There’s a tenet of journalism which directs journalists to “punch up”. It means hold authority to account, play the role of Fourth Estate, keep bastards honest. Criticising the Australian Christian Lobby for spending an estimated $40,000 on a full-page ad in the Daily Telegraph to plead Israel Folau’s case to play in the National Rugby League feels like punching down. But here it goes, anyway.
The ACL is a political player, of sorts, that wants its “truth” (as illustrated by numbered passages in the Bible) and “Christian ethics” (gay people cannot get married, euthanasia is “assisted suicide” because only God can kill people) in the public sphere. And the ACL is prepared to spend its constituents’ coin to convince league-loving readers of the Telegraph that Folau should be allowed to play in the NRL.
Not so stupid? Sure, there would, as always, be a fair rump of readers who would nod along because he did not terrorise a family in New York or bash anyone, and has the right to free speech and freedom of religion. Many folks are on board the Israel Express.
The problem for the ACL is that one particularly important league-loving reader of the Telegraph, ARL Commission chairman Peter V’landys, is not so easily cajoled. And, much like the group’s decision to include a picture of Folau wearing a NSW Waratahs rugby union shirt, if they had thought it through a teensy bit more would have worked out that V’landys is not likely to be bent by such flagrant manoeuvring. It is not his thing.
V’landys has positioned himself as a champion of the underdog, the downtrodden, the bullied. Standing up for people is V’landys’ thing. He has told stories of his time in school, protecting self-described “wog” kids from bullies. And given that, historically, there are not many more bullied people on Earth than gay people, it is hard to see V’landys agreeing to reinstate a man with views that are so anti-gay people he says they are hell-bound for being gay people.
Another reason the ACL appear to have pissed money against the wall is that no NRL clubs have offered Folau a contract nor taken a registration request to the ARLC. There was some spit-balling and “paper talk” from St George Illawarra Dragons and others whose coaches know only footy and do not see politics as part of their purview. But that was more about the suits using media to court public opinion, like a big lobby group. Not actually so stupid, when you think about it.
What is stupid is that the ACL cannot apparently see that the majority of the public will not cop religious bigots. And sport’s major stakeholders in sponsors, advertisers, television – read: The Money – know this. They understand branding. Folau’s brand appears to be that of famous religious so-called bigot, and rugby league cannot have a famous religious so-called bigot in the game if it also wants a float that goes up Oxford Street and benefits from the public goodwill for the LGBTIQ community at Mardi Gras time of year (conveniently just before footy season). Because apart from the ethics of it, rugby league would lose The Money – as Rugby Australia would have lost The Money – had a man with these publicly spouted views running about in the shirt.
And yet the ACL has spent a small fortune pushing for Folau’s re-inclusion to a sport. On the website it declares Folau is “a much-loved Australian champion who has been banned from the NRL for once sharing a post on social media that they didn’t like.” It adds: “Corporate and media voices want to keep him out of the game, even though the fans want him to play, the clubs want him to play, the players want him to play, Israel wants to play”.
Certainly some do. And certainly others, to quote one player from a WhatsApp chat, “wish he’d just f*** off”.
The ACL clearly wants Folau to play, even positioning him as an underdog, a man muzzled for his faith.
As V’landys said, the ACL would be better off giving their money to poor people rather than seeking to reinstate a millionaire as sporting figurehead for a political point of view.
“This Christian Lobby with their full-page ads basically are wasting their resources and money because there is no application,” V’landys told the Sydney Morning Herald. “There are a lot more things in life that they could be lobbying for, like [an end to] poverty and inequality and all those sort of things, rather than this.”
The ACL’s managing director, Martyn Iles, said the campaign was in its “early days and it’s going to continue”. “The purpose of the ads is to connect more people with the campaign, and anybody who wants to have a say has the opportunity to do so,” Iles said.