Folau's words could change minds about same-sex marriage
ISRAEL Folau isn't known for making political statements. His Twitter feed is usually full of snaps of his training sessions for the NSW Waratahs, endorsements for brands he spruiks and posts about his deep religious faith.
All that changed at 2.16pm on Wednesday when Folau became one of the most prominent people so far to say 'no' to same-sex marriage.
Folau's forthrightness move came as a surprise to some. His Wallabies team are supporting marriage equality. Also, it was only a few years ago that Folau was on the front cover of lesbian and gay community publication, the Star Observer, publicising the Bingham Cup, a global rugby competition fought between gay and inclusive rugby teams.
I love and respect all people for who they are and their opinions. but personally, I will not support gay marriage.✌❤🙏— Israel Folau (@IzzyFolau) September 13, 2017
But, Folau insisted, his no vote was also no judgment. "I love and respect all people for who they are," he wrote.
His position puts him at odds with not just the Australian Rugby Union but just about every major sporting code in Australia, all of which have increasingly pinned their colours to the rainbow mast, publicly cracking down on homophobia.
This weekend in Melbourne, teams from both sides of the Ditch have competed in the annual Purchas Cup, the "Bledisloe Cup" of gay rugby.
Players competing have told news.com.au they are worried Folau's no stance could hold "sway" with some fans who are on the marriage fence.
Away from the battles on the pitch, can a sports star win the battle for the hearts and minds of sports fans when it comes to same-sex marriage?
And what effect does a sports great saying 'no' while a code says 'yes' have on a punter?
Monash University's Dr Kerry O'Brien has studied extensively how sport influences behaviour, such as drinking.
He agrees sport can have a big impact on supporters in "transmitting values, attitudes and norms".
Of course, some feel codes should keep out of the debate entirely. Like AFL legend and Footy Show panellist Sam Newman.
He told Mark Latham on his Outsiders online show that he was unhappy at seeing rainbow flags fluttering at the SCG.
"People go to the football to get away from political agendas. That's their outlet and I honestly don't know why they (the AFL) do it."
"People had the right to be whoever they like," Newman said, but he would banish all "agendas" from stadiums bar breast cancer appeals.
However, Dr O'Brien said sport has long been a moral compass for its supporters.
"Passionate fans often have their identity and self-esteem bound up in their club, and the desire to live up to the values of your club can be strong," he told news.com.au.
Certainly the influence of churches, many hit by scandals, has waned. Less than two million Australians regularly sit down for a sermon from the pulpit, according to McCrindle research.
In contrast, Roy Morgan data claims 7.8 million Australians routinely watch AFL matches, about a million fewer tune into the NRL.
"Sport clubs and codes can be important cultural transmitters, whether it be in values around team work and mateship, or values around important social issues such as LGBTI rights," said Dr O'Brien.
"Some fans may resist change, but typically when an organisation sticks to their guns and take a reasoned stance, people come on side."
It's been a slog to get the codes to come around to LGBTI inclusion. But by 2013, all the major professional sports committed to tackling homophobia on the pitch and in the terraces. One of the results has been punishments for players using homophobic slurs on the field, something that may previously have passed the refs by.
"Much of the change coming through sport, and broader society, appears to be driven by young people who are much more aware of the problems faced by the LGBTI community," said Dr O'Brien.
This change is too late for some. Michael Franks, 28, was born and bred in Mallala, north of Adelaide, but now plays rugby rather than AFL. This weekend he played for the Melbourne Chargers in the Purchas Cup.
"I grew up playing AFL and following the Crows in a place where rugby is pretty much a dirty word." he told news.com.au. "I could have named all the players back then, now I wouldn't know one."
He gave up AFL when he was 20. "Country footy is huge. I would stick around for a beer after the footy but I began to withdraw through fear of rejection and I ended up quitting."
It wasn't that there was outright homophobia, he says. "It was just so isolating thinking you're the only one."
He began playing for gay team the Chargers last year. It was the first time he'd picked up a football in years - albeit in a different code. "Rugby is just more developed in this space."
As an added bonus, he now plays alongside his boyfriend, Xavier Golding.
Mr Franks said codes taking a position on the same-sex marriage debate was powerful.
"It makes people stop and think - if the league thinks this, maybe I should. For people neither here nor there, it can help get a new perspective.
Mr Franks said he respected Folau's position. "For anyone to come out and say no takes a lot of balls.
"But I'm not surprised, he's a god-fearing man and they have some pretty full on rules."
Folau's position could well turn sporting supporters against a yes vote, he feared.
"The league saying yes is one thing but a player with that profile could hold some sway."
Wallabies head coach Michael Cheika has brushed off suggestions Folau has opened up a division in the team. "Our team is a reflection of Australia and the great thing about Australia is you can say what you feel and have respect given to you."
Indeed, there's plenty of high-profile players who don't share Folau's view.
Australian international and Brumbies vice-captain David Pocock has long been a supporter of marriage equality. He and his partner Emma Palandri have refused to make their marriage legal until their gay friends can do the same.
On Thursday, seemingly in response to Folau's Tweet, Pocock reaffirmed that he would be voting yes for "justice and love".
US research, from Northwestern University, found athletes supporting same-sex marriage did rally supporters behind the law change when it was being debated in the US. But, unlike in Australia, the US codes themselves stayed silent on the same-sex marriage issue removing that influence.
Dr O'Brien isn't convinced either Folau or Pocock will change many votes.
"Individual athletes may influence our desire to play sport, but they don't appear to shape the norms of people when it comes to non-sport related issues.
"However, sporting organisations can act as more permanent and stable points for cultural change," he said.
There was something else that needed to happen to really shift opinion, Dr O'Brien said. A player, on a mainstream high-profile team coming out as gay, would change the conversation.
"It's a catch 22 situation, until people who play sport feel they have an environment that accepts and includes them rather than stigmatises them, then it will be difficult to see elite-athletes coming out while still playing sport.
"I'm hopeful that sport codes can embrace the need for change so athletes at all levels and ages will feel comfortable coming out."