MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Former Australian Rules player Joel Wilkinson is taking the body that runs the country’s professional game to court alleging that racist abuse and sexual harassment ruined his career.
Wilkinson, who was also briefly on the book of National Football League team the Arizona Cardinals in the United States, said “systemic” racism prevailed in the Australian Football League (AFL).
“I have suffered extreme racism during my time in the AFL and post my career from the AFL until this very day,” he said in a statement read out at a news conference on Thursday.
“This intensified when I tried to stop it from occurring and repeatedly occurring to others. I am here to hold the AFL accountable and stand against injustice.
“My career was taken from me, my rights violated due to racism, religious vilification and racially-motivated sexual harassment that I experienced for many years. This is not acceptable in the workplace.”
The 26-year-old, who has Nigerian heritage, played 26 games for the Gold Coast Suns from 2011 to 2013 before being cut by the team and moving to the junior Victoria Football League.
Wilkinson suffered racist vilification in his first AFL game as a teenager in 2011, which resulted in a fine for an opposing player, while a fan was banned for abusing him in the following season.
The AFL, Australia’s richest and best-attended professional league, released a statement on Wednesday saying they respected Wilkinson’s right to take legal action and would work with him to try and resolve his complaints.
“We are sorry that Mr. Wilkinson suffered experiences of racial abuse during his time as an AFL footballer,” it read.
“He has previously shared his experience of racial abuse, helping educate the community via a series of social awareness videos produced with the AFL.”
Wilkinson’s lawyer Will Barsby said other former players had been in contact with him after hearing about the case, which he said would be filed at the Australian Human Rights Commission.
“This isn’t a past issue. This is very present, happening now and many players in the system have experiences of racism similar to mine,” Wilkinson added.
“The AFL enables and acts as the head of this system. The corporate community and public must ask questions.”
The issue of racism has long blighted Australian sport, although it has historically been more apparent in the vilification of indigenous athletes.
Aboriginal players last year issued an open letter to AFL fans demanding an end to racist abuse after two of their number were insulted in one weekend.
The AFL has worked hard to stamp out racism on the field and celebrates the contribution of Aboriginal players to the league with an ‘Indigenous Round’ of matches each season.
Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Amlan Chakraborty