• Gunditjmara/Wiradjuri woman, Helena Saunders, was part of the inaugural Queensland Firebirds team and the first Indigenous player. (IndigenousXLtd)Source: IndigenousXLtd
Trailblazing former Firebird, Helena Saunders, who detailed her experiences of racism in the sport earlier this week, has not received an apology from Netball Australia's CEO despite reports from multiple media outlets.
Shahni Wellington

24 Sep 2020 - 4:55 PM  UPDATED 28 Sep 2020 - 5:28 PM

There's been more concerning revelations for Australia's leading team sport for women and girls, as netballers come forward with their experiences of racism and call for a system overhaul. 

Earlier this week, former elite netballer, Helena Saunders, detailed her negative experiences as the first Indigenous player for the Queensland Firebirds in an op-ed for online media platform IndigenousXLtd.

Multiple media outlets on Thursday reported an apology from the Netball Australia CEO, Marne Fenech, but Ms Saunders said she is yet to hear from any representative of the sporting body.

"I haven't heard from anyone from Queensland netball, from Queensland Firebirds, from Netball Australia - I've heard from no one," Ms Saunders told NITV News.

"So I was a bit shocked that they had come out and said that I've been given an apology, and to be honest, I didn't do it to get an apology,"

"I don't actually want an apology, I want things to change," Ms Saunders said. 

Ms Saunders' experience was echoed on the IndigenousX platform by Birrigubba and South Sea Islander woman, Celeste Carnegie, in her own article titled 'Racism ended my netball career before it even began.'

Both women are calling for immediate changes to the sport, citing structural racism and classist attitudes.

It comes after the elite competition's Indigenous round came under fire for using the league's only Indigenous player, Wakka Wakka woman Jemma Mi Mi, as a poster girl before then match, but then relegating her to the bench for the whole game.

Mi Mi, who debuted for the Firebirds in 2017 and is ranked third for assists for the club, is yet to comment.

The Queensland Firebirds head coach, Roselee Jencke, released a statement defending the "strategic" decision, and said they had "underestimated community expectations."

Immediate overhaul needed

A number of media reports detailed the ‘apology’ from Netball Australia CEO, Marne Fechner and her admission that the sport is failing Indigenous athletes on the elite pathway.

“Netball apologises sincerely to Helena for her negative experiences within the netball system,” Ms Fechner reportedly said.

“Netball Australia acknowledges that strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation rates and talent within our grassroots and state competitions is not translating into our elite pathway and that there are systemic barriers in place that need to be addressed."

The latest participation data from AusPlay shows more than 18,500 Aboriginal adults are playing netball, but only one athlete has made it to the national league.

Netball Australia's Reconciliation Action Plan aims to capitalise on the sport being the most popular for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls aged 4–14 years, but Helena Saunders said she'll keep her two young daughters from the sport until it's a culturally safe place.

"I have a 5 year old and a 10 year old and I don't know if she'd be strong enough to handle what gets thrown out at the moment, I'm speaking for the future kids as well," Ms Saunders said.

"Our actions speak louder than words for me,"

"Netball Australia, Queensland Firebirds, take responsibility and say, 'right - this happened. It's not good enough. Let's make a change. Let's do it together,' Ms Saunders said.

Netball Australia is currently undertaking an independent 'State of the Game' review, aiming to "reset" the game's strategy.