Collingwood Magpies Netball have much to celebrate. 2019 was the most successful in the club’s history, with the girls in black and white claiming two trophies and finishing fourth in the Suncorp Super Netball playoffs. But that is not all that they are smiling about.
At the end of the 2019 Super Netball season, two of Collingwood foundation players announced that they were pregnant and would not be taking the court in 2020. Adding, to the family feels for the club is fan favourite Ash Brazill’s wife, Brooke, who is also expecting.
When considering these revelations together with the fact that netball is consistently rated as the highest female-dominated team sport in the country, it is little wonder that other sports turn to Netball Australia when looking for ways to improve their player’s parenting provisions.
So, what do netball’s provisions look like? And, how have they shaped the playing future for female athletes across the country?
According to Netball Australia’s 2017 Annual Report, when Suncorp Super Netball was first announced it was with a vision for netball to be known for its ‘outstanding leadership, governance and workforce opportunities.’ The national body certainly achieved it’s goals, as SSN athletes are consistently regarded as the pinnacle of sporting leaders. At the time of its creation, the SSN Players Agreement was widely celebrated as the benchmark Agreement for female team-sport athletes, an accolade it held until October 2019.
In summation, the Players Agreement offered a wage to athletes with a minimum of approximately $35,000 per annum plus options for sponsorship payments and higher wages for the more experienced athletes. They were also given free health insurance and technology allowances. But the most renowned provision was the ground-breaking parental care policy which included 100% income protection on all earnings for contracted athletes, and travel allowances for infants up to 12 months of age plus their babysitters once the athletes returned to the court.
Australian Netball Players Association CEO, and former Diamonds captain, Kathryn Harby-Williams says that the parental policies were established to give peace of mind to athletes.
“Our SSN athletes are all female and obviously it is just as important for an athletes’ employment as it is in the corporate world. So, it was an obvious thing that Netball Australia addressed it and that they had buy-in from the players to ensure that those that decide to become pregnant, or fell pregnant, are well looked after.”
Over the three years that the agreement has been in action, only three Australian athletes have utilised the policy to transition back into the game. One of those was former Giants Netball defender, Bec Bulley.
Bulley retired from netball at the end of 2015 and transitioned into motherhood in 2016 with the welcoming of her daughter, Indie. Bulley says she never expected to return to the court but then she got a ‘desperate’ call from Giants Netball head coach, Julie Fitzgerald.
Bulley says the lack of competitive pressure was one factor in her return to the court. “Even though I had no desire to come back, it was like I had actually missed it. So, it was a chance to come back and just enjoy it. I wasn’t worried about selection into national teams or what the score was. It was like playing netball when you were young. It was just really enjoyable.”
But Bulley had a baby to think about, so was concerned how Indie would fit into the elite athlete lifestyle. Fortunately, Fitzgerald had all the answers.
“Support was my main condition to say yes when Julie approached me. I said to her, ‘I love being a mum. Netball had been my priority for so long but now I don’t want to give up time with my daughter because they grow so fast.’ But, Julie had a response for every little concern I had, she was like, ‘We can do that. We can do that.’ To the point that when we travelled interstate, they paid for my husband to come along too, so that he could look after Indie and I didn’t have to leave her at home. That was important because it meant I could continue breastfeeding. It was amazing.”
The parental provisions have been so widely praised by the former SSN mums that they are playing a part in today’s athletes deciding to have babies before officially retiring from the game.
Expectant mum, Brazill says, “Knowing that Netball Australia supports girls having babies and coming back, it’s something that you no longer have to skulk around and act like you don’t want to have a family because the sport’s everything. It’s like, if you want a family, that’s fine. We’ve seen New Zealand do it for years, but the Australian athletes never have. So Geitzy (Laura Geitz) and Renae (Ingles) and Bec have definitely led the charge in that. They’ve had kids and come back and played. It’s definitely possible if you want it that badly you are going to make it work.”
Fellow Magpie and Australian Diamonds defender, April Brandley, agrees with Brazill’s claims and confirms the provisions were a deciding factor in her choice to have a baby at this point in her career.
