The saga of Netball Australia’s initial failed partnership with Hancock Prospecting, and its subsequent replacement by a deal with the taxpayer-funded Visit Victoria, displays some of what is right, and much of what is wrong, with activism’s latest iteration.
The initial $15 million deal with Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting fell apart after the players publicly rejected the sponsorship on the grounds of racist comments in the 1980s by her late father, Lang Hancock, as well as climate change concerns.
While some have criticised the players for unfairly holding the sins of Lang Hancock against Gina, the bigger issue is the taxpayer bailout: a sadly predictable, almost inevitable, eventuality.
Obviously, one could question the potential cost-benefit analysis on this sponsorship; although historically, analysis of the returns to government from major sporting events haven’t been worth the paper they’re printed on — varying wildly and seemingly randomly.
It is also clear, given the timing and amount of the sponsorship, that this is a nakedly political action. Taxpayers might wonder whether funding the national netball team should be a priority for a state government.
And cynics among us might ask: if historical wrongdoing is such an important consideration in Netball sponsorship, how does the Victorian government stack up since colonisation?
From a cultural perspective though, yet again, we see so many ‘ethical’ stands for progressive causes are predicated on likely or certain insulation for any consequences for one’s actions.
Take, for instance, the ESG trend sweeping the world’s major corporations. It amounts to little more than the wealthy elite using their shareholders’ money to gild their reputation and salve their consciences.
The point is not to suggest such concerns are always disingenuous — although some are clearly cynical or desperate ploys to avoid the vengeful glare of activists — but it’s easy to stay true to your convictions when it’s not your money on the line.
Another prominent example are those howling about private fundraising in politics, suggesting caps and bans on donations from all sorts of ‘undesirable’ industries and individuals. Such a stand might be admirable, or at least understandable, if it was accompanied by a commitment to minimise political spending.
But it’s not. Predictably, public funding must replace private funding, so those would-be political candidates and parties are not out of pocket.
Climate activists are breaking the law with impunity, committing vandalism and public nuisance offences, yet because such actions are tacitly accepted by progressive elites in major institutions, it is seen as unfair for them to face criminal consequences.
Underlying much of this — let’s be frank — grifting, is the inherent belief that government money is pure, while private funds are somehow tainted. This belief pervades the modern left, and its obsession with big government.
For example, it’s basically an article of faith on the left that the ABC is independent and the corporate press is biased.
So even the acknowledgement (finally) that Australia’s housing supply must be addressed can only be framed in terms of government funded public housing, or not-for-profit social housing. So-called ‘greedy’ developers need not apply.
To be clear, despite sports long, incestuous relationship with taxpayer funds, the problem is not limited to netball or sports in general. Whole industries are oriented around government funding insulating them from the need to care about market forces or customer sensibilities.
Nor is activism new in sports. Indeed despite the old cliché that sports and politics don’t mix, this sort of player activism occurs all the time.
For example the American NBA has seen a significant rise in player-led activism in recent years. There were threats to walk off the court during a 2014 playoff series over racist comments from then-owner Donald Sterling. Several playoff games were cancelled in 2020 over police actions in Kenosha.
Of course, activism on issues of race has a significant history in US sports; from Jackie Robinson to Muhammed Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos — and many others. Racism also led to the sporting isolation of apartheid South Africa.
Religion has also been an issue of significant tension within sports. One of the more famous examples was Eric Liddell’s refusal to run his 100m heat in the 1924 Olympics because it fell on a Sunday — immortalised in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire.
This too has been an issue in Australia, from Israel Folau to Will Hopoate (who also declined to play football on Sunday), to the controversy at Manly over the pride jersey and GWS Giants footballer Haneen Zreika, who sat out the AFLW’s pride round.
On the other side, we see the climate activism of David Pocock during his rugby career, which was sufficiently prominent that he subsequently secured a Senate seat. Pat Cummins also seems to be interested in flexing his cultural muscle as Australian Cricket Captain.
Nor have black Australian Rules and Rugby League players been silent about broader societal issues, as well as the obnoxious racism that has reared its head at times in those sports.
Indeed some sports stars have been attacked for not making a stand over human rights issues. Michael Jordan was criticised for a long time for not being vocal enough on issues of race. A more recent example are those who have defected to LIV Golf, a competition is funded by the Saudi Arabian government.
One suspects that sports stars who are not particularly political are getting squeezed between the increasingly polarised and politicised media and elite class they are surrounded by, and the general sports-watching public, who remain largely apolitical, if not broadly socially conservative.
None of which limits the rights of players to stand on their convictions, like everyone else.
However, the strength of those actions are severely undermined when transparently political actions inoculate the players from consequences. It is not that admirable or courageous to take a stand on someone else’s dollar.
Simon Cowan is Research Director at the Centre for Independent Studies.