Australia has been a very hospitable home for the fossil fuel industry and the resulting unchecked carbon pollution, thanks in large part to powerful business leaders and politicians, especially including climate skeptic (or at best, climate-go-so-slow-as-to-go-backwards) Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Things began to change in 2022.
Anthony Albanese of the center-left Labor Party, won the Prime Ministership, promising a “new era of climate action”.
And an impressive, indefatigable group of pioneering Australian eco-activist athletes — including a rugby legend-turned-senator, a growing group of Aussie Rules players, a principled squad of netballers and more — played important, high profile roles in midwifing this nascent move towards a #ClimateComeback.
This powerful example of athletes leading on climate in a country that largely lags on the issue is why GreenSportsBlog names…
Australia’s Eco-Activist Athletes as the Best Green-Sports Story of 2022!
A HOPEFUL YET ROCKY BEGINNING TO 2022 FOR AUSTRALIAN GREEN-SPORTS
Fossil fuel companies have been at the top of sports sponsor spenders in Australia for decades.
This was certainly still the case in November 2021, when retired rugby union legend David Pocock, a strong voice within sport calling for meaningful action on climate, gave an interview with The Guardian. He lamented that seeing the Wallabies, the national team for which he played for more than a decade, displaying the logo of Santos, an Australian oil and natural gas company, on its uniform was “hard to stomach.”
“I was always proud to represent my country,” Pocock continued. “As a rugby player, that’s what you dream of. It’s been difficult to watch a partnership emerge with Santos…I really think fossil fuel sponsorship is the new cigarette sponsorship, where they are advertising a product that we now know is destroying our home planet and our futures.”
More from Pocock later.
Fast-forward just two months, to the start of 2022. There was an early hint that this year might be different in Australia, and that its climate-active athletes would play an important role.
As GSB reported in January, Tennis Australia, the sport’s governing body in the country and the host of the Australian Open, backed out of its partnership with the very same Santos only one year into its multiyear deal. The catalyst for the cancellation was a consistent campaign from activist groups — led by 350.org Australia and which included the voices of athletes — that assailed the fossil fuel company for “sportswashing”.
This was a very good start.
But the fossil fuel industry still holds massive power in Australia’s sports world.
Santos – which is in the midst of developing new gas projects in the Beetaloo Basin of the Northern Territories and elsewhere – still sponsors several major sporting events, including the cycling’s Tour Down Under. 350.org is pushing the Tour to ditch Santos.
And the same week as the Tennis Australia-Santos divorce was announced, the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) heralded a new sponsorship deal, from Beijing 2022 through Milan-Cortina 2026 with Hancock Prospecting, a coal, gas, and iron mining company.
The long-standing relationship between AOC president John Coates and Hancock executive chairman Gina Rinehart was crucial to the deal, said two-time Olympic race walker and EcoAthletes Champion Rhydian Cowley.
“Hancock Prospecting and Gina Rinehart have made significant investments in the AOC and in various individual sports in Australia over the years,” Cowley noted. “Despite the objections of many within the AOC, Coates basically did the sponsorship deal on his own with Rinehart. It’s gotten blowback from many athletes and the UN Sports for Climate Action framework, of which the AOC is a signatory.”
“This is a disaster,” Dave Copeman, director of the Conservation Council of Queensland — the state’s capital city, Brisbane, will host the 2032 Summer Olympics — told The Guardian, “It’s such an ‘own goal’. There’s a real question of how a couple of big checks to Swimming Australia and the AOC buys you out of a history of environmental devastation. How the hell did they do this? What are they thinking?”
Coates no longer has to answer such questions as he resigned from the AOC presidency in April.
Rinehart, who has previously been criticized for warning against climate change “propaganda” in education and who has been an active financial supporter to climate skeptic groups and individuals, will be heard from later in this story.
GSB’s Take: At this point, you’d have a good point if you said to yourself, “wait a second, how are Australia’s athletes getting the ‘Best Green-Sports Story of 2022’ award? Heck, the AOC should be named the ‘Green-Sports-Washer of 2022!”
