Opinion: Israel Folau's comments put LGBT youth at risk - he should be sacked

Israel Folau
Israel Folau says gay people will go to hell. Photo credit: Getty Images.

OPINION: I love cricket. I've watched and played it as far back as I can remember. 

I took huge interest in the Australian cricket team's recent cheating scandal. It made me question all the times I've watched them smash us out of the ground at Eden Park. 

What Steve Smith and the others knowingly took part in has damaged the game and their punishment fits the crime. It will take them a long time to rebuild their careers from here, if at all.

I also love rugby. Okay, I don't go to Blues games (but that's not really a done thing at the moment anyway) but I'll watch an All Blacks game no matter where it's being played - in person when possible - and I take interest in the fact that these players are role models to young Kiwis and Aussies alike.

I am also gay. So I've paid attention to the comments made by Israel Folau - and I know the damage they could cause.

Last week, the Australian rugby superstar said on Instagram that gay people are condemned to hell.

The comment has now been deleted, but what this so-called role model has done with a few fingers on the keyboard is far, far worse than any amount of sandpaper on a cricket ball.

Take me to Bunnings and I'll buy metres of the stuff and rub it on every cricket ball in the country, and what he's done is still worse.

Folau's comments allow narrow-minded people who still hold homophobic views to consider their opinions justified.

Frances Arns from Rainbow Youth told me the organisation is disgusted by his comments.

"Comments like these perpetuate homophobia and transphobia that leads to the adversities faced by our community every day," she said.

Folau's professional position is one that many young people admire. He plays rugby - and in this part of the world, that's akin to being royalty.

Kids look up to rugby players - most of the kids in this country would say they want to grow up and be an All Black or play rugby.

So what happens when a young man in Australia hears this homophobic rubbish come from the mouth of their idol? What happens if this young man is struggling with his sexual identity and hears these words from someone the country celebrates?

A study in 2012 revealed that young people who were either gay or struggling with their sexuality were five times more likely to take their own life than someone of the same age that is straight.

If you think that's drawing a long bow, consider the school bully who heard what Folau said and uses that to target this kid at school every day. 

Rugby Australia chief executive Raelene Castle and NSW Waratahs chief executive Andrew Hore say they are treating the matter seriously.

They say Folau's comments originate from his religion and that rugby is "a game for all".

Voices have spoken out from around the world against Folau's comments. Openly gay rugby referee Nigel Owens said the comments could tip vulnerable youth over the edge, and former Australian netballer Liz Ellis said he should be sacked immediately.

But the one voice that Rugby Australia is more likely to listen to over that of other sporting greats or vulnerable teens is the voice of sponsors.

Qantas is a key sponsor of the Wallabies. Its CEO Alan Joyce is openly gay. Although they've not said if the sponsorship deal is at risk, Qantas has expressed its extreme disappointment.  

And as Joyce showed in the campaign for marriage equality, he's willing to put his money where his mouth is when it comes to the rights of the LGBTQI+ community. 

I believe Australian Rugby has no choice but to sack Israel Folau. When they meet with Folau on Tuesday afternoon, I'll be watching, the world will be watching and advertisers will be watching. 

If they make the wrong decision, they'll be taking the sport somewhere bad. It won't be hell, but it sure will feel like it.

Dan Lake is Newshub's travel editor and has previously reported on issues within the LGBTQI+ community.

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