in an attempt to distract the player. He is also known for physically assaulting players and eventually received a 10-year ban from playing rugby in any sanctioned league. Hopoate has come out in Folau’s defense in a now deleted Facebook post where he was quoted…

“All these idiots carrying on like he’s murdered someone. If your a bloody HOMO who cares, I’ve been called racist names and all other crap all my life and if you can’t handle been told your going to hell we’ll toughen the F up cause no 1 cares if you do or if you don’t.

‘But 1 thing I can say is GOD MADE ADAM AND EVE NOT ADAM AND STEVE.”

In addition, Rugby star Billy Vunipola has also come to Folau’s defense by “liking” Folau’s original post and adding a comment “Man was made for woman to procreate, that was the goal, no?” He also faced backlash for his comments and was summoned to appear by the Rugby Football Union to explain himself. At a recent match he was booed by the crowd and had a confrontation with a fan who stormed onto the field. The RFU formally warned Vunipola about his comments and future conduct and Vunipola’s team, the Saracens, released a statement…

“At Saracens, we are one family, open to all with the firm view that everyone should be treated equally with respect and humility. We recognise the complexity of different belief systems and understand Billy’s intention was to express the word of God rather than cause offence.

“However, he made a serious error of judgement in publicly sharing his opinion, which is inconsistent with the values of the club and contravenes his contractual obligations. The player has been formally warned about his future conduct.“

For his part, Vunipola continued to hold firm in his religious beliefs. He doesn’t think he has done anything wrong and continues to push his religious beliefs while claiming that “I believe in what I believe in. There was no intention to hurt anyone.” Despite his actions having genuine hurt for the people targeted by his and Folau’s comments.

On the flip side, there are also athletes who have stood up to Folau’s bigotry and come to show support for the LGBT community. Angus Ta’avao of the All Blacks and who is a former Waratahs teammate of Folau along with Brad Weber of the Chiefs both wore their #RainbowLaces in support of the LGBT community during a recent match. Ta’avao also took to Twitter to show his support, “I don’t even know what to say. You are loved. You are valued. You are enough. You are worthy. You are deserving. I got you.”

The All Blacks have always shown support for the LGBT Community. After Folau’s homophobic remarks last year, the All Blacks wore special rainbow jerseys to show their support for the community and also were an active participant in the #RainbowLaces campaign last November.

Folau is currently challenging his contract termination and if he is successful will be eligible to continue playing for Rugby Australia. Michael Cheika, head coach of the Wallabies has come out to state that if he is successful, he will not select Folau for any of his teams. He explained, You can’t have one person’s opinion dominate the team, the team speaks based on who the team represents.”

Waratah’s coach Kurtley Beale expressed his feelings on Folau, in an interview with Fox Sports, saying that “he’s hurt the team, which is not what we’re doing and not why we play sports.” He further shared…

“Rugby is a team sport that encourages diversity and we want to be inclusive of all backgrounds, of all religions and faiths.” He continued, “In rugby we support everyone’s beliefs, but you can’t do it in a manner where you try to hurt or jeopardize people.”

While the Rugby community continues to promote the diversity and inclusion of the sport, recent research has revealed that homophobia is still very common on the rugby pitch. Researcher Erik Denison out of Monash University has recently published a study showing that while many players support the idea of diversity, the use of homophobic language and behavior is still very common within the sport. These kind of behaviors and language discourage more gay athletes from choosing to participate in the sport, leading to a disconnect between the perceptions of rugby as an inclusive sport to the reality of it.

By Dirk Smith