Folau case highlights how rugby players balance freedom of speech with public role

Former Manu Samoa Captain Mahonri Schwalger said professional rugby players need to balance their rights to freedom of speech with their responsibilities as public figures.

The former front rower, who now runs the Rugby Academy Samoa, made the comments in response to questions about Israel Folau’s current predicament, where the Wallabies fullback had a Code of Conduct hearing over the weekend after Rugby Australia determined he breached his contract in making social media posts on the 10th of April.

Schwalger said no professional rugby contract would or even could say who someone is allowed to worship.

“Religion is someone’s own freedom, and you can’t take that away from anyone.

“Australian Rugby should realise the majority of their players are all Pacific Islanders, and most of those guys go to church.

“So they need to try and understand what Islanders are going through as well, and what they believe in.”

He said the Folau case appears to be a more personal issue, and he is surprised it has blown up to this level.

“His personal life, trying to put everything on the table.

“The sort of calibre of player that he is, people are always gonna look at the mistakes he has made instead of trying to look at what he’s achieved in life.”

Schwalger said although everyone as the right to freedom of speech and religious expression, those who are public figures need to be careful as whatever they do will be scrutinised.

“As a professional rugby player, it comes with the territory; they’re role models

“These are guys that a lot of people look up to.”

He said social media plays a huge part in the community now, so all modern players need to be aware of that.

“Even when you do something wrong, someone takes a photo of it and puts it on Facebook.”

Navigating that environment is part of the Rugby Academy Samoa programme.

“Our boys are made aware of that, there are courses that we do, things we need to avoid,” Schwalger said.

“You’ve got to be careful what you say on there, and sometimes you’ve got to keep it to yourself.”

He said the prevalence of social media is the biggest difference to 2014 when he was still playing, and that is a reality professionals need to be aware of.

“Once you reach that celebrity level, there’s no way out.

“You’ve gotta make sure you make the right choice.”

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