“Having maternity leave is so important for our sport to continue to grow, and we’ve been going forwards into a fresh side of netball. Any other job you work, you get maternity leave so that’s the way forward.”
Brandley says, “I think there’s been a real shift within the sport that they want to support women – just because you want to play netball you can have other aspirations like family. The sport moving in this direction is supporting all of that a lot more. They want women to have goals around families and careers and I think it’s a really important and exciting step forward. As well as supporting people outside netball, it’s important to have well-rounded people so that they don’t just have to be netballers. They can fill other parts of their lives as well as being a netballer, which is great.”
Like any evolution, the parental provisions are far from complete. Harby-Williams confirms that the Players Association is in continual discussions with the former SSN mothers, as well as the current SSN players, coaching and support staff to ensure that the provisions are tailored for the modern elite netball mother.
However, one of the greatest factors that the Players Association has utilised in its development of the Players Agreement, is its membership to the Australian Athletes Alliance (AAA). Netball Australia is the only female-dominated sport within the Alliance, which includes all the football codes, basketball and Cricket Australia. Harby-Williams attributes this membership as the pool of knowledge they drew from when compiling the agreement.
“It is really good for us particularly,” Harby-Williams says, “because all of these other players associations are more advanced than ours. We have regular board meetings and we discuss topics that are relevant at the time and get feedback on a whole variety of information, so we are always sharing ideas. And, because we are new, I find that there is great value going to those meetings, having those connections so that I can ring people up and get some advice.”
But, when it comes to parental provisions, Harby-Williams says that the other codes looked toward Netball Australia. They valued netball’s insight so much that Cricket Australia used it as the base of their new athlete contracts – for both women and men. Amongst other things, Cricket Australia is now offering travel allowances for families up to when the child turns 4 years of age, guaranteed contract extensions for expectant mothers and, if necessary, they are building secure breastfeeding rooms for mothers at all of their Australian playing grounds.
Speaking of the new benchmark set by Cricket Australia, Harby-Williams says, “Cricket Australia has raised the bar in their parenting provisions. And, that is what we want. So, with ours, it was introduced when the competition started a few years ago and we are constantly looking at it and I get feedback from players that it has related to. And, the feedback has been really positive so there is nothing there that needs an overhaul yet.
But it is good for us to see what cricket is doing. We constantly talk about it. If any issues are raised by those players in that position, we will address them. It is my role as the head of the Players Association to make sure that those issues are addressed and if we need to change them, the whole sport is committed to making sure that we get it right in this area.”
One might now look at Cricket Australia’s parental policy and wonder why Netball Australia doesn’t immediately implement this gold standard. The unfortunate reality for netball is the lack of a deep funding pool to draw from. While every effort is made to tailor specific clauses for the mothers, such as extensions to the travel allowance, some of them are just not feasible as netball is not yet reaching the big-dollar sponsorships like some other codes.
In these instances, the onus then falls to the clubs to make the transition back to court worthwhile for mothers.
Bulley reflects on her experience with such issues, “I was very lucky that Netball NSW supplied a babysitter for me. We trained just downstairs from where the Netball NSW office was, so it was easy for me to get to training, sit in the change room and feed Indie, then get ready for training. And, when we were ready to train Donna would come down and take Indie off which was fantastic. It meant she was out of sight and if she was having a bad day, I didn’t have to worry because she was somebody else’s responsibility. I always heard she was great, and they loved having her in the office.”
Diamonds legend and Super Netball commentator, Liz Ellis, believes that for the growth of netball as a ‘product’, it is in Netball Australia’s interest to continue to push to set the standard for the big names to return to the game after having a baby.
“I think this sport has a real opportunity to lead the way in this country and show what can be done in terms of keeping your top athletes in the game for as long as you can. The fact of the matter is, as players get older and they want to start thinking about starting families, they’re often the players who are household names, your bankable players who sponsors see getting people through the gate and watching on television. So, anything you can do to keep those players in the business is really important. I think it’s something that netball can be part of; really leading the country in that regard.”
