Money flowed yesterday for rugby star Israel Folau, after he launched a crowdfunding campaign to pay his legal fees in a battle with Rugby Australia, which sacked him for homophobic comments.
Folau was fired last month after a Rugby Australia tribunal found him guilty of “high-level” misconduct for posting on social media that “hell awaits” gay people and others he considers sinners.
He has since taken the issue to Australia’s employment watchdog, the Fair Work Commission, asserting that he simply posted a message from the Bible.
His case reportedly involves claims of breach of contract and unlawful termination under the Fair Work Act, which protects employees from being sacked because of their religion.
However, taking on Rugby Australia in the courts would not be cheap and the 30-year-old is asking supporters for help to raise A$3 million (US$2.07 million), despite previously being one of the highest-paid players in the world.
So far, more than 3,700 people have pledged him more than A$331,000.
“I believe the termination of my contract is unlawful, which is why I have started legal proceedings against Rugby Australia and Rugby NSW [New South Wales],” Folau said in a message on GoFundMe yesterday.
“In response, Rugby Australia have already said that they will ‘divert significant resources’ to fight me in court,” he added. “I would be very grateful for your support. I have the fight of my life on my hands and every little bit will help.”
Folau said he had already spent A$100,000 of his own money dealing with the issue and suggested that the case could take years to resolve if it ends up in the High Court.
Super Rugby’s most prolific try scorer also launched a Twitter hashtag #standwithizzy, asking: “Do you believe in the right of Australians to practice their religion without fear or discrimination in the workplace?”
Earlier this month, the Sydney Morning Herald said that he was seeking A$10 million in his claim, including for lost sponsorship and marketing opportunities, a sum it said could bankrupt Rugby Australia if it loses the case.
The fullback was on a four-year contract worth more than A$1 million annually when he was sacked. His dismissal followed earlier incendiary remarks about the gay community last year, for which he escaped sanction.
Rugby Australia, which had no immediate comment on the funding campaign, insists that his axing was purely a breach of contract issue after it said he agreed not to disparage anyone based on sexual grounds.
Folau’s comments and subsequent sacking split the rugby community, and his plea for money appears to have done the same.
Former Wallabies winger and now TV pundit Drew Mitchell compared his appeal with others seeking help for sick children.
“YOU are in a fight that YOU chose to be in after YOU broke the terms of YOUR contract. The kids below are in a fight they NEVER wanted to be in & yet YOU think YOU deserve donations more than they do??!!” he said on Twitter. “It’s no longer about religion, it’s about YOU and YOUR greed.”
The tabloid Sydney Daily Telegraph called him “shameless,” claiming that he owns a multimillion dollar property portfolio.
Meanwhile, the popular Squidge Rugby YouTube channel has started its own crowdfunding campaign to raise money for British LGBT charity Stonewall under the banner: “Israel Folau’s intolerance will not be tolerated.”
“The money will be going to a good cause,” said Squidge Rugby creator Robbie Owen, who is aiming to raise ￡1.6 million (US$2.03 million), but has so far only managed ￡800.
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