OPINION

David Pocock, Israel Folau and Nick Kyrgios highlight a player, politics mix

It would be hard to find two people in Canberra this week with a bigger difference in opinion than David Pocock and Zed Seselja.

On one side you've got one of Australia's best rugby players, who passionately campaigned for same-sex marriage, has strong views on the inaction on climate change and has been attending Stop Adani mine protests around the capital between training sessions.

David Pocock at a 'Stop Adani' portest at Parliament House in February. Picture: AAP Image/Lukas Coch

David Pocock at a 'Stop Adani' portest at Parliament House in February. Picture: AAP Image/Lukas Coch

On the other you've got an ACT senator who stands on the complete opposite side of the political fence when it comes to all of the above issues.

So imagine the surprise when word went around that Pocock was going to be standing next to Seselja at a federal government announcement for new female change rooms at ACT Brumbies headquarters.

And the timing? Days before the federal election, a time when politicians cross the street just to avoid people with an alternate view to ensure there's no slip before people go to vote.

You can understand why it's impossible to picture Pocock as the head-nodder behind Seselja, even if the $200,000 for female rugby players was good news for them.

But it almost happened. Seriously. Pocock was asked to be at the announcement at the club's University of Canberra headquarters earlier this week.

Luckily something clicked before the cameras arrived. Pocock was replaced at the last minute, the women got their funding and Seselja got his election-week opportunity. Happy days.

What would have happened if Pocock was standing there? Maybe a robust discussion, maybe pleasantries, maybe silence. Seselja deals with that every day and he and Pocock have had friendly conversations in the past.

It brings us to an interesting point in a week filled with sporting and political drama. What would have been the reaction had Pocock challenged Seselja on the sensitive election issues? I'd sit there and watch that, even though they say sport and politics shouldn't be mixed.

The point of kicking political football and raising issue of free speech is about highlighting the conflict some athletes are facing.

There's nothing more bland than a squeaky clean player who doesn't want to engage. Most do it out of fear of what their teammates will think and requests from clubs to avoid controversy at all costs.

Israel Folau caused a storm with his social media posts.

Israel Folau caused a storm with his social media posts.

The Australian sporting public craves personality in their athletes. The fans want to get to know who they're supporting on a deeper level. Some don't care about the deeper level, they just want their team to win. Players opening up can give an insight into society. The risk is, as with Israel Folau, it can be more divisive than beneficial.

Australian rugby's poster boy was sacked on Friday in the fallout from homophobic posts on social media and disregarding a request from his employer.

Social media has given fans a way to connect with their favourite athletes like never before.

That's not to say some don't deserve the trolling backlash online. You only need to listen to, read, or follow Nick Kyrgios' accounts to know that. He leads with his chin on and off the court, so he's bound to cop it from his opponents and fans.

Kyrgios, though, is someone who appears to enjoy the back and forth. He takes pleasure in making other people squirm and doesn't mind being fined almost $100,000 in one day. Kyrgios lashed two of the world's greats this week: the "super salty" Rafael Nadal and the "cringeworthy" Novak Djokovic. Kyrgios' podcast with tennis journalist Ben Rothenberg was unfiltered, brutal honesty at its best.

Over the top? Probably. But Kyrgios speaks his mind and doesn't plan to change. The issue most have with Kyrgios isn't about his honesty, it's about his lack of effort in matches or deciding to quit like he did against Casper Rudd.

Nick Kyrgios never minces words when he talks.

Nick Kyrgios never minces words when he talks.

The luxury Kyrgios has is he doesn't play in a team sport. He can say what he wants with no one to answer to.

That is hugely important in the context of speaking your mind. Kyrgios answers to his Twitter followers, Folau and Pocock answer to their employers, their teams and their teammates.

Australian rugby, in particular, cannot afford more off-field drama. The organisation is already on its knees in terms of popularity.

So when Folau went against chief executive Raelene Castle and coach Michael Cheika's request for him to avoid posting homophobic remarks, what option did he leave them?

The same could be said for Pocock if he was arrested for a second time after being issued a warning after chaining himself to a tractor at a protest in 2014.

Many say the decision to terminate Folau's contract was a breach of his right to free speech. It's got nothing to do with free speech and everything to do with the blatant disregard for his employer and his teammates, as well as attacking vulnerable gay people struggling to be comfortable in their everyday lives.

Should Pocock be gagged? No way. Should Folau? Absolutely not. Differences of opinion should be embraced. Unfortunately Folau failed to demonstrate he knows how to express his beliefs in a respectful way. Free speech is important, but it isn't without consequence.

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