Remember, this happened in January…the year was very young. And the Tennis Australia-Santos split was a harbinger of things to come.
RUGBY UNION ICON, CLIMATE ACTIVIST DAVID POCOCK WINS ELECTION TO AUSTRALIA’S SENATE; HELPS PASS MAJOR CLIMATE LEGISLATION
It is not an overstatement to say that David Pocock is one of the greatest to ever don the uniform of Australia’s national men’s rugby union team. Since his Wallabies debut in 2008, Pocock’s accomplishments on the pitch were legion. He:
- Won the 2010 John Eales Medal, the highest honor in Australian Rugby
- Was a finalist for the 2010 and 2011 IRB International Rugby Player of the Year
- Was named captain of the Wallabies in 2012
- Made key contributions for the Wallabies in their run to the 2015 Rugby Championship title
- Scored a try in the 2015 Rugby World Cup defeat against the New Zealand All Blacks
Pocock announced his retirement from rugby in October 2020, to concentrate on conservation and climate work, telling The Guardian at the time that, “The looming climate and biodiversity crises make building better ways of organizing our lives, our communities and our societies more urgent than ever.”
The Zimbabwe native got straight to work, helping to launch The Cool Down in August 2021, an initiative that aimed to use the platforms of high-profile athletes to tackle the climate crisis. He was joined by more than 300 active and retired Australian athletes who wrote an open letter to the nation’s Liberal (the odd moniker for the country’s Conservative party) leaders, encouraging that bold action be taken as extreme weather events become more frequent and “our Australian way of life, including sport at every level” is jeopardized. It backed scientific calls for the country to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at least in half by 2030 and reach net zero emissions before 2050.
The Cool Down was a mere prelude to a hot 2022 for Pocock as he announced that he was running as an independent for the Senate from Canberra in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). Climate action was central plank of his campaign as he pledged to increase the country’s spending on renewable energy. Pocock’s win over incumbent Liberal Zed Seselja put him in an unusually powerful position for a rookie due to the makeup of the new, closely divided Senate. The center-left and now governing Labor party often needs Pocock’s vote to pass legislation.
That was the case in September when it came to a major climate change bill. Senator Pocock felt that its carbon reduction targets — cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent by 2030 — were too low and lacking in transparency. He ended up voting for the measure; his was a necessary vote in its ultimate passage and something was clearly better than nothing in a legislature that had largely basically climate when conservatives were in charge. But he was clear that this was just the beginning of the story, saying that this was a “starting point after a decade of inaction…[but it was] not in line with the science or what our contribution should be as a wealthy nation”. The ball is in the government’s court about whether they want to be serious about climate. Frankly, we can’t afford for them not to be.”
GSB’s Take: Many climate-minded athletes choose to stay away from politics and clearly it is not for everyone. However, Australian Rugby Union legend-turned Senator David Pocock is a shining example that eco-active athletes can use their high-profiles and their climate-cred to make a positive difference in the political arena.
In fact, it is not a stretch to say that Pocock is the most influential Climate-Fighting-Athlete we’ve seen to date. With a closely divided Senate and the center-left in power, he has real legislative leverage to push Australia’s climate ambition and action to unimagined heights.
‘FRONTRUNNERS’ HELPS AFL STARS SCORE ON CLIMATE
The AFL, the top level of Australian Rules Football, is by far the most popular sport in the country, both in terms of TV ratings and live attendance. Its players have, for the most part, not been very outspoken on social and political issues.
That is starting to change when it comes to climate change thanks to FrontRunners, a young nonprofit that bills itself as a “movement for athletes” in Australia. It “works for the future of sport in a changing world by being part of the solutions to the climate and environmental challenges facing all of us.”
While FrontRunners serves athletes from all sports, engaging AFLers to act on climate is crucial given the sport’s outsized popularity and cultural caché.
According the organization’s co-founder and CEO Emma Pocock — yes, she is David Pocock’s life partner — fans should not be surprised that Aussie Rules stars spoke out in increasing numbers in 2022.
