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Who wins with sponsor boycotts?

Recently, there has been criticism of athletes who have decided to boycott corporate sponsors, and the criticism has taken familiar forms: that these protesting athletes are vain, naive, ungrateful, hypocritical, or violating the unwritten law that prohibits athletes from – God forbid – mix sport with politics.

First there was Australian Test cricket captain Pat Cummins, who expressed unease that the team’s main sponsor, Alinta Energy, was a carbon polluter and coal-fired power plant operator. Cummins said he will no longer appear in commercials for the company, while Cricket Australia said it would not extend its contract with Alinta beyond next year, although that decision was unrelated to Cummins’ concerns.

“Where does it end?” Channel Nine’s Tony Jones asked this week. “If you want to be pragmatic, stop using wooden cricket bats because that’s at the behest of the forests.”

Then there was Australian netballer Donnell Wallam. Wallam, a Noongar woman, was expecting her international debut against England this week, which would make her only the third Indigenous Australian to ever play for the Diamonds. Last week, she privately told teammates she was uncomfortable wearing a uniform bearing the logo of Hancock Prospecting – the mining company Gina Rinehart inherited from her father, Lang Hancock, that has made Rinehart one of the richest people in the world has made.

Wallam was aware that in a 1980s television interview, Hancock had shared his dream of luring Indigenous Australians to a centralized welfare office and then “[doping] up the water so they are sterile and will breed in the future and that would solve the problem”.

Wallam’s national team-mates supported her – they took her ‘sisters in arms’ credo seriously – and sought a compromise with their sponsor: they would all wear the shirt for the current series against New Zealand, but demanded an individual exception for Wallam in the upcoming series against England .

Rinehart’s reaction was almost immediate: she withdrew her $15 million sponsorship from Netball Australia. Then one of their mines, Roy Hill, withdrew their separate $2 million sponsorship of Netball WA and Perth’s West Coast Fever gratuitously. “We were collateral damage,” complained Fever boss Simone Hansen.

Hansen wasn’t wrong. The response was swift, thin-skinned and vengeful – but it also came at a time of serious financial precarity for netball, and talkback radio became occupied with accusations of player ingratitude.

Gina Rinehart is not her father and we could separate his sins from his daughter. But Rinehart did not deny her father’s dreams. And with his name emblazoned on the shirts, we could spend some time reflecting on the man – and the potential sense of compromise or insult one might feel in furthering his legacy.

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In the 1960s, Lang Hancock laid claim to one of the world’s largest iron ore deposits. To describe his political philosophy as laissez-faire would be inappropriate: he wanted a radically downsized federal government, whose responsibilities would be limited to maintaining the police force, a nuclear-armed air force, and a title deeds office.

He dreamed of genocide, secession and transforming part of northern Australia into an entrepreneurial utopia free from taxes, minimum wages or regulation. He believed corporate titans should buy up media to better guide Australians down the ‘road of free enterprise’. He called for the use of nuclear weapons to mine ore, contradicted the principle of land titles, and traveled to Romania to negotiate a barter with the country’s murderous dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu. “Business is business,” he shrugged.

Hancock opened a mine for raw asbestos in Wittenoom, relying on Banjima locals to mine and package the carcinogen. The mine caused hundreds of fatal cases of mesothelioma, but when Hancock bought back the mine in the 1960s, he denied there was any connection between the deaths and the asbestos – on the grounds that he himself had never contracted the deadly disease . Hancock never took responsibility, the town remains uncleansed and ironically it was the ‘destructive’ Western Australian government that warned of the serious health risks as early as the 1940s.

Is it so unthinkable, strange or evil that a young Noongar woman could object to wearing a leotard bearing this man’s name? His daughter has a complicated reverence for Hancock, and she’s inherited more than just his fortune. Cold, devout, lonely and argumentative, Gina Rinehart is a bizarre and tinny exponent of Ayn Rand creepiness who lectures Australians about their “drinking and socializing”, sues their children and warns us that “Africans are willing, for $2 work a day a year” – forgetting that our competitiveness may not be determined solely by our wages.

