Cricket

Far from being an act of charitable benevolence, sports sponsorship is about winning influence on the back of a love of the game. So, who loses when the relationships sour? By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Who wins with sponsor boycotts?

Noongar woman and Diamonds debutante Donnell Wallam.
Noongar woman and Diamonds debutante Donnell Wallam.
Credit: AAP Image / Dave Hunt

Lately there’s been criticism of athletes who have chosen to boycott corporate sponsors, and the criticisms have assumed familiar forms: that these protesting athletes are vain, naive, ungrateful, hypocritical, or are breaching the unwritten law that prohibits athletes from – god forbid – mixing sport with politics.

First there was Australian Test cricket captain Pat Cummins expressing discomfort that the team’s major sponsor, Alinta Energy, was a carbon polluter and operator of a coal-fired power plant. Cummins said he would no longer appear in commercials for the company, while Cricket Australia said it would not renew its contract with Alinta beyond next year, though this decision, it said, was unrelated to Cummins’ concerns.

“Where does it end?” Channel Nine’s Tony Jones asked this week. “If you want to be pragmatic about it all, stop using wooden cricket bats because that’s at the behest of forests.”

Then there was the Australian netballer Donnell Wallam. A Noongar woman, Wallam was anticipating her debut for the national team against England this week, which would make her only the third Indigenous Australian to have ever played for the Diamonds. Last week, she privately told teammates she was uncomfortable wearing a uniform that bore the logo of Hancock Prospecting – the mining company Gina Rinehart inherited from her father, Lang Hancock, and which has transformed Rinehart into one of the world’s wealthiest people.

Wallam was aware that Hancock, in a televised interview in the 1980s, had shared his dream of luring Indigenous Australians to a centralised welfare office and then “[doping] the water up so that they were sterile and would breed themselves out in the future, and that would solve the problem”.

Wallam’s national teammates supported her – they took their “Sisters in Arms” creed seriously – and sought a compromise with their sponsor: they would all keep wearing the uniform for the current series against New Zealand but requested an individual exemption for Wallam in the forthcoming series against England.

Rinehart’s response was almost immediate: she withdrew her $15 million sponsorship from Netball Australia. Then one of her mines, Roy Hill, gratuitously withdrew its separate $2 million sponsorship from Netball WA and Perth’s West Coast Fever. “We were collateral damage,” complained Fever’s chief executive, Simone Hansen.

Hansen wasn’t wrong. The response was swift, thin-skinned and vindictive – but it was also made at a time of serious financial precarity for netball, and talkback radio became busy with accusations of player ingratitude.

Gina Rinehart is not her father and we might separate his sins from his daughter. But Rinehart has not repudiated her father’s dreams. And given that it’s his name emblazoned on the jerseys, we might spend some small time considering the man – and the potential sense of compromise or insult one might experience while promoting his legacy.

 

In the 1960s, Lang Hancock laid claim to one of the world’s largest deposits of iron ore. To describe his political philosophy as laissez-faire would be inadequate: he desired a radically diminished federal government, whose responsibilities would be limited to maintaining police, a nuclear-armed air force and an office for title deeds.

He dreamt of genocide, secession and the transformation of a swath of northern Australia into an entrepreneurial utopia freed from tax, minimum wages or regulation. He thought corporate titans should buy up media, to better guide Australians towards “the path of free enterprise”. He sought the use of nuclear weapons to mine ore, objected to the principle of land titles, and travelled to Romania to strike a bartering deal with the country’s murderous dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. “Business is business,” he shrugged.

Hancock opened a crude blue asbestos mine in Wittenoom, relying upon the Banjima locals to mine and package the carcinogen. The mine caused hundreds of fatal cases of mesothelioma, but when Hancock re-purchased the mine in the 1960s, he denied there was a link between the deaths and the asbestos – on the grounds that he had never contracted the fatal illness himself. Hancock never took responsibility, the town remains uncleaned and ironically it was the “destructive” Western Australian government that had warned of the severe health risks back in the 1940s.

