After having his four-year, $4 million contract terminated by Rugby Australia last May for an Instagram post asserting that “hell awaits” gays, Israel Folau has found a new employer, signing with French rugby club Catalan Dragons this week.
For the most part, Folau has been out of the spotlight since declaring he was “vindicated” by a reportedly multi-million dollar settlement with Rugby Australia last month.
Ordinarily, this would be met with a resigned sigh and resignation about what athletes can get away with as long as they produce on the pitch. But there’s actually a pleasant twist to this story.
Less than 20 minutes after Catalan announced that they were adding Folau to their roster, Super League rival Wigan Warriors countered with their own news release and it was a jolt of positivity: Wigan would be holding a Pride Day on March 22 where the club would be wearing rainbow socks and shoelaces and inviting local LGBTQ groups as their special guests.
And their opponent for that Pride Day match? The Catalan Dragons.
The announcement felt like Wigan had just signed a sponsorship deal with the right side of history. The news of sports teams announcing Pride events has happily become somewhat commonplace over the past few years. But it’s rare for a team to declare one as a direct counterpoint to one of their rivals signing a player who has repeatedly attacked the LGBTQ community.
Folau has quite an ugly past. He’s used social media to repeatedly assert that God’s plan for gay people is “HELL” and has linked to a video sermon from anti-gay evangelist David Wilkerson railing against “sexual perversions beyond description.” In September of 2017, he tweeted his opposition to Australia’s referendum legalizing same sex marriage.
But the timing of Wigan’s announcement makes it clear that as a club, they’re willing to take a public stand against all the hate and bigotry that Folau has espoused. According to Sports Illustrated’s Dan Gartland, Warriors executive director Kris Radlinski issued a statement that summed up his club’s response to Folau joining their league:
“Here at Wigan Warriors, we are committed to the core values of Inclusion and Respect. Our community foundation have a long history of supporting local LGBTQ+ groups and initiatives, and we want everyone who engages with our game to feel welcome, valued, and most of all, respected. Rugby League has a strong history of inclusion, of breaking down barriers, and of being a forward-thinking sport. I think that today more than any day, that it is vitally important we reiterate that message. We are looking forward to working with charities, local, and hopefully national groups to make this day a success.”
In less than half an hour, Wigan had changed their league’s biggest news story from the signing of a virulent homophobe to that of a day dedicated to welcoming the entire LGBTQ community. Which means that the Warriors have already pulled off their biggest upset win of the year.