So, could it be possible to see her as anything other than a philanthropist in this supposedly irreverent country? Is it okay to express anything beyond slavish gratitude to someone who is so despised by most of us? And remember, Wallam’s objection was voiced privately and politely: and it boiled down to simply that he didn’t want to wear a uniform bearing the name of a man who theorized the First Australian genocide not too long ago.

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I’m calling AFL fan Tim Winton. A week ago, the famous writer and Dockers supporter put his name to a letter urging Fremantle’s board to reconsider its trading partnership with Woodside Energy. Winton was joined by other high-profile Dockers fans including ex-player and lifelong member Dale Kickett, former WA Prime Minister Carmen Lawrence, former Fremantle football manager Gerard McNeill and a former Woodside climate adviser Alex Hillman. The letter argued that Woodside was ramping up its fossil fuel production despite decarbonization pledges and that “it’s no longer appropriate to have a fossil fuel company as a lead sponsor going forward.”

Winton is not an intruder. He took his children to the Fremantle Oval to watch the Dockers’ first practice session in 1994 and has been a passionate fan ever since. But regardless of Winton’s popularity or the sincerity of his fanbase, there was outrage in Perth over the petition.

“Those of us who made our request to the dockers – it was done respectfully,” says Winton. “It was done after the season ended. This happened after the trading period ended. We didn’t want to disrupt the group’s success. We have respect for the management. [President] Dale Alcott played a straight bat. Woodside’s contract has one year left. That’s fair enough.

“But I was stuck on some commutes and listening to talkback radio – which I don’t normally do. And the intensity of that was instructive. It’s one thing to make uncomfortable requests in the arts scene, but sport is another thing – it is important‘ Winton says, laughing. “The pushback is intense. You find yourself digging into things that people really care about. It’s holy. Sport is sacred, but so is business. But nobody talks about analyzing the difference between philanthropy and buying soft power.”

Earlier this year, Winton spoke at the Perth Festival – a lavish, well-resourced international arts festival – and criticized the nearly two-decade sponsorship of the event by Chevron, an American-owned gas and oil company. “After my speech, there was this headline,” says Winton. “It was ‘Winton nudges the oil and gas bear.’ As if saying anything less enthusiastic about oil and gas was somehow dangerous. But then there were the activists who were arrested by a SWAT team for chalking up some graffiti.”

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Winton was referring to an incident last year when Extinction Rebellion activists chalked “No Gas” slogans onto a public footbridge between WA’s Houses of Parliament and Woodside’s headquarters. Two weeks later, at dawn, the anti-terrorist police searched their homes and charged them with vandalism. Some have been fined; others had dismissed their lawsuits. It was a scandalously disproportionate use of state authority, but publicly it yielded nothing like the excitement of the letter Winton was a part of.

I suggest to Winton that he not only faces the huge influence of energy companies, but also something that is arguably just as powerful: our ardent belief that sport should only be a place of escape. The “intensity” of the pushback he experienced was the sum total of people whose identities and free time are too much defined by football and feel entitled to their illusion that the sport should function as a theater magically deprived of the complications separated from commerce and culture. He spoiled the imagination.

“Politics, sport and business are all intertwined on a football board,” says Winton. “Daily. Minute by minute. It marinates in business. You’re wrong if you think it’s not political. But the players have to pretend they’re just meat puppets? Shouldn’t they have a moral imagination?”

This month the Perth Festival announced it was ending its 18-year partnership with Chevron. Winton says things that seem unchanging can eventually change. But he also learned something else: “One thing I’ve learned from all of this is that there’s a palpable fear in the comments,” says Winton. “Whether the comments are civil or professional, there is fear of change. And I personally like order and am a little reluctant to change, but change is coming. Climate chaos means cultural chaos, and on a scale that is frightening. The sooner we get involved and shape this change to our own advantage, the better our prospects.”

This article was first published in the October 29, 2022 print edition of The Saturday Paper as “A Word About Our Sponsors.”

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