Mary Cholhok is one player who is not allowed to supplement her salary


As the second-ever Ugandan player to join netball’s Superleague in 2019, Mary Cholhok was excited about her new life in the UK, which has been a “massive step” forward for her career. Despite the anguish of having to leave her then two-year-old son, Jackson, behind she looked forward to being able to provide for him and her wider family who, years earlier, were forced to flee their home in war-torn Sudan.

But Cholhok – who has not seen her son in over two years because of the pandemic – is struggling. The 24-year-old is one of dozens of foreign players in the country’s top domestic netball league who earns less than £12,500 a year, the salary threshold for taxable earnings in the UK. In fact, Cholhok’s income falls far below that, but due to the stringent restrictions set out in her sports visa she is unable to sufficiently top up her earnings.

Although Loughborough University covers her accommodation costs, it is something of a miracle that the goal-shooter is managing to survive on such a tiny salary and on her own in the UK, not to mention trying to support her family back home in Uganda, too.

“My family in Uganda actually relies on me,” Cholhok said. “I have a little child back home that I have to support. I try to send money back home every month. I’m still struggling, even to save to bring him over. I can’t save because of what I’m on. I can’t support my child even with the salary that I have. It’s hard.”

Cholhok, who is pursuing a sports science degree at Loughborough, hopes that one day she will earn enough money to bring her son to Britain. But that dream hangs by a thread because a foreign athlete must earn at least £35,800 to be eligible to apply for settlement in the UK. “I would love to settle here with my son once I’ve finished my degree, and maybe get an additional something to do,” says Cholhok, who helped Uganda to finish seventh at the 2019 Netball World Cup in Liverpool – their best-ever result in the event – and won the “Golden Shot” award in her debut Superleague season.

What Cholhok is describing is essentially a gender gap in the granting of visas for sport. The majority of higher-paid foreign athletes are overwhelmingly male and – due to the high wages in professional men’s sport – therefore benefit from being able to settle comfortably in the UK, while those involved in elite women’s sports such as netball’s Superleague and rugby’s Premier 15s are left to navigate a system which many have likened to a “visa loophole” for semi-professional sportswomen.

New Zealander Liana Leota, the Severn Stars captain, and her husband Johnny, the former Sale Sharks rugby player, encapsulate how the visa criteria is disproportionately affecting sportswomen. Leota has jumped back on to a “spouse” visa through her partner, who has indefinite leave to remain after banking residency through his elite sport visa.

Although the Leotas’ five children – four of whom were born in this country – all have indefinite leave to remain in the UK, Leota has been told she has to wait another 10 years until she can apply for the same process, having gone from one year-long visa to the next since moving her netball career to the UK in 2015.

Even if foreign female athletes want to top up their meagre salaries, there are certain strings attached. Secondary employment must not exceed 20 hours of additional work a week and the profession must be related to their sport, such as coaching, or working as a sports broadcaster. They are also entitled to a second job if the profession is on the Home Office’s list of occupations with a shortage of skilled workers, roles which range from medical staff to care workers.

As one of the tallest players in the Superleague at 6ft 7in, Cholhok had hoped to secure some modelling work to top up her low wage. But,  inevitably, it is not on the Home Office list. It is a problem that the Netball Players Association, working with England Netball to support imports, has identified.

Its chair, Liz Bloor, says the issue can be traced to the “perennial problem of women’s professional sport being low waged”.
When Kim Borger joined the Superleague in the 2019-20 season, the Australian was shocked to discover how limited her options were to supplement her non-taxable salary and describes the situation as “mind- boggling”. 

Kim Borger in action for Team Bath


“Essentially, all I can be is a netball coach, which is difficult in this country because netball only runs in the winter terms, and with Covid this year, work opportunities have been incredibly limited,” says Borger, who, was even getting taxed at first and cites the toll it has taken on her mental health. “When you’re living and breathing netball at an elite level and then only be able to work in it as well, there’s no off switch. To have that financial stress put on you as well, but you still have to perform, it’s tricky.”

Throughout her eight seasons as a Superleague player, Sam May – also an Australian, and Cholhok’s Loughborough team-mate – feels she has been unable to further her own career ambitions because of the visa restrictions. “I would really like to set up my own netball fitness coaching business, but I’m not allowed to,” says the 33-year-old. “There is a gap in the market for that sort of stuff, but I’m restricted because of the rules. I feel like I’ve got something I can offer and help people and I’m sad that I can’t do it. It’s women’s sport, we just have to keep pushing the boundaries and expectations, demanding more and speaking up.”

For now, Cholhok, who is set to feature for Loughborough in the Superleague’s finals round this weekend, is not losing hope of one day being able to be share her life with her son in the UK. “It’s sad, because you want to come here, settle in and try and figure out what you can do personally, not just professionally as a player.”

A spokesperson from the Home Office said the government remained "committed" to attracting international athletes to the UK, but stressed that "pay scales for semi-professional sportspeople are a matter for their governing bodies and clubs.”