THE issue of sponsorship in sport and its morality has been the topic of intense debate recently.

Never has the spotlight been well and truly focussed on the relationship between sport, the athlete, the team, its governing organisation, political and social agendas and the sponsor willing to part with their cash in promoting their brand.

Indigenous player Donnell Wallam, was reportedly ambivalent wearing a uniform with the Hancock Prospecting logo, due to comments made by Ms Rinehart’s father Lang Hancock in the 1980s.

He infamously suggested in 1984 that Indigenous Australians should be sterilised to “breed themselves out” in coming years.

The Diamond’s players rallied around their teammate.

“The singular issue of concern to the players was one of support for our only Indigenous team member. We are fully committed to the Diamonds’ Sister in Arms legacy and the values this represents, alongside Australian Netball’s Declaration of Commitment.”

The Declaration of Commitment, signed in 2020, involved a coalition of netball organisations vowing to do more to break down the barriers for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players.

Diamonds’ players also released a statement denying a “split” over the issue. “Reports of a protest on the part of the players on environmental grounds and a split within the playing group are incorrect,” the statement said.

Netball Australia recently turned down a bid from a private equity company that offered a multimillion deal, instead choosing a deal with Hancock.

The sporting body had been criticised for a lack of consultation with players about the deal with Hancock and there was frustration Wallam and been placed in a difficult position.

As a result, Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting condemned the decision and the “virtue signalling” by sports teams after sensationally tearing up its $15 million netball deal.

The mining giant announced on Saturday that it had decided to “regrettably withdraw” its proposed partnerships with Netball Australia and Netball WA.

Furthermore, Hancock Prospecting also stated that it had “not been made aware” of the issues between Netball Australia and the Players Association and did “not wish to add to Netball’s disunity problems”.

It also posited the often divisive stance saying “Hancock and its executive chairman Mrs Rinehart consider that it is unnecessary for sports organisations to be used as the vehicle for social or political causes”.

“Firstly, because sport is at its best when it is focused on good and fair competition, with dedicated athletes striving for excellence to achieve their sporting dreams and to represent our country at their very best,” the statement said.

“Secondly, because there are more targeted and genuine ways to progress social or political causes without virtue signalling or for self-publicity. For example, the meaningful engagement with local Indigenous communities undertaken by Hancock’s Roy Hill Community Foundation in West Australia to support their actual needs.

“Thirdly, because there are more impactful means to make a beneficial difference. For example, Hancock’s holistic support for real programs including Hanrine Futures — that are providing a true pathway for Indigenous students through education and into employment where they are guaranteed a job should they wish, at the end of their training.

“The reality is that sponsorship is integral to sports organisations — for full-time professionals right through to young children at the grassroots level — who rely on corporations investing the funds that enable all sports to not only survive, but thrive.

“Sadly, recent media does not help encourage sporting sponsorships. What can be lacking is a sufficient connection between sponsorship funds and the athletes themselves, with money unnecessarily wasted on administration and related costs. Which is why Hancock has, and will continue to insist, that the funds it provides to any sports it sponsors are spent on and for the athletes.

“Neither Hancock nor Mrs Rinehart have ever requested or insisted that athletes provide any thank you videos or messages — although thank you videos and messages have certainly been received. Hancock and Mrs Rinehart would only ever want athletes to wear the Hancock logo if the athletes were proud to do so.

“Recent media misreporting has been disappointing, particularly given at no stage did Hancock insist its logo be worn on the Australian Diamonds‘ playing dress for the recent games in New Zealand, nor did the Australian Diamonds refuse to wear the Hancock logo.”

Indeed, there has been some support from the Indigenous community defending Ms Rinehart, saying she did a large amount of charitable work and that she should not be judged because of what her father said.

This seems to be the crux of the matter: is Gina Reinhardt responsible for the sins of her father? For a statement, albeit disturbing and harmful, made in 1984?