Collingwood Magpies’ goal attack and former Diamond, Nat Medhurst, agrees that keeping the legends on the court is a priority. However, she believes the competition for team spots may be a reason why these athletes are holding off on starting families sooner.
“I remember at the Singapore World Cup in 2011 and we were staying at the same hotel as the Silver Ferns, and we were by the pool. We didn’t have one single mother in the team, and they were all there with their kids. It’s part of their culture and a given.
But now the demands have increased dramatically, particularly if you’re an international player you are going 11 months of the year. Because it isn’t spoken about there now feels like there is a lot more pressure. You feel like as an athlete if you were to take time away for a family, that you wouldn’t be able to get back into the side. I know that whilst you’d argue that with Renae and Geitzy, there is that sort of mindset around it.”
Guaranteeing team spots is one glaring difference between the Cricket Australia and Netball Australia Players Agreements. And, admittedly, there are various factors as to why each association has their stance on that clause, but for the health of the sport and for the player’s peace-of-mind it does seem like one which Netball Australia does need to review.
Regarding the clause, Medhurst say, “I know Ravvie (Collingwood midcourter Kim Ravaillion), in particular, would love to (come back after having her baby). I think April is probably a bit older and she’s moving back to NSW, so she said she may not want to come back.
It’s great that they are embraced, but the biggest concern is that they are having children and they may not be able to get back and play, because there is no support around that because they’re out of contract. I think that is a real concern.
As we’ve seen with Cricket Australia there is support around the players to come back to the sport even if it’s not in a playing role. That’s huge. We want these players to come back. There’s a concern (with netball) that if they do have a baby and they’re out of contract, what happens? They miss a year and then they’re done. It could potentially be the case for Rav. I know she’s due in March, so she could almost be thinking that if a player gets injured there’s the opportunity to play, or she may not be able to come back.
I’m thrilled for them because it’s an amazing thing and they’re very excited, but it’s disappointing that if they do want to come back to the sport they have no idea whether that will actually be possible.”
Harby-Williams acknowledges that this is one of the areas where there is room for improvement in the Players Agreement. “That (the Cricket Australia contract extension) is new ground for a pregnancy policy and one we have taken notice of. But, currently, if that player is valued by the club and they are seen as important to the future of the club, I have no doubt that they will start talking about contract, re-signing etc.”
As President of the Australian Netball Players Association, Medhurst isn’t prepared to accept this lack of change. She has considered a possible solution, “some sort of benefit needs to be given to clubs who sign a player who’s fallen pregnant, to come back. For example, Collingwood could sign Rav for half the amount because the rest is covered by the league outside the salary cap. So they’d be thinking awesome, this is a great player, we can sign for not much. The player would be thinking awesome, I can go and have a child and know I can come back and I’ve got the sport. The competition should be happy because while embracing motherhood, that they are keeping players in the game for longer. We’ve got good role models.
There needs to be more support for players to come back, or initially, as they’re doing in cricket, a role that’s not on the field. I think there should be some compensation around it. There’s more compensation given for a player who’s done their knee compared to having a child, and as a female, whether we like it or agree with it or not, our bodies are built to reproduce, so we bounce back a hell of a lot better than if we suffer a serious injury.”
Regardless of the changes which ‘need’ to be made, one thing which Netball Australia has gotten right is their formation of committees who are driving the game into the future. With current, passionate athletes like Medhurst and former athletes like Harby-Williams involved in the process, things are moving for the better.
Medhurst acknowledges these partnerships, “Kath Harby Williams is still trying to sort through the Players Agreement. There are players no longer in the game who, like me, would have done things so much differently if they’d known. We’re trying to get all of this sorted so it’s not too far away, it’s been a long and painful process.”
Harby-Williams, who has only been in her position since May 2019, acknowledges the struggles and has one message for all concerned:
“We just need people to know that we take our parenting provisions really seriously and we are committed to improving. It is about going above and beyond and being reasonable and flexible. That is what a policy like this is about. It is not one-size-fits-all. It is tailored. You just lean on the fact that sporting environments are all about relationships and teamwork and this area is no different. It is about tailoring for mother, child and club.”