Rugby Australia has sacked one of its biggest stars for a social media post which was critical of gay people.
Israel Folau’s contract with the Wallabies and his club side Waratahs was terminated this morning after he was found guilty earlier this month of a “high-level breach of the professional players’ code of conduct” over the Instagram and Twitter post.
In the 10 April post the 30-year-old fullback, a staunch Christian, wrote “hell awaits” for “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolaters”.
Folau said in a statement that he was “deeply saddened” by the RA’s decision and was considering his options.
He said it had been a “privilege and an honour” to represent his country and home state, “playing the game I love”.
“As Australians, we are born with certain rights, including the right to freedom of religion and the right to freedom of expression,” he said.
“The Christian faith has always been a part of my life and I believe it is my duty as a Christian to share God’s word.
“Upholding my religious beliefs should not prevent my ability to work or play for my club and country.”
He added: “I would like to thank my wife Maria for her love and encouragement to stay true to our beliefs. We have been humbled by the support we have received from family, friends, players, fans and the wider community.
“Thank you also to those who have spoken out in my defence, some of whom do not share my beliefs but have defended my right to express them.”
Shortly afterwards he posted two separate verses from the Bible on his Twitter and Instagram accounts.
His dismissal comes four months before the Rugby World Cup kicks off in Japan in September – which he would almost certainly have been selected for.
Only last month, the former rugby league international and Australian Rules player became the top try scorer in the history of Super Rugby by scoring his 60th try in his most recent match for the Sydney-based New South Wales Waratahs.
In February, he signed a contract extension to remain with the club and Australian rugby until the end of 2022.
His sacking also comes a year after Folau received a warning for making other homophobic comments on social media, but on that occasion he escaped with a warning.
Folau, who has already lost one sponsorship deal with sportswear brand Asics over the issue, has 72 hours to appeal the ruling.
Rugby Australia chief executive Raelene Castle told reporters at a news conference in Sydney that the body had no other option but to sack Folau.
She said: “Rugby Australia did not choose to be in the situation, but Rugby Australia’s position remains that Israel, through his actions, left us with no choice but to pursue the course of action resulting in today’s outcome.
“This has been an extremely challenging period for rugby. This issue has created an unwanted distraction in an important year for the sport and for the Wallabies team.
“This outcome is painful for the game,” she said.
“RA supports (players’) rights to their own beliefs and nothing changes from that.
“But when we talk about inclusiveness we mean that we respect our differences as well.
“Our clear message for all rugby fans today is that we need to stand by our values and the qualities of inclusion, passion, integrity, discipline, respect and teamwork.”
She added: “People need to feel safe and welcomed in our game regardless of their gender, race, background, religion or sexuality.
“Israel is a great rugby player and we are disappointed and saddened by the fact that he will not see out his four-year contract and commitment to the Wallabies and also with the Waratahs.”
Ms Castle had previously said the way Folau had expressed his religious beliefs was “inconsistent with the values of the sport” and described the language used in the post as “unacceptable”.
Folau told the congregation at his church in Sydney at the weekend that backing down on the matter would have been akin to succumbing to the temptation of Satan.
Rugby Australia had intended to put specific clauses about social media use into Folau’s new contract after last year’s row but “someone” had forgotten, The Sydney Morning Herald reported on Thursday.
The issue has triggered a wider debate in Australia about freedom of speech – and whether an employee’s conduct outside of the workplace is a sackable offence.