Clinton Wolf, managing director of the National Indigenous Times, opined that the negativity towards the Netball Australia sponsorship was “hypocritical”.

“While others have criticised her from the sidelines, she does deeds with a good heart,” he said. “Actions always speak louder than words.”

The players were also accused of perhaps not considering the bigger picture with their stance, and the financial ramifications for their sport.

The $15 million commercial agreement would have virtually saved the sport, which had lost more than $7 million over the past two years, mostly due to costs associated with Super Netball.

As Hancock noted on Saturday, its proposed sponsorship “would have enabled a generous increase in wages for the players which would not have otherwise been possible given Netball’s financial situation”.

Netball Australia said it was “disappointed” in Hancock‘s decision to pull the sponsorship.

“We acknowledge the difficulties and impact of recent discussions and are disappointed to see them withdraw the partnership,” Netball Australia boss Kelly Ryan responded.

“This is a loss for our whole sport, from grassroots through to the elite program. Sadly, this is evident today with the decision to also withdraw financial support for Netball WA and the West Coast Fever.”

Ms Kelly said she would work “around the clock” to find a financial solution to the controversy.

True to her word, a $15 million sponsorship has recently been secured from the Victorian Government.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced that Visit Victoria will support the Diamonds until 2027, providing a much-needed boost for the sport which lost $7 million over the last two years due to the Covid pandemic.

The new deal will see the Diamonds play international matches and hold training camps in Victoria from 2023 to 2026.

Players will also appear in tourism campaigns for Victoria and wear the Visit Victoria branding on their playing uniforms.

In addition, next year’s Super Netball grand final will also be held in Victoria after it was staged in Perth this year when Western Australia won hosting rights in a bidding process.

Mr Andrews described the sponsorship deal as a “massive coup” for the state.

“We are the sporting and major events capital of our nation … to be able to have the world’s very best netball team wearing our logo, projecting all that we offer to the world and the rest of the country, is absolutely fantastic,” Mr Andrews said.

“Other states wanted this but Victoria secured it.”

Other commentators, included television celebrity Lisa Wilkinson, weighed into the debate.

“The idea that sport and politics and issues of social justice can be completely separated is really naive,” she said.

“You think back to the Australian teams that wouldn’t tour South Africa during the Apartheid era. You even think about things like big tobacco used to sponsor the NRL. It was called the Winfield Cup.”

Co-host Hamish Macdonald compared it to recent sporting scandals where Sea Eagles players refused to wear a one-off rainbow Pride jersey on religious grounds, while Andrew Thorburn last month resigned as Essendon chief executive after one day as a result of links to a

Christian church that previously published comments which equated abortion with concentration camps and claimed “practising homosexuality is a sin”.

Macdonald said he was “surprised” the organisations had failed to address the divide before it played out in public.

“In each of those circumstances it seems like the club or the code hasn’t quite done enough thinking about the culture within the organisation or the sport and had the conversations that might be necessary to make those things possible,” he said.

“You know, obviously the points made here, why didn’t they have a conversation about discussing what had been said in the past?

“And dealing with that up front. I mean, you can understand how for an Indigenous player it would be very difficult to wear a logo like that.”

However Netball Australia Players Association boss Kathryn Harby-Williams took a different view.

She was critical of the decision by netball’s administrators not to give Wallam an exemption allowing her to not wear the logo.

“In the end Donnell sought an exemption for herself and that wasn’t forthcoming because there was a meeting during the week, last week, where it was made very clear that no exemptions would be given to any of the players,” Harby-Williams said.

“And that was a disappointing moment because the players thought at the very least that Donnell would be granted an exemption at that point in time.

“One of our First Nations players had a conscientious objection to just three games to ask for an exemption in the end not to wear that logo … there’s a precedence in other sports where exemptions been given. I would have thought and hoped for Donnell that exemption would be provided.