Is it so unthinkable, strange or wicked that a young Noongar woman might object to wearing a jersey that bears this man’s name? His daughter maintains a complicated reverence for Hancock, and she inherited more than his assets. Gina Rinehart is cold, pious, lonely and litigious – a bizarre and tin-eared exponent of Ayn Randian creepiness, who lectures Australians on their “drinking and socialising”, sues her children and warns us that “Africans are willing to work for $2 a day” – forgetting that our competitiveness might be defined by more than our wages.

So, might it be possible, in this allegedly irreverent land, to view her as something other than a philanthropist? Is it okay to express something beyond slavish gratitude for someone so contemptuous of most of us? And remember that Wallam’s objection was privately and politely expressed: and it amounted merely to not wanting to wear a uniform that bore the name of a man who not that long ago theorised the genocide of First Australians.

 

I call AFL fan Tim Winton. One week ago, the famed novelist and Dockers supporter put his name to a letter requesting that the Fremantle board reconsider its commercial partnership with Woodside Energy. Winton was joined by other high-profile Dockers fans, including ex-player and life member Dale Kickett, former WA premier Carmen Lawrence, past Fremantle football manager Gerard McNeill, and a former climate adviser to Woodside, Alex Hillman. The letter argued that Woodside was intensifying its fossil fuel production, despite pledges to decarbonise, and that “it is no longer appropriate to have a fossil fuel company as our major sponsor moving forward”.

Winton is no interloper. He took his kids down to Fremantle Oval to watch the Dockers’ first training session in 1994, and he’s been a passionate fan ever since. But regardless of Winton’s popularity, or the sincerity of his fandom, there was outrage in Perth at the petition.

“Those of us making our entreaty to the Dockers – it was done respectfully,” Winton says. “It was done after the season was finished. It was done after the trade period was finished. We didn’t want to upset the playing fortunes of the group. We have respect for management. [President] Dale Alcott played a straight bat. Woodside’s contract runs for another year. That’s fair enough.

“But I was stuck in some commutes and listening to talkback radio – which I don’t usually do. And the intensity of it was instructive. It’s one thing to make uncomfortable pleas in the arts community, but sport is another thing – it’s important,” Winton says, laughing. “The pushback is intense. You realise you’re digging around in stuff that people genuinely care about. It’s sacred. Sport’s sacred, but that includes its business. But no one’s talking about parsing the difference between philanthropy and the purchase of soft power.”

Earlier this year, Winton spoke at the Perth Festival – an elaborate, handsomely endowed international arts festival – and criticised the event’s near two-decade sponsorship by Chevron, an American-owned gas and oil company. “After my speech there was this headline,” Winton says. “It was ‘Winton pokes the oil and gas bear’. As if saying something less-than-enthusiastic about oil and gas was somehow dangerous. But then there were the activists who were arrested by a SWAT team for chalking some graffiti.”

Winton was referring to an incident last year, when Extinction Rebellion activists chalked “No Gas” slogans on a public footbridge between WA’s Parliament House and the Woodside headquarters. Two weeks later, counterterrorism police raided their homes at dawn and charged them with property damage. Some were fined; others had their charges dismissed. It was a scandalously disproportionate use of state authority but publicly it yielded nothing like the excitement of the letter to which Winton was party.

I suggest to Winton he faces not only the great influence of energy companies but something arguably just as powerful: our ardent belief that sport should be solely a place for escape. The “intensity” of the pushback he experienced was the sum of people whose identities and leisure are too severely defined by footy and feel entitled to their delusion that sport should function as a theatre magically separated from the complications of commerce and culture. He was spoiling the fantasy.

“At a footy board, politics, sport and commerce are enmeshed,” Winton says. “Day by day. Minute by minute. It’s marinating in business. You’re deluded if you think it’s not political. But the players have to pretend that they’re just meat puppets? Are they not supposed to have a moral imagination?”

This month, the Perth Festival announced that it would be ending its 18-year partnership with Chevron. Winton says things that seem immutable can, eventually, change. But he’s also learnt something else: “One thing I’ve learnt in all this, is that there’s palpable fear within the commentary,” Winton says. “Whether that’s civilian commentary or professional, there’s fear about change. And, personally, I like order and I’m a bit change-averse, but change is coming. Climate chaos means cultural chaos, and on a scale that’s daunting to think about. The sooner we lean in and shape that change to our own advantage, the better our prospects.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 29, 2022 as "A word on our sponsors".

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