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On a Winger and A Prayer: What the Israel Folaus of Australia Can Learn from Matt Burke

While controversies have surrounded the likes of Israel Folau, sporting greats like Matt Burke have served as a beacon of hope, showing the sporting world how athletes should act as role models.

A little over twenty years ago, one of my personal heroes pulled off a sporting feat which was like something out of a dream.

After picking up a dropped ball from a team-mate and palming off some of the most domineering forwards that New Zealand has ever produced, Wallabies legend and rugby extraordinaire Matt Burke sprinted over 75 metres straight down the middle of Lang Park in Brisbane, in order to score one of the most beautiful tries in Rugby Union history.

Like a man possessed, Burke personified what made the Australian Men’s Rugby Union Team a global force to be reckoned with throughout the entirety of the ’90s. Methodical, hard-working, daring, and completely team focused, there was little that these players wouldn’t do to ensure that it was team-glory rather than individual honours that reigned supreme.

Now with multiple Bledisloe Cups, Tri-Nations trophies, and a Rugby World Cup to his name, Burke would be well within his rights to be stand-offish and silent in his retirement from professional rugby, if he wanted to be.

However, with the same level of talent that he graced the rugby field with throughout his career, Burke has always carried himself both on and off the field with the marks of what makes true champions.

Honesty, integrity, professionalism, kindness towards others and a sense of sportsmanship which is second to none.

It’s those characteristics that have elevated people like Burke and some of his contemporaries, such as George Gregan, John Eales, and Tim Horan amongst others, to a level of sporting immortality that individuals like Israel Folau and Margaret Court are unlikely to ever achieve.

Whether some people are willing to admit it or not, how people act towards others both on and off the field matters more than any sporting record or statistic that they may hold.

While somebody can have a dismal record of wins versus losses on the field, they can still be a champion of their sport based solely on the level of sportsmanship and humanity that they show to others.

However, somebody can have all of the trophies and awards in the world and never be a proper champion, if they don’t treat other people with kindness and dignity.

Take the ongoing situation surrounding Folau and his views towards gay and transgender people, for example.

“Somebody can have all of the trophies and awards in the world and never be a proper champion, if they don’t treat other people with kindness and dignity.”

While Rugby Australia and the rest of the nation were dealing with the fallout over Folau’s second round of homophobic and transphobic remarks on social media early last year, one of the things that Burke swiftly did soon after the news broke was to check that the LGBTI people within both his workplace and the wider rugby community were okay.

Having not been shy about wearing my mint-condition early 2000s-era Wallabies jersey into the 10 Newsroom during rugby season, and having worked previously at the Star Observer around the time that Folau was profiled for the Bingham Cup (think of it as the World Cup for LGBTI friendly rugby clubs) in 2014, Burke knew that people like myself would be feeling disturbed by Folau’s commentary, even if we weren’t showing it publicly.

Sensing an opportunity to make me smile and maybe even laugh, Burke decided to break the topic by cheekily asking me in a friendly manner what I planned to do with my jersey, given the controversy that Folau and his comments had unleashed.

When I then stated that I’d brought my Wallabies jersey in with me while working up the courage to ask him to sign it (some people on social media had suggested that I burn it instead), not only did I show “Burkey” just how deeply I appreciated his concern and kindness, but I think we both showed to those around us that evening just how much being part of a team still matters.

While Burke responded with kindness and empathy, Folau’s preference was to block anyone on social media who had previously worked at the Star Observer, simply for asking what had changed for him since he was on the cover of that magazine and photographed partying with drag queens.

While one showed that teamwork matters, the other showed just how harmful discrimination and prejudice can be.

Now, while some people may read that as an attack on religion in sport, it’s anything but that. As Wallabies such as Nick Farr-Jones (another one of my rugby heroes) and David Pocock amongst others have led deeply spiritual lives and rugby careers, they’ve also been closely aware of what impact their thoughts and words can have on others, both within their teams and outside of them.

Rugby needs people with religious convictions (or lack thereof) just as much as it needs people from a wide variety of other demographics.

However, for a team to function, people need to realise that a healthy streak of humanity, dignity and respect for one another needs to be shown by everyone as well.

With Folau stating over recent days that one of the key reasons that he signed with the Catalan Dragons was so that he could feel as if he’s part of a team again, that’s something that he really needs to consider going forward. Feeling excluded in sport isn’t pleasant, though we can all learn from it if we are willing to do so.

It’s for that reason alone that I’d be willing to forgive Folau for his previous remarks about people like myself and welcome him back into the rugby fold, if he showed genuine remorse for his previous remarks and apologised for the harm that his words caused, outside of being required to do so as a part of a multi-million dollar legal settlement.

Hate only breeds hate, and I can’t bring myself to tarnish sport and all of the positives engaging in it can have, with that brush.

While Burke may have been great with a rugby ball, the way he has carried himself both on and off the field throughout both his rugby and media careers has been what’s made him legendary.

That level of humanity is something that all of us, myself and Israel Folau included, can all learn from.

I only hope to be a worthy student.

Kate Doak is an investigative researcher for 10 NewsFirst in Australia. She’s also a political contributor for Rolling Stone magazine.