It’s been a pretty tumultuous couple of years for a sport that has typically done its best to stay away from negative headlines.
There’s been salary cap scandals, disputes around rule changes, player unrest, serious financial issues, and a spotlight on its historically poor treatment of Indigenous people.
In 2020, the Queensland Firebirds were heavily criticized for their approach to Super Netball’s annual First Nations Round, after those in charge used the one and only Indigenous player in the league to market the themed fixtures, but failed to understand the importance of her actually making it onto the court.
In the wake of that controversy, the sport vowed to do better and introduced several initiatives in order to ensure netball became a more inclusive and encouraging space for First Nations people, to prevent that sort of disaster from happening again.
Now, a couple of years down the line, the sport and its link with Indigenous players has again seen it make headlines, this time around what is and isn’t acceptable sponsorship for the national team.
As has been widely reported, Netball Australia recently signed a significant $15 million partnership with Hancock Prospecting that should help fix their financial debt, as well as giving a little bit of extra remuneration to the Diamonds players.
Part of that deal required the national team to wear the Hancock Prospecting logo on their dresses, but when they hit the court for the first match of the trans-Tasman Constellation Cup series last Wednesday, it was nowhere to be found.
Just a fortnight ago, Noongar woman Donnell Wallam and the rest of the Australian squad had been photographed in dresses that featured the logo at their media day, but somewhere between that moment in time and the start of the Constellation Cup, players were clearly made aware of business founder Lang Hancock’s abhorrent views about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Hancock made those comments in the 1980s and died in 1992, passing on the Hancock Prospecting business to his daughter Gina Rinehart. Whether she shares those views is the question that really needs answering at this point.
On Tuesday afternoon, a Zoom call was conducted involving Wallam, a representative from Netball Australia, members of the sport’s First Nations Advisory Committee, several Indigenous staff members from Hancock Prospecting and an Indigenous athlete also sponsored by the business.
Sharon Finnan-White was one of those present in her role as Wallam’s mentor and for her involvement with the First Nations Advisory Committee, helping to provide cultural support.
The Dunghutti and Gumbaynggirr woman is one of just two Indigenous Diamonds the national team has ever seen representing the green and gold, and whilst she’s extremely excited about Wallam becoming the third — in the England Test series set to take place following the Constellation Cup — she is concerned about her welfare.
According to information shared with Finnan-White, the rest of the Diamonds playing group had been prepared to back Wallam’s discomfort wearing the logo, but are now distancing themselves from that stance.
“Obviously this is not the ideal preparation ahead of your debut,” Finnan-White told the ABC.
“I’m so frustrated, because as far as I can understand the Diamonds playing group were originally standing behind her, but I’ve just found out today that they’ve done a 360 and now she’s been thrown under the bus.
“My understanding was that it wasn’t just about social justice but environmental issues too… All of a sudden now, it’s all back on Donnell and she’s going to be coping all of the social media backlash about being the only black fella in the team that’s causing trouble.
“This always happens to our people and I’m sick of it… It’s like we’re always made out to be the bad guy, as if we’re the ones causing trouble, so I just feel really sad for Donnell right now, she must be feeling so isolated.”
Finnan-White was first alerted about the issues surrounding the Hancock Prospecting sponsorship about 10 days ago when she heard from the Australian Netball Players’ Association, prompting her to conduct her own research into what Hancock had said in the past.
“Today in the Zoom meeting I heard more about the positive work the company is currently doing to give back to the Indigenous community and invest in projects to help our grassroots people as well as other athletes.
“For example, the land that they’re mining on, the traditional owners there are being supported and there’s money going back into those Indigenous communities, but that doesn’t change the fact that what his father said is still associated with his family legacy .
“That’s Donnell’s main issue, what her father said, and if Gina came out and said publicly: ‘I denounce what my dad said, I don’t agree with what he said, that’s not my value set’, I think Donnell would be okay with that and potentially would be able to move forward.
“Sometimes you just need to hear the words, but is that something Gina is prepared to do? I don’t know…. I think if she did it would be a really good news story for Hancock Prospecting.”
Reflecting back on when those comments were made in the ’80s, Finnan-White said she vaguely remembered hearing them as a teenager, but didn’t quite comprehend the gravity of what was being said and finds it triggering now.
“I must have been about 14-15 back then, so I do remember seeing something on TV, but I don’t think I truly realized how it felt about it.
“I obviously didn’t like what he said, but as a child or young person, you don’t have a proper concept of the barriers our people have, so now as an adult and knowing more it really angers me.
“You can’t just take those words back, it’s something that happened, just like colonization and genocide and the stolen generation, it’s easy for people to say, ‘Oh that’s all in the past, people need to move on’, well lamentable all those white assimilation policies are why our people are disadvantaged today.
“It still hurts very much to hear that being said about our people, and I don’t think many non-Indigenous people understand why those words cut so deep and the type of pain it causes.”
Whist Finnan-White is hopeful that the partnership with netball may go ahead, realizing its ground-breaking potential for the sport he loves, he says there is still a lot to be worked out and hopefully something positive can come from all this.
“This is a big investment for netball that can do wonderful things, but in terms of having to compromise values, thankfully I’ve never been in that position before.
“Donnell needs to be supported in the best way possible, he knows that I’m here for him and I hope everyone else has the same best intentions.
“Hancock aren’t saying it’s all or nothing, ‘you wear this or not’, they’re certainly willing to work with her and it was great that they were able to bring all those people together with such short notice to be able to sit and have those conversations today.
“What was raised in our conversation, is that now is the time for organizations like mining companies who may have a bad reputation because of what they’re doing on Indigenous land, to create that change and become a leader in this space.
“We want to leave something for the next lot of Indigenous girls in the pathway so that they are proud of the dress they’re wearing and the companies that they’re representing… It’s just unfortunate that, there’s always got to be one of us that takes the brunt of it all, that has to be brave and courageous to stand up and influence change.”