The scale of support from the sporting community for a new climate change petition when it was unveiled late last month was impressive.
At that stage, more than 250 current and former athletes had added their names to “The Cool Down”, which calls for action on climate change in Australia.
There were elite players — including Australian cricket vice-captain Pat Cummins, AFL legend Lance Franklin, perhaps the NRL’s best player in Nathan Cleary and Matildas goalkeeper Teagan Micah.
However, if someone looked closely at the list one thing stood out: It was dominated by those in Aussie rules.
Franklin, Daisy Pearce, Mason Cox and Katie Brennan were among 120 people from the Aussie rules community listed, close to half of the athletes that initially signed up.
Since then, another 200 sportspeople have added their names, including more than 60 from the AFL and AFLW.
But, so far, just 14 have signed up from within rugby league.
So, what’s different?
According to political analysts, Victoria is known as a more progressive state than others.
At the 2019 federal election, the lower house two-party preferred vote for the Coalition south of the Murray was 47 per cent, compared with 52 per cent in New South Wales and 58 per cent in Queensland.
However, Emma Pocock — co-founder of Frontrunners, the group co-ordinating the petition — says the explanation for the difference is simpler than that.
She believes the group has grown organically from those she and her co-founder, former Wallaby David Pocock, have had a chance to speak to.
Initially, that’s been with more AFL players, who have then had discussions with others at their clubs, creating a domino effect.
“A club like North Melbourne, where you’ve got players like Tom Campbell and Jasper Pittard who retired last year,” she says, “they are really passionate about these issues and are doing a lot of work to educate themselves and spending a lot of time talking to their teammates about it.”
At least 13 current Kangaroos have signed the petition, and Pittard told the ABC his former team-mates’ interest in the issue was piqued during last year’s COVID-19 hub.
“Being in the hub last year in Queensland was tough in many ways, but we also had a relatively large amount of free time to try and entertain ourselves,” he says.
The players had recently witnessed the impact of the Black Summer bushfires and how they had even affected AFL pre-season training at some clubs.
“We just started putting time towards just learning a bit more, trying to connect with people in the climate area, which is how I met Emma Pocock.”
Emma Pocock has spent the best part of a decade involved in conservation and community development projects with partner David and, after a period working for a Greens senator, she started Frontrunners, which describes itself as a “movement for athletes”.
“We started the campaign because we knew the interest was there. We knew from conversations that we’ve been having from relationships that we’ve got across the sporting world in Australia.”
AFL Players Association chief executive Paul Marsh was approached by Pittard and Campbell directly in Queensland last year.
“I actually went up there for five weeks, to meet with the players, to talk about a range of issues, and when I caught up with the North Melbourne players, Jasper Pittard and Tom Campbell came and grabbed me afterwards,” Marsh said.
“They said one of the things we’ve been working on is climate action and we want to talk to you guys about potentially forming some sort of partnership.”
The AFL Players’ Association itself has signed up and Marsh says the move reflects the players’ interests in causes beyond the sporting arena, including marriage equality, mental health and racism.
“At my very first meeting of our player leaders, which was within my first month of starting, we put a proposal to the players around this dollar donation [to charitable causes] from every game and the players themselves said, ‘Let’s actually put more in’.”
Rugby league’s perspective
Marsh’s counterpart at the Rugby League Players Association says a lack of formal support from those within his code to The Cool Down so far does not reflect a lack of interest.
Clint Newton is a former first grade player and has signed the petition.
“I think the lower numbers are not a reflection of the players’ passion towards keeping our world, and particularly Australia, in a position where we’re not going to be significantly affected by climate change,” he says.
“It’s more about the timing of certain things — we’ve pushed out some communication to players and we’ve had some take up, but obviously the AFL and rugby union have been at this for several months now and so they’ve got a bit of a head start.”
South Sydney backrower Cameron Murray is one of the elite rugby league players to have added their names, alongside Cleary, Angus Crichton, Reece Walsh and Ronaldo Mulitalo.
Murray was prompted by a direct approach from David Pocock, and he’s expecting others will follow.
“I’m a big believer in the stuff that he’s doing but, to be honest, I haven’t probably put the focus and energy that I probably see myself putting into the initiative over the next couple of years. I’ve just been focusing on footy and obviously finals coming up,” Murray says.
“There’s definitely a lot of work that we have to do, collectively, on a micro level, as athletes, and then obviously, big picture, as a country.”
Newton believes the strong Pacific connection with the game — close to half of all NRL players have Pasifika roots — will ultimately make rugby league players leaders in climate change discussions.
“We know that, if things continue the way they are going, then some of those nations will be impacted and already are being impacted,” he says.
Staying in the lane
Prime Minister Scott Morrison criticised Cricket Australia in January for its decision to avoid the term “Australia Day” in its Big Bash promotions this year.
“A bit more focus on cricket, and a bit less focus on politics, would be my message to Cricket Australia,” he said at the time.
That sentiment is regularly revived when an athlete offers a perspective beyond injuries or tactics, and their audience disagrees.
Pittard is now retired and feels the scale of the latest petition will give others confidence to share their views.
“There might be some apprehension for athletes who do want to speak out, purely based on the fact that they don’t want to get shot down,” he says.
“I think seeing … [the] camaraderie within all the sports within Australia, there’s this quite big collective voice, I think that’s allowed this conversation to really start accelerating.”
Marsh says the sporting industry has traditionally shied away from issues that challenge parts of the market but that, he says, is changing.
“I think, sport, over a long time has probably tried to silence athletes on issues that can be somewhat divisive,” he says.
“I think what we’re seeing now is the rise of athletes, knowing that they’ve got a voice.
For some current athletes, the latest climate change petition has given them confidence, or, as North Melbourne ruckman Campbell says, “permission” to speak.
“In the past I’ve been reluctant to be commenting on social media on a range of issues,” he says.
“I think The Cool Down shows that there’s a collective of Australian athletes [who] are really passionate about climate change action, and I think that gives a lot of athletes permission to speak up about this issue.”
While some will always believe there is no place for athletes in politics, RLPA’s Newton argues it is inevitable, given sport’s relationship with community.
“Because players are community focused — that’s what they do, they entertain, they provide something back, they give something back to the community via playing sport.
“So they actually have a community focused mindset when you engage them in these types of things, and you provide them with an opportunity to understand and be educated on, they will buy in.”