Sport and money were always destined to collide. That’s just how things roll.
But when Dally Messenger switched codes to help form rugby league in Australia in 1908, or when cricket became England’s national sport in the 18th century, I doubt anyone could have predicted the influence money and business would have over sporting codes that it does today.
They certainly could never have imagined the position sporting administrators find themselves in – managing the delicate balance between sponsorship dollars and what’s deemed ‘right’ by the very participants in the sport.
This week, both netball and cricket have found themselves in very similar positions.
Netball, facing financial struggles at the top level of late, found a financial shot in the arm of sorts in the shape of mining company Hancock Prospecting, which put a $15 million sponsorship on the table.
But the deal turned problematic when rookie Donnell Wallam spoke up, unsettled about the arrangement given the company’s history in the Indigenous space.
Hancock Prospecting founder Lang Hancock infamously proposed in 1984 that some Indigenous people be sterilised to “breed themselves out”.
That was almost 40 years ago. Lang Hancock has been dead for three decades and one can safely say those comments do not align with the company today.
But it’s not the only cloud hanging over the deal, with former Australian captain Sharni Norder claiming it’s against the values of the team to align with Hancock Prospecting, given the climate change views of owner, and Lang’s daughter, Gina Rinehart.
And it’s climate change that has Australian cricket captain Pat Cummins in the news this week too, after revelations he spoke with Cricket Australia CEO Nick Hockley about his ethical objections to energy company Alinta’s sponsorship of the team.
According to media reports, the concerns of Cummins and other members of the Australian cricket team primarily related to the fact that Alinta’s parent company, Pioneer Sail Holdings, has been listed as one of Australia’s highest carbon emitters.
Never before has what logo sits across the front of a jersey been so problematic.
Minus a few notable issues in the past of players not wanting to wear certain sponsorship logos due to various cultural or religious beliefs, players have generally chosen to toe-the-line when it comes to the bigger picture of who sponsors the team they play for. Not so much anymore, it seems.
Rugby league was very much in the spotlight in this space just a few months ago, when seven Manly players chose not to play against the Sydney Roosters because their club dared put rainbow colours on the front of its jersey in the name of equality, pride and inclusion.
Nobody is suggesting Wallam or Cummins should simply shut up and play sport, or Sea Eagles players don’t have a right to voice their concerns, warped as they may be.
Many would say it’s something to be proud of that our sporting stars have the strength of their convictions and are so passionate about issues that they can voice them publicly.
But when do you cross the line and how much are you willing to sacrifice for those beliefs?
The “sisters in arms” mentality of the Diamonds, in support of Wallam, is an impressive display of team unity but how unified will they be if netball’s financial woes continue and they need to take a significant pay cut moving forward?
Will Cummins sacrifice a portion of his wage if Cricket Australia can’t find a replacement for Alinta’s $40 million?
Perhaps the answer to both those questions is yes, and if so, bravo. I doubt it though.
Again, this is not a criticism of Wallam or Cummins. I am not suggesting they don’t have a right to use their platform to push for change in areas they believe are crying out for more attention and repair.
But players having a say on who can and can’t sponsor a team is a dangerous can of worms.
It’s akin to a journalist asking the Weekender not to accept advertisements from a particular company because their personal beliefs don’t align with that of the business. That same advertiser, however, pays their wage and may not be so easy to replace.
Nobody has ever suggested an ad that appears beneath a story written by a journalist suggests that journalist backs that company.
And I don’t know about you, but I’ve never connected the individual with the sponsor when it comes to team jerseys, either.
I didn’t necessarily think Craig Gower had a SANYO TV in his lounge room back in 2003 and I’m not convinced Dylan Edwards is big on strawberry milk.
Nor would I blame Pat Cummins if I signed up with Alinta Energy and got stung with an unimpressive bill.
I know, it’s not that simple.
But for years corporate Australia has been asked to be very forgiving when it comes to sport and problems on and off the field, especially in cricket and rugby league.
And it largely has, continuing to pour cash into sport because they see the bigger picture. Sometimes, I’m not sure the players can see that same picture.
What’s becoming more and more obvious is that sporting codes are going to have to decide just how much weight their players have when it comes to corporate decisions.
And if they choose to listen, then how far do you go? Where does the line get drawn regarding what’s OK and what’s not?
Welcome to sport in 2022.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor and Breaking News Reporter. He has more than 20 years experience as a journalist, working with some of Australia’s leading media organisations. In 2023, he was named Editor of the Year at the Mumbrella Publish Awards.