Some ‘F’ Words: Footy, Fifita, Foran, Friendship and Forgiveness — what the NRL’s culture problems reveal about life together

It seems you can learn about real friendship from the most unlikely people.

fifita

Image credit: ABC News

I was pretty devastated last year when my team’s (the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles) clean-skin five-eighth, a prodigious talent, and potential future captain, Kieran Foran walked out of the club to join arch-rivals Parramatta.

There’s a long history of players switching between these clubs — usually in our favour, like the great Jamie Lyon, but this one hurt. Foran was said to be a family man, a humble and patient bloke who was widely respected by his peers and the press. He was not a boofhead. He was polite and well-spoken, not a boor. He was not like those other players who generate negative headlines for the game. Even in leaving, the headlines being generated were positive ones about him and the game. He was not, in any sense, like Andrew Fifita from the Cronulla Sharks, a gifted footballer whose career, many suggest, will be limited by the disruption he brings by bringing his larger-than-life character wherever he goes. If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be saying the game needed less Kieran Foran’s and more Andrew Fifitas, I’d have laughed in your face.

A year later and things have unravelled somewhat for Kieran Foran. His reputation is in tatters; his new club tore up his contract because it turns out he’s not the messiah, nor even the golden haired child they thought he’d be. And it is clear he’s battling a whole range of demons. Mental illness is a terrible scourge for those experiencing it. It has reportedly been a tough year for Foran and for those who love him. I’m not at all writing this to judge him, or to comment on his decisions; life for him, and for many others, is complicated, and he’s made some mistakes and done some stupid things; and it’d be amazing if he were able to pull his life together, or have it pieced back together for him. Nobody is unredeemable. As I write about this year and reflect on his fall, I’m praying for him. Personally I reckon it’d be especially good for him if he found Jesus in all this; it seems Jesus isn’t far from an NRL field most weekends.

What is clear is that Foran needs new friends. It’s become apparent that one of his closest friends is at the heart of match-fixing allegations surrounding the NRL; specifically surrounding games involving Foran. This friend is an undesirable sort of character who has brought Foran’s reputation into question by doing such stupid things as trying to deposit gambling winnings into Foran’s account. This undesirable friend has mixed in circles with NRL players for years to get access to inside information; keeping them close using methods as morally questionable as providing free sex for NRL players and jockeys in a brothel he ran in Sydney. This undesirable claimed in a bizarro press conference this week that if it wasn’t for him, Foran wouldn’t be alive, and perhaps that’s true; but he is also cutting off his relationship with Foran so that he can pursue a return to the football field. I’m no expert, but from the outside (and from the inside perspective of Foran’s ex-partner) this undesirable has not actually been a good friend to Foran; and his undesirability has rubbed off on Foran’s reputation.

What are friends for?

Another friend of Foran’s, his god-father, Don Mackinnon is stepping in to help pick up the pieces; he’s described as a father-figure (Foran’s father lives in the U.S where he’s the CEO of Walmart), and he’s been doing what friends should do; standing with Foran and encouraging him to pick up the pieces of his life, and his career. The media love him for it because he’s doing something positive for Foran, and, for the game that makes us feel like we’re stakeholders in Foran’s life decisions; the footy. This sort of thing is apparently what friends are for. Making us better people. Friends who make us worse, or who cost us something, are to be cut-off.

Is that real friendship?

Clearly you’re not being a friend if you’re using and destroying on the person you claim to love for your own ends; as it seems is the case with Mr Undesirable; but what should a friend be doing for someone who has done the destroying themselves?

Enter Andrew Fifita.

Andrew Fifita has also had a rough year and apparently been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. He’s done some stupid stuff in the past, like badgering a referee at a junior football game, and this year has continued to do some questionable things; he, is, in some corners of the media, painted as a walking undesirable; a blight on the game.  It’s been suggested that he also needs new friends after he wore an armband bearing the letters F.K.L; apparently in support of his childhood friend ‘K.L,’ who is in jail for a coward punch killing. This friend is rightly paying for a stupid mistake that had deadly consequences. Fifita, despite all the advice he has received suggesting he do otherwise, is standing by his friend. He’s not just doing the token thing with some letters on his wrist, but has made multiple visits to his friend in prison. Apparently the authorities in both the game, and the government — the NRL’s Integrity Unit, and the New South Wales Police — don’t want our footballers consorting with this sort of character. This friendship doesn’t appear to gain him anything; in fact, Fifita seems to know that it costs him. If there’s one thing Fifita does seem to be, it’s loyal to his childhood friends; that was his explanation for running across the field to join a fight in State of Origin this year that saw him head to the sin bin. Sure. He’s done some dumb stuff. But there’s some sort of virtue there in the background. And it’s there when it comes to his costly support of his undesirable friend. People are worried that continuing to support his friend; visiting him in jail and wearing the letters on his wrist, brings both Fifita and the game into disrepute. Fifita has been pilloried from pillar to post by the media and the game’s hierarchy for daring to stand by his undesirable friend.

