Johannesburg - As verbal stoushes go, it was hardly Floyd “Money” Mayweather against Conor “The Notorious” McGregor, but it still made for compelling reading – all 280 characters of it.
In the blue corner, Wallabies fullback Israel “Izzy” Folau – a man who can step his opponent in a phone booth – managed to goose-step his way into a blind alley on Twitter by withholding his support for gay marriage in Australia this week.
Quick as a flash, David “Bamm-Bamm” Pocock – these days a full-time activist thanks to his status as a rugby player on sabbatical – fired back at his former team-mate (presumably from the pink corner) by reiterating his support for same-sex marriage.
Quite why the Aussies are having a referendum about what seems to be a no-brainer to the rest of us – that gay people shouldn’t be spared what can at times be the inhuman right of their heterosexual counterparts – is a story for another day.
But the two Wallabies have struggle credentials when it comes to their views on homosexuality.
While Folau – a devout Christian reportedly raised as a Mormon – condemned homophobia two years ago, it would appear he draws the line when homosexuality encroaches on the sanctity of marriage on religious grounds.
Two years before that, Pocock – an expat who does extensive charity work in his native Zimbabwe and is a regular on the activist scene – had already gone one up on Folau by vowing not to marry his fiancée Emma Palandri until his gay friends got the right to do the same.
Given how the two shared their contrasting views on Twitter – Folau said his piece and Pocock disagreed by not mentioning him and reiterated his stand – this will probably not descend into a spat.
Both players are principled young men who used their platform to make a stand.
But the reaction to Folau having the courage of his convictions by not going the politically correct route (he made his feelings known the same week the Australian Rugby Union supported gay marriage), the reaction for and against him has raised a few questions.
These include why more South African players can’t be like that, and when exactly did sportsmen become our moral compass?
Everyone loves freedom of speech – as long as the contentious statement being made is in line with their thinking.
It’s a bit like listening to someone prattle on about loving life and cursing the rough that comes with the smooth – we’re talking two sides of the same coin here.
While I disagree with him, Folau has as much right as Pocock to voice his views, regardless of how outdated they sound for one who is still so young.
I must admit to feeling a bit envious as I was reading the fallout after Folau’s comments – purely from the perspective of wondering why our players can’t be similarly outspoken.
As tricky as race, homosexuality, sexism and religion can be to discuss, it would be a welcome change if our players shared their feelings on those subjects as part of the national discourse, instead of feeding us platitudes like taking it game by bloody game.
How little our players have to say about the world around them reminds me of former West Ham striker Paolo Di Canio’s infamous put-down of bete noire Francesco Totti: “If you asked him about the Middle East, he’d probably think it’s a position on the pitch.”
That said, there is a fine line between wanting players to be more layered human beings and granting them the de facto status as our moral compasses simply because of the platform afforded to them by their ability to catch, pass and run better than the rest of us.
A lot of the disappointment directed at Folau suggested that people clearly saw him as a role model.
Even in this age of conceited 21-year-olds prattling on about inspiring others and leaving legacies, few athletes set out to be anyone’s role model, so it’s unfair to blame them when they fail to meet standards they didn’t hold themselves to anyway.
There’s nothing wrong with seeing sportsmen as a mere reflection of ourselves and no more.
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