“Aussie Rules footballers are clearly concerned about climate change and the impact it’s having on their game and their communities,” Pocock shared. “With almost 300 AFL men’s and women’s players taking part in AFL Players for Climate Action and over 180 signing The Cool Down – an open letter calling on the Australian government to lift its climate ambition – it’s clear that a large cohort of professional players wants to see serious climate action in their game and beyond. In the last few months, we’ve also released ‘Our Local’ which follows five professional players returning to the junior clubs to see their renewable energy initiatives. We know these messages resonate with fans as Monash University surveyed Aussie rules fans and found that more than three-quarters are concerned about climate change and sixty per cent want to see the game taking action.”
GSB’s Take: We in the US Green-Sports world need to work with FrontRunners so we can get hundreds of NFL players to join the #ClimateComeback with their AFL counterparts.
PLAYERS FORCE NETBALL AUSTRALIA TO CANCEL SPONSORSHIP BY…HANCOCK PROSPECTING
Hancock Prospecting, the same coal and gas company that was welcomed in early 2022 as a sponsor of the Australian Olympic Committee, was prospecting for more “sportswashing” opportunities. The fossil fuel giant and Netball Australia soon announced a partnership.
While this seemed like a small, ‘nothing to see here’ deal, it turns out that the Hancock Prospecting-Netball Australia contract would become a loud national and international controversy thanks to the company’s record on climate and indigenous peoples’ rights.
GreenSportsBlog spoke with retired pro netballer, climate and indigenous peoples advocate and EcoAthletes Champion Amy Steel about what happened after the sponsorship deal was consummated.
GSB: How did you get involved once the Hancock deal was signed?
Amy Steel: One of my mates Sharnie Layton, a former netballer and AFL player who now broadcasts AFL games, and I expressed concern about the horrible climate aspects of the Hancock Prospecting sponsorship on social media. Twitter blew up and, next thing you know, the Australian media jumped on the story. Soon, we were interviewed on ABC’s 7:30 Report, the most popular news magazine show in the country.
GSB: WOW! What was the reaction?
Amy: We got lots of hate from lots of people. You know, ‘stop virtue signaling!’ and 1take the money and shut up’. Thing was, I couldn’t stay silent about this. But that was just the start as the story took quite a twist…
GSB: …Which was?
Amy: Well, Donnell Wallam, the third indigenous athlete to ever play for Netball Australia, had just gotten her first call-up. She expressed to the Players Association that she didn’t want to wear the kit with the Hancock logo on it because Lang Hancock, the company’s founder and the father of Gina Rinehart, the current executive chairman, said in 1984 that, ‘we should add chemicals to the water on the indigenous peoples lands to fix that ‘Aboriginal problem’ fast.’
GSB: That’s AWFUL! What did the Players Association do?
Amy: Well, they researched the history and it turned out that other players in other sports in Australia had made conscientious objections about certain uniform sponsors. For example, Muslim players had objected to wearing kits that had alcohol company logos.
And when other players on the team heard about it, they basically said, if it’s Donnell’s concern, it’s our concern. They’re really sisters in arms. So, they presented the objection to Netball Australia
And then the dresses came out without the logo — the girls were really surprised! The media picked up on it right away because they knew where the logo should be.
That led to an immediate backlash from Netball Australia and a search for ways to do damage control because this story became really big very quickly.
GSB: How did that go?
Amy: Not well, at least at the beginning. The media got on Donnell for not wanting to wear the dress with the logo. Hancock Prospecting tried to get a sit down with Donnell and the girls, to sell them on all the good things they’re doing for native peoples. Donnell’s request was simple: she asked Gina Rinehart to denounce what Lang Hancock had said 38 years ago. Rinehart said she would not do that.
GSB: That was a bad decision to say the least. So, things were at a stalemate…
Amy: Right! And so the search for ways to control the damage ramped up. There was a ton of pressure on the team. So, the captain ended up saying that the team was happy to have Hancock Prospecting as a sponsor.
Then the 7:30 Report got back on the story, interviewing David Pocock and me about the situation and a bunch of newspapers ran articles about it, and public sentiment shifted to Donnell and the team.