There’s been lots of speculation about what the “F” on his wristband stood for; and a widespread belief that he was calling for his friend to be freed; which would be insensitive for the family of the victim, and would fly in the face of campaigns against alcohol fuelled violence. A bunch of former-players-turned-media-pundits and NRL CEO Todd Greenberg piled in on Fifita; rightly concerned about the family of K.L’s victim. Greenberg told the media:

“Players are generally free to support any person or cause they like. But in circumstances such as these, they cannot use our game as a platform to do that.

We understand players have a life outside their club and the game and that may include mixing with people who have gone down the wrong path in life. But players must ensure they do not engage in any activity which damages our game… Arm guards can often be used for messages of support for family, sick children and other worthy causes and we would prefer not to get in the way of that.”

But it seems the F stands for the thing at the heart of real friendship. Perhaps this is a worthy cause. Perhaps it teaches us something true about friendship. A lesson the NRL might need if Foran’s undesirable friend has connections, as it seems, that run wide, not just deeply into the life of the Foran family.

It seems Fifita might actually be a guy the NRL (and its public) could learn from (though he’s still a boof-head and this is quite a specific thing to learn). It seems Fifita understands that real friendship crosses the boundaries of desirability at one’s personal cost; that real friendship isn’t just for fair weather, or for your own benefit. It seems he knows that the way to cross the boundary is via the toughest virtues of all.

First, a few weeks back, Fifita made it clear that he wasn’t downplaying the cost K.L’s actions had for the Kelly family (and they have been incredibly costly) — or calling for K.L, Kieran Loveridge, to be freed. He is simply humanising Kieran in a world that wants to use shame and guilt to dehumanise people when they make mistakes. One of the quickest ways to dehumanise someone is to cut them off from friendships and relationships. We’re wired to need relationships. And Fifita seems to get this… he said:

“… I think about the Kelly family when I think about Kieran. My support for Kieran is there because he is sitting without a glimmer of hope and I want to give him some hope. There are very few people who are going to support him and my bond with him runs deep.

“But to say that I think he should be free is just so wrong. It upsets me that people would think that. He has to do his time because he did the wrong thing, but I can’t ignore a bloke who grew up with me as family.”

Then, yesterday’s Danny Weidler column in the Sun Herald contained this little bit of info (which is consistent with what Fifita has suggested since the scandal broke, not just a convenient excuse to make up after the fact).

“What is also of interest is the “F” in the infamous “FKL” acronym worn by Fifita earlier this season was not “Free” or “For”. This column understands it’s “Forgive” – something Fifita wrote after two years of trying to find forgiveness for a mate who did the wrong thing.

It was something he struggled with and still does because he knows how brutal Kieran Loveridge’s act was. It is my understanding Fifita doesn’t want the world to forgive the one-punch killer. He’s not silly enough to push that down people’s throats. He wasn’t pushing it on to teammates or anyone else, it was a reminder to look for that in himself.”

Forgiveness is hard especially when the sin in question makes a person particularly undesirable. There’s a reason Jesus gets called ‘friend of sinners’ — and it’s not just that he spent time with undesirables like prostitutes and tax-collectors — it’s because his mission in life was to forgive people at his cost (the cost of his life, and death) in order to make us his friends. Just after Luke’s Gospel, where the Pharisees have been having a go at Jesus for hanging out with undesirables, Jesus says:

The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by all her children.” — Luke 7:34

Just after he says this, Luke tells a story about an undesirable woman approaches him to wash his feet with expensive perfume (which she’s no doubt purchased with the money she made from her undesirable labours), the Pharisees think Jesus should cut off contact with her because she is a “sinner,” and he shows that Fifita is pretty on the money when it comes to friendship, while the NRL and the footy-loving media, might have something to learn. Jesus smashes the pharisees, while giving hope and friendship to this undesirable woman.

Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”

Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” — Luke 7:44-50

You could also easily go to the parable of the Good Samaritan here and its final question: ‘who was this [undesirable] man’s neighbour?’ — the example of Jesus is the example of extending friendship to someone, via forgiveness, at your own cost.

We can learn something Biblical from Foran’s story too; “bad company corrupts” (1 Corinthians 15:33), and that’s what happens if we take our lead from undesirables rather than seeing friendship as a costly outworking of the Gospel. The thing about the story of the Bible is that it becomes pretty clear that we’re actually all corrupted and undesirable; some of us are just better at hiding it than others, while some of us are more hypocritical than others (there’s a great irony to me that the line of pundits stepping forward to condemn Andrew Fifita includes Matthew Johns). The danger Paul is speaking about in 1 Corinthians 15 is the danger of forgetting that Jesus calls us to leave our old ways, but not our old friends, behind. We can love people without being corrupted by them; and this, too, is where Foran went wrong. Jesus managed to do this friendship thing without being corrupted — but he did it with compassion, and for people who nobody else wanted to see as human or give any sort of hope to — just like Fifita, and ultimately this will require a degree of forgiveness.

There’s something that people who want to follow Jesus and live in response to his vision of costly friendship for undesirables (us) can learn from Fifita here, inasmuch as his approach to friendship looks like Jesus’ approach to friendship. Forgiveness is hard. And yet Paul, who’d been greatly undesirable, a killer of Christians, before being forgiven, says it’s at the heart of our new life following Jesus:

“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” — Colossians 3:12-14

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.