FORMER Gold Coast Suns player Joel Wilkinson has announced he is suing the AFL over years of alleged racial vilification and sexual harassment.
The 26-year-old, who is of Nigerian descent, claims he was discriminated against by AFL staff, Suns officials and players, as well as opponents and spectators during his tenure with the Gold Coast Club.
Shine Lawyers have taken on the former player’s case and allege their client was also subjected to “racially motivated sexual harassment in the change rooms by other players on numerous occasions”.
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The case further claims Wilkinson wasn’t offered further employment with the AFL simply because he spoke out about the alleged racial abuse.
As a result, the Sydney-born Suns foundation player is seeking compensation for loss of past and future wages as well as compensation for pain, suffering and humiliation.
Wilkinson made his AFL debut at the age of 19 in 2011 and featured in 26 games across three seasons for the Suns before he was de-listed in 2013.
Shine Lawyers confirmed on Wednesday that the 26-year-old is now moving to file legal action with the Human Rights Commission after talks with the AFL broke down.
Shine’s employment law expert Will Barsby said the league had failed in its duty of care to protect Wilkinson from vilification beginning with his very first game.
Mr Barsby said the AFL had allowed the “racial abuse, sexual taunting in the locker room, bullying and mistreatment” to continue, despite repeated requests for help.
“In Australia playing AFL is a full-time job for many young people and like any job there are laws to protect your rights in the workplace,” he said.
“The AFL isn’t exempt from these laws just because it is a national pastime. Sport is a business, players are employees.
“(The AFL) have let our client down and allowed the abuse to continue, it’s cut short his career and he’s been punished for speaking out being shunned by clubs for his stance against racism.”
“We wouldn’t let this happen in any Australian workplace, why should the footy field or change rooms be any different?”
Mr Barsby said Wilkinson’s AFL career was “cut short” after he “raised a number of racial discrimination allegations” and said his decision to take legal action was “just the tip of the iceberg”.
“So, he was mistreated by his colleagues, he was mistreated by senior officials, he was mistreated by the clubs because he said ‘what’s happening to me and what’s happening to other players is not enough’,” he said.
“The more people can be courageous to come forward and speak about these type of issues…the more people will realise that it has to be cleaned up,” he said.
On Wednesday afternoon, the AFL issued a short statement in response to the legal action.
“We are sorry that Mr. Wilkinson suffered experiences of racial abuse during his time as an AFL footballer,” the statement reads.
“He has previously shared his experience of racial abuse, helping educate the community via a series of social awareness videos produced with the AFL.
“We respect a person’s right to pursue claims through the legal system. We will continue to work with Joel to seek to resolve this matter.”