“It got to the point where Donnell was then actually going to agree to wear the dress and that was simply because the pressure was too much for her to bear and as a sport I think that should be extremely disappointing for everybody.”

Australian sporting legends Andrew Gaze and Dawn Fraser have expressed opposing views over Gina Rinehart’s decision to withdraw a $15 million sponsorship deal with Netball Australia.

Fraser – a four time Olympic gold medal winning swimmer – believed it was unfair for the netballers to take a stance against Ms Rinehart over comments her father made 35 years ago, saying “she’s not her father” before adding Australia’s richest woman is a major supporter of women’s sports.

“Ms G’s (Rinehart) done a hell of a lot not just for swimming but she’s looked after beach volleyball, women’s rowing and women’s synchronised swimming,” she said.

“Heavens above what are these girls doing? She’s associated with some of the best sports and some of the unsolicited sports.

“I really cannot understand it, it’s bad for the sport, it’s bad for those girls who said no to it because she might stop the sponsorship with other sports – and I just think our sport in this country would go down and I would hate to see that happen.”

Former Australian basketballer Gaze believed it was unfair to blame the comments on Ms Rinehart but believed she should have immediately condemned the remarks to avoid the controversy.

“I’m not blaming Gina Rinehart for her father’s comments, what I don’t understand is why she won’t very publicly disassociate herself from them,” he said.

“If my dad had of said that or my uncle had of said that or my friends said it, (I would say) ‘I love this person and I’m still going to love him and I’m going to educate them’,” he said.

“I’m going to say, ‘that is not the right way to deal with that issue, it’s actually vile what you have said and if you can’t reconsider that then I’m going to question our friendship, if you’re going to maintain that view then you’re not a friend of mine’.

“So let’s talk about it, let’s discuss it and figure it out and if you can’t come to the conclusion that sterilising human beings to try and get rid of a race is a actually a good thing then you’re no friend of mine.”

Indigenous Australian boxing legend Anthony Mundine made the same suggestion to Ms Rinehart about distancing herself from the comments.

“Anyone that thinks like him, speaks like him, believes what he believes, is detrimental to humankind,” he said.

“She (Ms Rinehart) could have apologised for her father’s comments, distanced herself from them and told use that she doesn’t believe those things.”

Indigenous Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price however was outspoken against Ms Rinehart’s critics as she supported the mining magnate’s decision to walk away from the sponsorship deal.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous that there’s this notion that it’s okay now days, to judge individuals on the basis of what their mother, father, uncle, aunty, somebody who they’re related to, did,” she stated.

“If that was the case there would be a lot of people, indigenous people included, that we would all look down upon because of someone else’s actions.

“It’s utterly ridiculous that this ever occurred.”

Sponsorship has always been a gamble for non-sporting organisations. Unlike straightforward advertising, where the brand has total control over the end product, a sponsorship deal enables them to leverage their own reputation by association with a celebrity or sporting figure.

At least, that is the general idea.

More recently, Australian Cricket Captain Pat Cummins has said he will not feature in any promotional material for Alinta Energy during the final year of its multimillion dollar sponsorship deal with Cricket Australia, but the governing body insists the Test captain’s environmental concerns are not the reason for the forthcoming end to the partnership.

Cummins, who is a committed climate action advocate, has appeared before in TV adverts for the energy company – CA’s principal sponsorship partner for the past four years – but said he would not do so again.

Cummins, along with the likes of Steve Smith, David Warner, Mitchell Starc, Marnus Labuschagne, Rachael Haynes and Alyssa Healy, is part of the Cricket for Climate campaign, which aims to “protect the future of our game, and our planet, for generations to come” by equipping grassroots clubs with solar panels.

Clearly, brands take the risk that the person or team they have chosen to sponsor may have their own views about the world, in turn placing the trust and understanding involved in jeopardy.

It is no longer a case of buyer beware, but sponsor beware as athletes express their social conscience.


Image via SBS News

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