And so by the end of that week, Hancock pulled its sponsorship.
GSB: That’s FANTASTIC! How did you feel about that?
Amy: Well, Hancock Prospecting is very good at gaslighting and so I questioned myself at first, especially with all the criticism: ‘Have I got this wrong?’
But in the end, I felt really productive that I had stood up for my values on climate action and indigenous peoples rights and doing the right thing. Standing up to authority and facing criticism for it was quite an experience and I’m glad I went through it. And I felt I owed it to others who might not be as knowledgeable on these issues to speak out.
GSB: What was the reaction once Hancock pulled out?
Amy: The hate mail came back and with a vengeance, mostly from white males who were likely not netball fans, which is primarily played by women. “You’ve ruined the future of the sport!” The Premier of Western Australia said that the girls should shut up and take the money! The CEO of one of the country’s biggest sports betting companies said that every Netball Australia sponsor will pull their support.
Amy: There also was plenty of support, including from plenty of white males, and of course women. It was great to see. Oh yeah, and the Premier of Western Australia was wrong!
GSB: What did Netball Australia do to overcome the revenue shortfall that resulted from the breaking of the Hancock Prospecting deal?
Amy: I’m happy to say that the State of Victoria Government stepped up to sponsor Netball Australia from a tourism perspective. Most of the biggest netball matches going forward will be played in Melbourne, Victoria’s capital. The new deal has gotten a lot of positive media coverage — and the Netball Australia-Hancock Prospecting story has gone around the world, which is great. Hopefully, this shows that athletes all over the world can stand up for their values, on climate, on indigenous peoples’ rights and on any issues they care about.
GSB’s Take: Kudos to Donnell Wallam, the women of the Netball Australia squad, Amy Steel, Sharnie Layton, David Pocock and more for standing up to Hancock Prospecting and to online haters. Netball Australia’s ability to pivot quickly to find a replacement partner in the State of Victoria shows that anti-climate, anti-native peoples’ fossil fuel companies are not the only sponsor game in town.
Far from it.
THE LAST WORD…
We give the last word on Australia’s Eco-Activist Athletes as the Best Green-Sports Story of 2022 to Rhydian Cowley, the aforementioned two-time Olympic race walker, EcoAthletes Champion, and clear-eyed observer of the intersection of sports and fossil fuels in his country.
His message: Athletes need to keep the pressure on in when it comes to climate.
“On the good news side, and in addition to the Netball Australia-Hancock Prospecting divorce, Cricket Australia dropped Alinta Energy, its sponsor since…forever. The deal was meant to go several more years but thanks to pressure from top cricketer and climate activist Pat Cummins, the deal was scrapped.”
Pat Cummins before he pushed Cricket Australia to sever its relationship with Alinta Energy (Photo credit: Patrick Hamilton/AFP/Getty Images)
“On the other hand, so many sports are still sponsored by fossil fuel companies in Australia. Small sports are especially vulnerable because fossil fuel money helps them to survive. Subsidies still exist for fossil fuels. Powerful politicians, apart from David Pocock of course, still support them. So the battle is not over.”
“Still, Australians are witnessing the extreme weather impacts from climate change more frequently every year. And many are getting that we need to accelerate the transition away from the extractive industries. Sports has really stepped up thanks to David Pocock, Amy Steel, Emma Pocock of FrontRunners, and Sheila N’Guyen, the long-time leader of Sport Environment Alliance, an important sustainable sport organization here, and now the head of sustainability for the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. This has led to increased coverage of climate and sports as well as sportswashing from major media outlets and top journalists.”
“There was progress in the sports-climate world in 2022 for sure and athletes had a lot to do with it. But, emissions are still increasing and so we will push even harder in 2023.”
Prior winners of GreenSportsBlog’s ‘Best (or Worst) of Green-Sports of the Year’
Photo at top: Retired rugby union legend David Pocock won a seat running as an Independent in Australia’s Capital District (Photo credit: ABC News/Matt Roberts)