COMMENT

In 2018, social media can be both a tool and a weapon.

This is especially true for athletes – our beloved modern gladiators whose opinions we crave and exploits we worship.

Athletes are now given a platform that trumps (pun intended) anything we've seen from any previous era. For sports stars who amass thousands, sometimes millions of followers, social media is an unprecedented way to effect change. To be an athlete is to be an influencer and a leader – heroes and heroines on cereal boxes.

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However, instead of using his position to lead by example, Wallabies and Waratahs star Israel Folau chose yet again to spread hate and exclusion.

Australia's parochial pied piper caused an uproar on social media with another homophobic slur, just six months after tweeting his opposition to marriage equality.

"HELL," he responded to a fan who asked about God's plan for gay people. "Unless they repent of their sins and turn to God."

The weapon this time was Instagram, the sentiment was the same.

Folau's outspokenness on social media is rare for athletes of his stature, especially in rugby.

But in the social media age, there are more ways for athletes to express themselves than ever before.

Israel and Maria Folau. Photo / Dean Purcell
Israel and Maria Folau. Photo / Dean Purcell

Increasingly, we're seeing stars like Folau and Sonny Bill Williams use social media not only as a tool for engaging with fans but also as a way of expressing political and religious beliefs.

The Folau furore has also prompted other athletes to speak out on the matter, including his wife Maria. The netball star – fresh off a disastrous Silver Ferns Commonwealth Games campaign – echoed her husband's hateful comments on Instagram, a homophobic duet posing as hymnals; sport's intolerant version of Beyonce and Jay Z.

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It all came to the climax on Tuesday night, when Chiefs halfback Brad Weber decided he could no longer stay silent. The single-cap All Black took to social media to speak out against Folau's comments, bucking rugby's long tradition of tolerating intolerance.

"Kinda sick of us players staying quiet on some of this stuff," Weber wrote on Twitter.

"I can't stand that I have to play this game that I love with people, like Folau, who say what he's saying."

Weber not only expressed his disapproval of Folau's comments but also suggested that they were tainting the sport, the game he "loves".

"My cousin and her partner," he persisted, "and my Aunty and her partner are some of the most kind, caring & loving people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.

"To think that I play against someone that says they'll go to Hell for being gay disgusts me."

It was a succinct, thoughtful plea, from an athlete who had enough of staying silent. Since then, TJ Perenara has also come out against Folau's comments.

However, Weber's athlete activism is almost unheard of in New Zealand, a country that has long chosen to ignore its ugly colonial past.

Brad Weber in action for the Maori All Blacks. Photo / Getty
Brad Weber in action for the Maori All Blacks. Photo / Getty

Across the ditch, Folau's Wallaby teammate David Pocock – who has also used social media to speak out against intolerance – is perhaps the closest that Trans-Tasman rugby has come to kneeling for the national anthem.

But in a post-Trump political era, when PC paranoia is rampant and free-speech anxiety at its highest, it is even more important for athletes like Weber, Pocock and others to continue to speak out, to stamp out hate, intolerance, and bigotry.

Folau and his ilk will continue to express bigoted comments in pseudo-Christian drag, but athletes like Weber can lead the charge for a more inclusive sport. We could be witnessing rugby's Colin Kaepernick moment.

In the first chapter of the book of Romans, the apostle Paul presents his meandering manifesto on homosexuality.

"God gave them over to shameful lusts," Paul pontificates. "Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another.

"Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error."

"Penalty", in this case, supposes a punishment much more severe than a red card.

This passage, written almost two thousand years ago, is still wielded as a weapon of hate today.

Back then, the author expressed his views using ink and paper.

In 2018, we tweet instead.