Australia’s netball is in the middle of a racism dispute.
Australia’s national netball team, the Diamonds, will play with an Aboriginal player next week for the first time in more than 20 years.
It’s a historic event, and for Donnell Wallam, who has only been playing the sport professionally for about a year, it’s a huge personal accomplishment.
But the moment has been overshadowed by a fight between the team and a company owned by Australia’s richest person. Ms. Wallam privately raised concerns about the company’s treatment of Indigenous people, which led to the fight.
Heiress to a mine Gina Rinehart, one of the biggest private investors in Australian sports, had promised Netball Australia (NA) A$15m ($9.5m; £8.4m) through a four-year partnership deal with her company Hancock Prospecting that was announced last month.
And NA really needed her money because it owes up to A$11m.
But after a week of arguing, Hancock Prospecting said on Saturday that the partnership, which was supposed to help the Diamonds stay one of the best sports teams in the world, would “regretfully” not happen.
The company said in a statement that it didn’t want to add to “netball’s problems with division.”
It also said it would stop giving money to The West Coast Fever, a team in the Super Netball league, the best competition in the country. However, it would keep giving money to both teams for four months while they looked for new sponsors.
NA said that everyone had tried their best, but they had not been able to reach “a mutually satisfactory outcome.”
Kelly Ryan, who is in charge of sports in Australia, said that the loss would affect every level of sport in the country.
So, what went wrong?
Even though she hasn’t said anything in public, Ms. Wallam, who is the only Aboriginal player on the team, is said to have told her teammates she didn’t like wearing the logo.
Lang Hancock, Ms. Rinehart’s father and the founder of Hancock Prospecting, is said to have said some racist things. This worries her a lot.
In 1984, he said that Aboriginal people should “breed themselves out” during a TV interview.
“I’d put something in the water to make it sterile,” he said. “That would solve the problem.”
More recently, the mining industry as a whole has been accused of taking advantage of the land and goodwill of Aboriginal communities, but it’s not clear if Ms. Wallam talked about this.
Several Australian news sources say that the goal shooter wanted to ask the sport’s governing body if she could wear the uniform without Hancock’s logo.
Then, Ms. Wallam’s teammates reportedly didn’t wear the logo to show support for her.
Some were also worried about climate change, since Hancock Prospecting is a big supplier of fossil fuels, but NA sources in local media denied this.
The Netball Players Association’s head, Kathryn Harby-Williams, told The Australian that the Diamonds’ motto is “sisters in arms.” “The team didn’t want their teammate to have to wear a different uniform on her first game for Australia.”
When the dispute became public, some people praised the players, while others defended Ms. Rinehart by saying that she couldn’t be blamed for what her father, who had died 30 years before, thought.
There was also criticism of NA because it was said that they didn’t talk to players enough before signing the deal. On Tuesday, however, NA doubled down on its support for the partnership.
As the amount of pressure on the team grew, the players seemed to change their positions.
“We’re big fans of Hancock, and we want this partnership to work,” Liz Watson, captain of the Diamonds, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) on Tuesday.
Sharon Finnian-White, who coached Ms. Wallam and was the last Aboriginal netball player to play for the Diamonds in 2000, said that a simple apology could fix the problem.
“I think Donnell would be fine with it if Gina came out and said, ‘I don’t agree with what my dad said. That’s not what I stand for,'” she told the ABC.
But none came, and Hancock Prospecting and Ms. Rinehart were upset on Saturday that sports were being “used as a vehicle for social or political causes.”
In a statement, they said, “There are more focused and real ways to advance social or political causes without virtue signaling or for self-publicity.”
The company defended itself by saying that it helps Aboriginal communities get training, jobs, and education, and that it also pays traditional landowners a lot of money in royalties for mining on their land.
“Hancock and Ms. Rinehart would only want athletes to wear the Hancock logo if they were proud to do so.”
The Saga shows how Indigenous athletes are treated.
Ms. Finnian-White said it is sad that Ms. Wallam is being blamed for the trouble.
“I thought it wasn’t just about social justice, but also about the environment… All of a sudden, it’s all Donnell’s fault, “The ABC was told by Ms. Finnian-White.
“I’m sure she feels so alone.”
“This happens to our people all the time, and I’m sick of it.”
Barry Judd, who studies how Aboriginal people take part in sports, said that he has seen this happen many times.
He told the BBC that Ms. Wallam’s teammates were also in a very tough situation.
But, the University of Melbourne Pro Vice Chancellor said, it is frustrating to see Indigenous athletes speak up bravely, especially about racism, only to be made out to be bad guys.
Dr. Judd gives the example of Australian Football League (AFL) champion Adam Goodes, who was “booed out of the game” in 2015, a few years after he confronted a young fan who was racially abusing him during a game.
He said of Goodes, a two-time AFL best-and-fairest winner and Australian of the Year, “He became the bad guy in the situation very quickly. He was a scary black man picking on a young girl who was doing nothing wrong.”
He says that Ms. Wallam’s situation is the same. “The problem is with her. It’s like coming full circle, because Lang Hancock called Indigenous people a problem.”
Dr. Judd says that when these things happen, many Indigenous athletes feel like the public’s acceptance or love depends on them being quiet and thankful.
They also keep Aboriginal people from playing sports, which is something he says Australian sports, especially netball, can’t afford.
Ms. Wallam is the only Aboriginal player in the Super Netball league at the moment. In the Diamonds’ 84-year history, only three Aboriginal people have played for the team.
NA says it wants to get more Indigenous people involved, but a former board member, Nareen Young, said this week that racism is present “at every level” of the sport.
NA said that it took “any claim of racism very seriously” in response.
“Netball Australia made a public promise in 2020 to listen, learn, and change by engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and hearing about their netball experiences,” it said in a statement to News Corp Australia, adding that “this very important work continues.”
Dr. Judd says racism isn’t just a problem in netball.
But the way NA is handling this won’t help it solve its diversity problems.
“This sends a very bad message to young Indigenous people: ‘You’re not as important to us as corporate dollars, and your ideas about how the sport should be run and where it should go in the future are not taken seriously.'”