Player to sue Australian Football League over racism claims

MELBOURNE, Australia — Ex-player Joel Wilkinson has accused the Australian Football League of racism and said he plans to lodge a claim with the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Wilkinson, who was born in Sydney and is of Nigerian descent, played 26 matches in the top-flight national league for the Gold Coast Suns from 2011 to 2013.

"I'm here because I won't be silenced anymore and what has happened has been a continuous breach of human rights," Wilkinson said while reading from a statement on Thursday. "I have suffered extreme racism during my time in the AFL and post my career."

Wilkinson, who had unsuccessful tryouts at cornerback with the NFL's Arizona Cardinals and New York Giants, said he was racially abused by an opposing player during his first AFL game for Gold Coast in 2011.

The following year, he said was racially abused by a supporter of the Collingwood club during a match in Melbourne.

He didn't get another contract after leaving the Suns after the 2013 season, although he did feature in a "Making A Stand" video produced by the AFL's media department in 2014 where he discussed the devastating impact racism had on his career. The video was part of the AFL's 2014 club education program, which the league said was designed "to promote safe, welcoming and inclusive environments for everyone involved in football."

Other players, including Sydney Swans star Adam Goodes, who has Aboriginal heritage and has won an Australian of the Year honor for his work against racism, have been the target of a racist slurs while playing in the top level of the league.

Wilkinson's lawyer Will Barsby said two other former players had made contact following Wilkinson's recent accusations against the league, but didn't identify the players and said it was unclear whether the two also wanted to take legal action.

Barsby said Wilkinson lost his place at the Suns because he became too much trouble.

"He was labelled as a grandstander ... Joel experienced much racism during his time (in the AFL) and that has been documented publicly," Barsby said. "That became a problem and like any workplace, sometimes an employer doesn't want to keep that perceived problem child around."

The AFL issued a statement saying it respected "a person's right to pursue claims through the legal system", while noting it was sorry Wilkinson had been racially abused during his time as a footballer.

"We will continue to work with Joel to resolve this matter," the AFL statement said.

Australian rules was developed in the late 1850s and has similarities to Ireland's Gaelic football, but uses an oval-shaped ball and teams comprising 18 players score points by kicking the ball between four upright posts at each end of the field.

The Victorian Football League was formed in 1896 and eventually became the Australian Football League when the competition expanded across the country. It remains the only professional Australians Rules league in the world.

Wilkinson had a background in track and field before taking up Aussie rules later in high school. He was a member of the Suns squad when the club first joined the AFL in 2011.

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