The AFL is once again being rocked by a blackface controversy – leading to two players and the Gold Coast Suns having to publicly apologise.
Joel Wilkinson was playing for the club when he attended a social event where teammates Leigh Osborne and Alex Sexton arrived in black paint – which he claims team management then swept under the rug when he complained.
Wilkinson brought the incident to light this week by releasing pictures from the 2013 event along with a letter from AFL lawyers contesting his complaint.
The 29-year-old said he is unsatisfied with the result of an Australian Human Rights Commission case in November 2019.
On Saturday Alex Sexton said he attended the event dressed as his then teammate and housemate Tim Sumner, who is indigenous, and he regrets his decision.
Suns players Leigh Osborne has apologised for wearing blackface to imitate his teammate Joel Wilkinson
Joel Wilkinson (pictured), 29, released pictures of the event to media this week unsatisfied with the result of a case with the Australian Human Rights Commission
Osborne (pictured centre in blue and white shirt) and Alex Sexton painted themselves in blackface at a Wacky Wednesday event to celebrate the end of the season in 2013. His teammate Joel Wilkinson is pictured shirtless far right with a drum
‘I just saw it as two housemates dressing up as each other. I regret that decision. While I meant no harm, I certainly accept that it was inappropriate and I now understand how upsetting and offensive my actions were,’ he said in a statement.
Leigh Osborne also said this week he regretted his actions.
‘I never meant to hurt or ridicule him but looking back now I understand it was wrong’
‘I was a pretty young bloke in 2013 and have come to learn a lot more about these things since then and I am sorry to have caused any trouble or hurt and obviously wouldn’t ever do it again.’
The team for which Wilkinson, Osborne, and Sexton were all members of, the Gold Coast Suns, also apologised on Saturday.
‘The Suns view the choice of outfits in the photo and on that day to be inappropriate, unacceptable and regrettable.’ the club said in a statement.
‘As a club, the Gold Coast Suns strongly support the fight to stamp out racism and we will continue to embrace the work we do with multicultural, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations.’
The shocking pictures were from a Wacky Wednesday event to celebrate the end of the AFL season in 2013.
Sexton was dressed as an Indigenous teammate and Osborne was imitating Joel Wilkinson – who is of Nigerian descent.
Alex Sexton (pictured with partner) has apologised over the 2013 incident saying he was ‘young’
Leigh Osborne pictured in Port Melbourne colours in 2017. He said he only found out about his ex-teammate’s complaint to the Human Rights Commission years later in 2018
Former AFL player Joel Wilkinson later filed an Australian Human Rights Commission case in 2018 against the league claiming they had not properly dealt with his concerns about racism
Wilkinson said he was ‘mortified and angry’ and reported the incident, but claims nothing was done.
Wilkinson said Osborne told him beforehand he wanted to impersonate him – but only by mimicking his training gear and equipment.
‘When I arrived I saw him and another teammate in black paint, I was mortified and so angry I couldn’t believe he came in black paint,’ Wilkinson told the Herald Sun.
‘I tried to stop it during the event, I thought when we returned from the event they would be held accountable by the club, the Gold Coast Suns, but nothing happened to my dismay.’
Pictured: AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan. The league said blackface ‘is never acceptable in any forum or at any time’
He expected players and officials to be reprimanded and photos of the outfits shared on social media to be removed – but claimed it didn’t happen.
‘It [the response to his complaints about the blackface incident] very much was a representation of my whole career in the AFL and how they never cared or put in place the systems to protect my wellbeing against racism,’ he said.
After years of frustration, Wilkinson decided to release key documents to the media – including the photos and a legal warning he received.
Wilkinson eventually filed a lawsuit in May 2018 against the AFL, four individuals, the Suns and six other teams claiming racial discrimination and religious vilification.
He withdrew the complaint in 2019.
Wilkinson pictured in Suns training gear at a recovery session on the Gold Coast in 2012
STATMENTS FROM TWO PLAYERS, GOLD COAST SUNS AND THE AFL OVER ‘BLACKFACE’ PICTURES
GOLD COAST SUNS:
The Gold Coast Suns acknowledge that Joel Wilkinson experienced racism during his AFL career with the club including two well-publicised on-field incidents. We deeply regret that he did.
The photo released to media is from an end-of-season player dress-up event that occurred in 2013.
In the photo a former Suns player Leigh Osborne dressed up as Wilkinson and we understand Leigh has provided comment on this.
Separately, Alex Sexton and his former Suns teammate and housemate Tim Sumner, who is indigenous, agreed to dress up as each other. This included Sumner painting Sexton’s face and skin black and Sexton painting Sumners’ face and skin white.
The Suns view the choice of outfits in the photo and on that day to be inappropriate, unacceptable and regrettable.
As a club, the Gold Coast Suns strongly support the fight to stamp out racism and we will continue to embrace the work we do with multicultural, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations.
The Suns have a number of strong indigenous and multicultural role-models and we are committed to having an inclusive and respectful environment.
‘At the time I just saw it as two housemates dressing up as each other,’ Sexton said.
‘Looking back, I regret that decision. While I meant no harm, I certainly accept today that it was inappropriate and I now understand how upsetting and offensive my actions were.’
Joel Wilkinson was a friend as well as a teammate who I liked and respected.
When I attended the 2013 Mad Monday type event dressed as Joel I did so with the loan of his jumper and with his agreement after I had asked him whether it was okay to dress up as him.
Joel never raised any issue about it with me on the day.
He was pretty strikingly dressed himself and I just thought he went dressed as a native American Indian.
We joked around at the start of the day and we all posed for a photograph.
Then we spent the day drinking … that’s how those Mad Mondays used to go.
A couple of weeks later, Wilko and I went to Las Vegas together for our end-of-season trip. We had a great time in Las Vegas.
Since then, we have seen each other from time to time but he’s never mentioned the Wacky Wednesday event to me.
The first time I became aware that Joel was upset about what I did was when I found out about his complaint to the Human Rights Commission years later in 2018.
As soon as I found out about it, I contacted him and apologised to him for my actions and said I was sorry for what I had done in 2013.
I never meant to hurt or ridicule him but looking back now I understand it was wrong.
I was a pretty young bloke in 2013 and have come to learn a lot more about these things since then and I am sorry to have caused any trouble or hurt and obviously wouldn’t ever do it again.
The AFL is committed to continuing the fight against racism in our sport and to continuously improving our processes to deal with discrimination of any kind.
Racism is not, and never will be, acceptable in our game and there are no circumstances where racism can be allowed to go unchecked
We regret that any person suffers racism in our game.
We acknowledge and understand the impact that racism had on Joel Wilkinson during the course of his AFL career, including a number of serious incidents including where Joel was vilified by an opposition player who was later suspended for six weeks and fined under the AFL’s vilification rules
A separate incident where Joel was racially abused by a supporter in the crowd was also investigated by the AFL.
We regret that Joel suffered racism in these incidents and acknowledge the hurt caused to him.
The AFL is clear that any use of blackface is never acceptable in any forum or at any time.
While the AFL was not aware of the 2013 end-of-season blackface incident until 2018 shortly before Joel detailed the incident in his complaint to the Human Rights Commission, one thing that is clear is that the behaviour is wrong and is behaviour that we would never accept or condone.