“Sportswashing” has become a nouveau term du jour thanks to Greg Norman’s LIV Golf and the lens now being applied to the Qatar World Cup.
It refers to the concept of a country or brand trying to hide its dirty deeds through the sponsorship of sporting events, and hoping some of the clean and wholesome deeds on the field will apply some bleach to the product paying the big bucks.
But don’t think for a minute there is any difference between a Saudi petrochemical company sponsoring the International Cricket Council and an Australian company sponsoring local sport — it’s all about putting your name on the uniform and hoarding boards, be it advertising or public relations.
And it’s marketing 101.
Putting your name out there and associating it with the gods and goddesses of the sporting world will sell your product.
The Australian mining, energy, gambling and alcohol companies sponsoring sport aren’t doing it from the good of their hearts, they’re doing it because it’s good for their brands. And Australian sporting codes in the most crowded sporting landscape in the world are all too keen to take the money.
Why wouldn’t they?
Unless it’s one of the big codes in the country — think AFL, NRL, cricket and tennis, all of which can attract hundreds of millions of dollars through TV rights deals — sports are desperate for sponsorships to keep their organisations running.
Even the AFL, which recently signed a record deal worth $4.5 billion dollars, has extensive sponsorship agreements, which in some cases can tie the league up in knots. It accepts millions of dollars from a sports betting company while also hosting videos on its online platform warning children against the dangers of online betting.
It illustrates how sponsorship and individual ethics are not always easy bedfellows.
Which brings us to Netball Australia (NA) and its new deal with the mining and agricultural company Hancock Prospecting, and the row over Indigenous athlete Donnell Wallam’s conscientious objection to wearing the company’s logo.
Wallam is a Noongar woman, whose primary objection to the sponsorship relates to the odious statement by Lang Hancock in the 1980s advocating the sterilisation of Aboriginal women, and the fact his daughter and company executive chairman Gina Rinehart is yet to speak out against those views.
As one source close to the team told ABC Sport: “If Gina came out tomorrow and denounced those comments, the world would be a better place.”
Netball is not one of those sports that is able to rely on television money despite its huge playing base. It is in financial dire straits and recently posted a $7 million loss.
Hancock’s deal, worth $14 million over four years to fund the high-performance costs of the Diamonds program, was warmly welcomed by NA, which doubled down on the deal yesterday in the heat of the sponsorship row.
“Netball Australia has reinforced its support of its ground-breaking partnership with Hancock Prospecting,” the organisation said in a statement.
“The investment underpins our Australian Diamonds program for future success and enables Netball Australia to build and grow our great game at a community and grassroots level.”
Wallam has taken a courageous position and is bearing the brunt of enormous pressure.
While she has the support of her Diamonds “sisters in arms”, they too are walking a fine line.
The team has come out in support of the Hancock Prospecting sponsorship, but the players, the sport and the sponsor are yet to find a way of accommodating Wallam’s conscientious objection.
The situation isn’t without precedent.
Cricket is one sport which has managed to accommodate the positions of Muslim players like Usman Khawaja and Fawad Ahmed, who both refused to wear the logo of an alcohol brand when they played for Australia.
So players do have some power as Australian captain, Pat Cummins, said on Tuesday.
“I think it’s always been a balance,” he said.
“We’ve seen certain players make decisions based on religion, or maybe certain foods they eat, they won’t partner with specific partners.”
Ever the diplomat, he added: “But we really thank all our partners for everything they do.”
Asked if he thought players had a responsibility to have a voice on choice of sponsors, Cummins replied: “Not just us players, every organisation has a responsibility to do what is right for the sport but also what they think is the right thing for the organisation and I hope society when it moves forward.
“It’s a balance where you make decisions about who you’re going to welcome into the cricket family.”
But the reality is that some decisions are easier to make than others.
The row that’s blown up in golf over the LIV tour relates to a choice some players have made to accept Saudi Arabian money.
Others have made the choice not to accept that money and stay with the PGA, where they remain exceptionally well-remunerated.
But making that ethical choice is not always so easy and often we see athletes faced with invidious decisions.
Consider those soccer players at the upcoming World Cup, who may not like the idea that the tournament is being played in Qatar, nor support that country’s human rights record.
But the reality is they’re at the mercy of a decision made by FIFA powerbrokers many years ago.
Yes, they have a choice not to participate in the World Cup, but that would be extraordinarily difficult for a player who may only get one chance to play on the sport’s biggest stage.
Cummins could yet find himself in a tricky situation at the Cricket T20 World Cup when Australia begins its campaign this weekend.
The man of the match awards at the tournament are sponsored by the Saudi petrochemical company Aramco.
Cummins, who has been outspoken on climate change issues and is one of the driving forces behind the Cricket for Climate organisation, could be in the difficult situation of accepting a man of the match award from Aramco.
Asked if he would feel comfortable accepting an award, the normally unflappable Cummins was for once stumped.
“Yeah, I know they’re a tournament sponsor,” he said.
“It’s obviously far away from the decisions us players make, it’s an ICC decision, so … yep.”
He could of course choose not to accept an award, but imagine the fallout if Australia’s Test and one-day captain chose to snub one of the ICC’s sponsors.
On Wednesday, former Fremantle Dockers player Dale Kickett and high-profile supporters, including former West Australian premier Carmen Lawrence and author Tim Winton, sent an open letter to the club’s board calling on it to dump oil and gas giant Woodside Petroleum as the side’s major sponsor.
“Despite claims it is trying to decarbonise, Woodside has doubled down on fossil fuels in the last year; purchasing BHP’s oil and gas assets and becoming one of the top-10 largest fossil fuel companies in the world,” the letter said.
“As members and supporters, we are speaking out because we don’t think it is fair for these young men and women to run out with a fossil fuel company’s logo plastered on their jumpers any longer.”
It remains to be seen whether any of the club’s players, including dual Brownlow Medallist and captain Nat Fyfe, are backing the call.
Fyfe and teammate Alex Pearce are members of Cool Down, a group of Australian sportspeople calling for action on climate change.
The move has won the support of former Australian Rugby international Senator David Pocock, who says fossil fuel companies are the new tobacco.
“If they don’t have credible transition plans, if they’re continuing to push for new fossil fuel projects, they have no place sponsoring the teams and athletes we know and love,” he said.
But Pocock is cognisant of the difficulties sports people can have if they speak out.
“As an athlete, when your team is sponsored by a company, you wear their logo on you and you’re associated with them, so I really respect and back athletes that raise concerns and call that out,” he said.
“It’s brave and they’re showing real leadership by actually voicing their concerns because it is hard as an athlete to do that — you cop it from the administrators and then you cop it from the fans.
“It’s up to each individual athlete to work out how they agitate within their own sport behind closed doors for change on this and if they don’t get that, how they talk publicly about it.”
In life, there are very few truly right and wrong actions.
Most of our actions and decisions fall in a far-reaching spectrum of grey.
A wealthy person who wants to take some action on climate change can install solar panels and use the electricity they generate to power their new electric car.
A poorer person may have the same beliefs but doesn’t have the same financial opportunity to put their money where their mouth is.
Almost all of us are the beneficiaries of dividends from mining, gambling, alcohol, and tobacco companies through our superannuation whether we support those industries or not.
How many of us are truly prepared to make the decision to divest our lives of organisations we don’t support — no matter the cost?
The same is true of sportswomen and men.
It is a courageous athlete who is prepared to bite the hand that feeds.
But those same athletes have started a broader conversation, which takes courage in itself, because the choices they have to make aren’t always easy.