FREE SPEECH- SPORT, HOMOPHOBIA, BANTER and HARASSMENT

by Sherbhert Editor

MORAL EVOLUTION AND SPORT

Israel Folau, star Australian Rugby Union full back, made the news again on 29 January, having signed to play for French Rugby League club Catalans, causing some angry responses among the Rugby League community. Israel Folau had previously been sacked by Rugby Australia and so he missed the Rugby Union World Cup 2019: the reason was his strongly held and publicly expressed Christian belief that homosexuals are sinners and will go to hell, contrary to the values, upheld by Australian Rugby Union, to fight homophobia. These are unpleasant sentiments to hear. It is notable that in expressing his views Israel Folau categorically affirms he has no intention of hurting anyone.

However, it is to be applauded that, while finding Israel Folau’s comments distasteful, the Rugby League authorities believe they do not prevent him participating in his sport: a win for freedom of speech.

One’s religious beliefs and their expression, assuming not criminal and not inciting criminality, should not be a bar to earning a living. Many Christians, Muslims and Hindus today, and the general populations of many countries, still regard homosexuality as sinful or unacceptable and are free to say so. Just as people who share the opposite view are free to say so. A belief is simply that. In neither case is persecution appropriate nor should there be intention to harm.

An article by Matthew Syed on 22 January in The Times addressed the controversy around the attendance of Margaret Court at the Australian tennis Open She was one of the greatest female tennis players of all time, but she was brought up a Catholic and is now Pentecostal, and in her day homosexuality was much less generally morally accepted. She too expressed views that it is sinful, based on her religion.

Evolution of morality in many Western countries means that her position is now not accepted by many people, and the law also rightly recognises gay marriage in those countries. It is to the credit of sport that it will tolerate a variety of views to be expressed, even when discordant with that sport’s philosophy, and it is of course open to individuals within the sport to express their opposite view. Matthew Syed, while himself decrying homophobia, is right to see no contradiction between celebrating Margaret Court’s tennis triumphs while disagreeing totally with her views on homosexuality.

Israel Folau, however, is barred by contract with the Catalans from making further public comment about his views and accepts that. It is a pity perhaps that the world of Rugby is not sufficiently confident of its values that it finds this silencing is necessary. 

SPORTS BANTER

The Chief Executive of the Central Management Institute, Ann Franke, it is reported, has urged firms to crack down on office conversations between men about football and cricket. Apparently, in her view, sport chat can escalate into less harmless subjects such as men’s weekend conquests; and also, such chat is exclusive of women. All sorts of chatter on all sorts of subjects can lead to topics best to be avoided.

Some people may dislike or be apathetic towards Strictly Come Dancing- where might chatter round that lead- but should employers crack down on that for fear of impropriety and non-inclusiveness? Ann Francke’s comments have been described as “absolute nonsense” by a Sports Minister and largely by journalists (City AM and the Times for example), thank goodness.

Inclusiveness, kindness and decency are all to be encouraged in the workplace, and so is taking personal responsibility to stay the right side of those ever-moving lines of propriety. That a sensible Chief Executive could even consider a prohibition on sports talk by men, let alone canvass it, beggars belief and sounds a worrying warning bell indeed on where fear, correctness and hypersensitivity is leading us. Or perhaps she should be thanked for the consequent generation by responders of many a witty and satirical article.

PUB BANTER

The Sports Banter absurdity comes on top of the tetchier topic of pub banter, highlighted in the Daily Telegraph of 15 January. The Chair of the Equality Rights Commission wrote to hundreds of employer companies to step up action against bad behaviour as new guidance was published about dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace. All a good idea on its face. The guidance explains the steps employers should take, including in relation to harassment which could take place in any situation related to work.

So, sensibly a social event organised by the employer is work related and the employer’s, as well as the employee’s, responsibility, if unwanted conduct occurs. Also, apparently, drinks in the pub after work, irrespective of who organises, could be caught. Unwanted conduct includes inappropriate posts on social media outside work, and in the pub facial expressions and looks can qualify as well as more overt behaviour. Conduct can be harassment even if not intended to be. What is one person’s harmless banter may be seen otherwise by the listener. Hard to argue with perhaps, but this could be an evidential nightmare of subjectivity as well. Is the world becoming so fearful that the law must be invocable, where offence and harassment are not intended and so perhaps a robust and open conversation seeking an apology may resolve the issue?

Many people make friends at work, who they meet socially in evenings and at weekends. Will their social behaviours now be the responsibility of the employer? Friends fall out, and the employer’s potential involvement could add another layer of unnecessary complexity? The lines are becoming blurry.

If people choose to spend time together out of the work environment in each other’s company, then their words and behaviour are surely their own responsibility, and their own risk.

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