Cricket

I challenged an unjust view of the ideal women’s cricketer. It was the right thing to do | Alex Blackwell

When I first started in the Australian team, we weren’t paid to play at all. Even the fact that we had our flights, accommodation and uniforms supplied was a huge win for some of my more senior teammates, like Belinda Clark, who’d had to pay their own way to travel to overseas tours earlier on in their careers. When we started to be paid as cricketers, part of our contracts included work to promote the game, which we all did quite happily.

Then one day the whole Australian squad received an email, announcing that three players – Ellyse Perry, Meg Lanning and Holly Ferling – had been awarded marketing contracts and congratulating them for this achievement. Eventually that list was extended to four players and Alyssa Healy joined the others. I was quite confused when I received the email because I hadn’t heard anything about these marketing contracts being available and in my view we were all working hard on promoting the game.

I questioned Cricket Australia’s high performance manager Pat Howard about the process and how these contracts had come to be awarded. Pat told me they had a tool that they were using to measure the marketability of different players in the game. They had used a market research company to survey people on their awareness of players and their likability and had plotted the results on two axes. Those who performed well on both were given a marketing contract.

Some of the names they used were players, but they also included some past players, coaches and media personnel, trying to discover who would be the most sensible people to back as promoters for our sport. To reward them for their time and the use of their image, they would be paid an additional fee. The process and the justification made sense to me, but in this list of players there were only a few women and a great long list of men – all the currently contracted Australian players, as well as some past players. While I understood they were measuring marketability, the historical disadvantage of women’s cricketers means we hadn’t been afforded the same opportunities to even be in the race as the men had.

Eventually I was able to take a look at the data and I could see that it was true that I was reasonably marketable myself. But there were only three, and eventually four, contracts for women, so I missed out. And yet Cricket Australia continued to put me forward as a kind of spokesperson for diversity and inclusion within the game, quite difficult and important work. The feeling that my efforts in promoting the game were less deserving of the respect of being paid for it was hard to stomach.

The four women fortunate enough to be paid for their work promoting the game are all incredibly valuable assets to our sport and I do not begrudge them being financially compensated for it at all. Unfortunately, though, the message I received following the awarding of these contracts to four traditionally attractive, heterosexual women was that Cricket Australia wanted to continue to take the image of our women’s team in a particular direction. The strategy appeared to be targeted towards cricket’s existing, mostly male, fanbase to try to bring them over to watch the women’s game, as well as endeavouring to convince mothers to sign their daughters up to cricket by showcasing the type of women cricket administrators believed mothers would want their daughters to be.

Ellyse Perry during an Ashes training session earlier this month.
Ellyse Perry during an Ashes training session earlier this month. Photograph: Mark Brake/Getty Images

Right or wrong, it felt like I would be hard pressed to be awarded a contract if this was indeed the direction the powers that be wanted for our image. I wasn’t the kind of person they wanted because, being an outspoken lesbian, I do not appeal to the male gaze. To me, that was discrimination. I was the Australian vice-captain; I had been the captain during important times for the team and I was performing on the field. But it didn’t feel like I would be in the running to receive a marketing contract. I wasn’t even in the same race. The sense of injustice grated on me – not just for myself, but for my teammates who may never be in the running no matter how good they are because they do not fit the mould of what an ideal female athlete should look like and represent. I wasn’t prepared to stand by and let that happen.

I called Pat Howard and questioned him about the situation, outlining the important promotional work I was doing for the organisation for which I wasn’t being compensated. Just prior to that call I had been on the phone for another free consultation with Cricket Australia about a respect and responsibility policy they wanted to design. Hours of my time were being taken up on the phone, in workshops and in being a public voice for Cricket Australia on all kinds of important topics.

I said to Pat: “I’m exhausted by this. It’s important work, but I’m pouring a lot of my time and emotional energy into it for free. I’d like you to understand how grating it is for me to see other athletes do something as simple as appear on a poster and get paid for it. There’s just such a discrepancy that I’m battling with here. I truly believe that all of us who are representing Australia should be rewarded for our time and the use of our image to promote the game. We should all be respected for what we’re doing to move the game forward, not just a select few.”

Pat was silent for a moment and then he said, “Well, you don’t have to do any of that if you don’t want to.”

Frankly, that wasn’t a satisfactory answer for me. It wasn’t something we talked about a lot within the team, but there was an undercurrent of discomfort in the group about the cherry-picking of certain players as marketable and the rest as not. I felt for some players in particular who I feel could have done really great things to broaden the appeal of the game. Jess Cameron was so supremely talented and had delivered us multiple World Cup wins off her own bat. She was clearly one of our most important players and so down to earth, but it felt like she was being hidden away, because she wasn’t in the pin-up mould they were looking for.

Sarah Coyte was player of the match in a World Cup final, but it seemed like she didn’t fit the image they were looking for either – she has tattooed arms and might be considered a little bit rougher around the edges than the players who were selected. It just felt to me that we weren’t taking advantage of some of the brilliantly diverse stories and experiences our players had. All the focus was going into this one image and everyone else was being asked to stand in the shadows and focus on our jobs on the field – not seen and not heard.

I felt that the people running our sports had trouble visualising a prospective fanbase that was outside of their own experiences. Given most sports administrators were straight, white, middle-aged men, there wasn’t a lot of diversity of experience there for them to see things a different way.

To me this highlights why having diverse perspectives involved in the leadership direction of an organisation is so important. Realising all this made me surer than ever that speaking out was the right thing to do, even when – or especially when – it made people uncomfortable.

This is an edited extract from Fair Game by Alex Blackwell with Megan Maurice (Hachette Australia, $33) out 26 January.

What's your reaction?