A former footballer is set to sue the AFL claiming he suffered racial abuse, religious discrimination and sexual harassment during a three-year playing career.
Joel Wilkinson played 26 matches for the Gold Coast Suns from 2011 to 2013 before he was delisted.
According to Shine Lawyers, representing Wilkinson in conjunction with American Attorney Mika Hilaire, the footballer “was subjected to direct discrimination, vilification and harassment on both racial and religious grounds by AFL staff, his club, club officials and teammates as well as opposition players and spectators.”
The upcoming legal case – which will go to the Human Rights Commission after talks with the AFL broke down – will also allege that Wilkinson, born in Sydney but of Nigerian descent, “faced racially motivated sexual harassment in the changerooms by other players on numerous occasions”.
Shine said that as a result, Wilkinson’s employment contract was breached and that he was not picked up by another club after leaving the Suns “on account of him speaking up about racism against him and due to his association with other players who were also subjected to racial discrimination”.
Wilkinson will seek compensation for loss of past and future wages as well as compensation for pain, suffering and humiliation.
Wilkinson was racially vilified by then-Western Bulldogs player Justin Sherman in the first AFL match he played.
Sherman was suspended for four matches and Wilkinson said in a 2014 AFL-produced documentary that he felt like “he was trying to make me feel like I was a little kid, a little black kid, a little piece of dirt”.
Shine Lawyers employment law expert Will Barsby said the AFL failed in its duty of care and that Wilkinson had made many requests for support during a difficult period.
“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 past time. Sport is a business, players are employees.
“The AFL failed to protect Mr Wilkinson from vilification from his very first professional game. They 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?”
An AFL spokesperson told The New Daily on Wednesday they were aware of the situation.
“Our legal counsel have been made aware by Joel Wilkinson’s representatives that there will be papers lodged for a claim, and we will respond as required under the legal process,” they said.
The Gold Coast Suns have also been contacted for comment.
‘Enough is enough’
Wilkinson’s American lawyer, Mika Hilaire, said the horrible impact of racism was being felt in sport across the world.
She praised Wilkinson for speaking up and challenged the AFL to back up strong words on vilification.
“Soccer players in Europe are having banana peels thrown at them,” she said.
“In the United States, racism is deeply embedded in the fabric of the country as evidenced by recent events involving the NFL.
“And now, in Australia, brave souls like Joel Wilkinson are speaking out against systemic and rampant racism experienced while employed by the AFL. Enough is enough.
“The time is now for the AFL to put its stance against anti-vilification to action.”
Wilkinson is expected to make a statement in Melbourne on Thursday.