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Israel Folau’s homophobia ‘scared’ gay staff and unsettled players at Rugby Australia

Former CEO Raelene Castle says the firing of Folau in 2019 was ‘a perfect storm.’

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Israel Folau won 73 international caps for Australia in rugby union and is the Wallabies’ fourth highest try scorer of all time.
Photo credit should read GEOFF CADDICK/AFP via Getty Images

Israel Folau’s homophobia created an environment within Rugby Australia that left gay members of staff feeling “scared, bullied and uncomfortable,” according to the governing body’s former chief executive.

Raelene Castle, who was CEO of the organization during the Folau saga in 2019, says she was left with little option but to terminate the multi-million dollar contract of the Wallabies’ star winger after he posted a meme on his Instagram account that included “homosexuals” on a list of groups bound for “hell.”

Castle quit Rugby Australia in 2020 but she has now revisited the “crisis” during an appearance on New Zealand’s Between Two Beers podcast.

She explained to hosts Steve Holloway and Seamus Marten how Folau’s clear breach of an inclusion policy that covered all Rugby Australia employees unsettled the workforce.

“As a CEO, I’ve got a responsibility to provide a safe environment for the staff,” said Castle.

“I had a number of gay staff and they were scared. They felt bullied, they felt uncomfortable.”

Castle also recounted how Folau’s comments put members of the women’s national team in a difficult situation.

“I had some female gay players who wouldn’t be in the gym at the same time,” she added.

“So those things become important responsibilities that I’ve got as a CEO. And those things aren’t popular to discuss. There’s none of that in the media because it’s not the fun stuff to discuss.”

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Raelene Castle addresses the media outside Rugby Australia HQ in Sydney in May 2019, after her decision to sack Israel Folau was upheld.
Photo credit should read SAEED KHAN/AFP via Getty Images

The incident was the second time in a little over a year that Folau had posted messages on Instagram telling gay people to “repent” or face eternal damnation.

Back in 2014, Rugby Australia had adopted a policy that stated how its employees’ “actions and words on and off the field” must reflect the organization’s strong anti-discrimination values.

“[The] diversity and inclusion policy... was part of the employment contract, but more importantly, it was something that everyone at Rugby Australia had signed up to,” said Castle.

The policy featured a specific mention of there being “no place for homophobia.”

The Folau dispute was reported around the world as the player contested his dismissal, which prevented him from playing not just international rugby union but also club rugby with NSW Waratahs.

Eventually, a confidential settlement was agreed between Folau and Rugby Australia.

Castle quit the governing body in April 2020 and became CEO of Sport New Zealand later that same year.

On the podcast, she claimed that after Folau’s first contravention of the inclusion policy in April 2018, when he told another Instagram user who had asked him about “God’s plan for gay people” that the answer was “HELL,” he had reassured her he would not make a similar breach in the future.

When he did exactly that 12 months later, it immediately became a major story.

Castle described having to immediately phone around key sponsors like Qantas to explain what had happened and that the governing body would be announcing its decision to fire Folau, which it did a day after the player’s Instagram post went up.

At an internal hearing in May, Folau was found to have been in breach of the Rugby Australia code of conduct and his contract was terminated.

Reports at the time suggested he had intended to take down the post in question but that his father — a pastor — had told him not to. The post is still live on the account today.

The matter advanced to legal proceedings in federal court, with Folau at one stage trying to crowdfund his costs and then upping his compensation claim to $9.5 million (US).

Eventually, in December, Rugby Australia and Folau issued a joint statement to say the dispute had been settled on terms that would remain confidential. Both parties acknowledged and apologized “for any hurt or harm caused.”

On the podcast, Castle said the whole saga was “a perfect storm.”

“[It was] the female CEO versus the greatest player, and those types of headlines were fantastic from a media point of view,” she added.

“But for all of that noise and how difficult that was, it was a breach of employment contract from where we were sitting, and we just had to deal with it.

“And what was in front of us, and you had to keep coming back to, was: ‘employment contract, safe environment.’ Those were the two things that just kept us on course.”

She avoided social media as much as possible due to “death threats,” intense criticism and personal abuse directed towards her.

Some of those comments even made derogatory references to her alopecia, which she had first spoken publicly about in 2014 in a bid to break down stigma around the condition.

Folau went back to playing rugby league in Europe for a time. Now 34, he is currently playing club rugby union in Japan with Urayasu D-Rocks and in 2022, he briefly represented Tonga at international level after switching allegiance.

You can listen to the episode of Between Two Beers in full here or watch on YouTube.