Sport New Zealand CEO Raelene Castle has opened up about the death threats and abuse she received while CEO of Rugby Australia, admitting she would make some changes how they dealt with Israel Folau but stands by the decision to terminate his contract.
Castle opened up about her experiences in the male-dominated sporting world and her journey to the top in this week's episode of Straight Up, a New Zealand Herald podcast fronted by broadcaster Niva Retimanu and former Olympian Beatrice Faumuina.
While Castle has held many top-level sporting roles, including as chief executive of Netball New Zealand and the Canterbury Bulldogs, she has become best associated with her tenure as chief executive for Rugby Australia and the fallout from Israel Folau's sacking.
Folau's contract was terminated in May 2019 after he posted on social media that homosexuals would go to hell. It sparked a series of legal proceedings that resulted in a settlement later that year.
Castle told Straight Up that while she could not go into details on some aspects of what happened, she stands by the decision she made.
"I believe, to this day, it was the right thing to do as a leader and the right thing to do for the organisation."
She said one of her key takeaways from that event was the important of values and standing up from them, from a personal and business level.
"We could say Rugby Australia had values and we stood up to them and they meant something and we were prepared to stand up for them."
Castle said her other key takeaway was that, while people often use diversity and inclusivity in the same sentence, the two are actually "like oil and water".
"To allow people to be individuals and diverse and be really comfortable in who they are and what they do and their views… and then create an inclusive environment where everyone can feel that they are included and be prepared to express their view, is not an easy thing to do.
"If you can express your opinion in a respectful way so you can not hurt people or not have people feel bullied or disaffected, that is the most inclusive environment you can create," she said.
Asked if she would do anything differently, Castle said it would be impossible to go through that and not acknowledge the lessons gained from it.
"If I had my time again, there would be a couple of things I'd do differently."
As part of the wide-ranging discussion, Castle also opened up about her experiences with alopecia. She told Straight Up that when she first started to lose her hair, it came out in patches and she was able to cover it up with hats and kept it to herself.
When it happened a second time while she was in Australia, Castle said she felt the need to go public with it.
"I ended up on the front page of the New Zealand Herald when the Silver Ferns were at Delhi in the Commonwealth Games, and I had a headscarf on. And everyone thought I had cancer, and they were asking me 'are you okay'."
She said she went public with her experience to avoid those questions or whispers in the corridors about her being too stressed for the job, despite the condition having nothing to do with stress.
Castle also hoped it would help other young women going through the experience, as there were a lot of misconceptions from the public and in the media about what she was going through.
"When you are in a public job, it could be quite confronting because I would receive some horrendous feedback on social media. 'Are you a Muslim or a pirate', 'were you too lazy to do your hair this morning'," Castle said.
Castle is now back in New Zealand as CEO for Sport New Zealand, a role she applied for as an opportunity to give back to the country.
She acknowledged it is a changing time for the industry, with mental health and athlete wellbeing becoming a bigger focus of sport.
"Sport is really having its #MeToo moment. High-performance sport, it's not acceptable now to have a coach who says 'do it now, do it this way, I don't want any questions, I don't have to explain it to you."
Castle said high-performance sport is not for everyone, but the focus is now on making sure there are safe and supportive environments to help support athletes better.