SYDNEY (AP)An Australian mining company has withdrawn 15 million Australian dollars ($9.5 million) in sponsorship money for netball after top players questioned the contract and also supported an Indigenous player over her concerns about past racist comments by the founder of the company.

Hancock Prospecting, which is owned by Australia’s richest person, billionaire mining magnate Gina Rinehart, on Saturday said it was withdrawing the funding but said it would continue short-term payments in order to allow Netball Australia to find a new sponsor.

Netball has long been the most popular team sport for women and girls in Australia, but the national association is millions of dollars in debt because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The sponsorship, which was signed last month, was set to continue through to 2025 and was believed to have included a deal that the Hancock branding would feature on the players uniforms throughout international matches.

However, the national team, known as the Diamonds, played without the branding in their match against New Zealand earlier in the week.

”Hancock and Roy Hill do not wish to add to netball’s disunity problems, and accordingly Hancock has advised Netball Australia that it has withdrawn from its proposed partnership effective immediately,” the statement said.

Donnell Wallam, a First Nations woman from Western Australia state who now plays for the Queensland-based Firebirds in the top-flight national league, raised concerns about Netball Australia’s deal with Rinehart’s company.

Wallam took issue with Hancock Prospecting’s record on Indigenous matters, which date to Rinehart’s late father Lang Hancock. He proposed in a 1984 television interview that some Indigenous people be given contaminated water so they could be sterilized and ”breed themselves out.”

Wallam, who later this month is expected to become the first Indigenous player to represent the Diamonds in more than 20 years, was reluctant to wear the new sponsor’s logo. She was considering seeking an exemption, as other athletes have done when a sponsor doesn’t align with their beliefs or religion, however the issue raised national attention when her teammates opted to stand with her.

Both Netball Australia and national team captain Liz Watson had voiced their support for Hancock Prospecting, with the deal thought to have secured the future of the sports organization which sustained heavy losses over two years during the COVID-19 pandemic.

”As players we do know that Hancock is such a great investment for our program,” Watson said earlier this week.

But Watson also said that the team wanted to show support for their teammate.

”We’re supporting her cultural sensitivities around the program, around the partnership, and we want her to be herself and feel comfortable and strong,” Watson said.

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