On the football field, Northern Blues vice-captain Joel Wilkinson isn’t one to shirk a contest.
And, similarly to his game style, he doesn’t shy away from what he truly believes in: in particular, the issue of racism, and the need to combat it.
Wilkinson is no stranger to being racially vilified. In his 26 game AFL career for the Gold Coast Suns, Wilkinson was abused on three occasions, by players and fans alike.
It was in Wilkinson’s first AFL game where he was racially abused by Justin Sherman, an event which saw the then-Western Bulldog dealt a four match suspension.
Then, in both 2012 and 2013, Wilkinson was shattered when he was abused by someone over the fence.
While there may have been instances in the past where players haven’t spoken out and let the issue pass silently by,Wilkinson’s stance was quite the contrary.
As a Multicultural Ambassador for AFL Victoria, Wilkinson is offering his experiences and spreading the word about the devastating effects racism can cause.
And, in the meantime, he’s making a stand and is steadfast in his views that racism is unacceptable and should be dealt with in a manner reflecting this.
“You can just never go near the line of racism, in whatever form. It’s totally different to any other form of abuse, such as saying someone is a crap player,” Wilkinson said.
“Regardless of how heated the moment is, there is no time where it is acceptable to vilify someone in any form, whether it’s gender, religion or ethnicity.”
This week is one where football is celebrating the influence of multicultural backgrounds on ‘Australia’s Game’.
However, in the process, it is important to remember the hardships that Wilkinson and his predecessors have faced when forging their names in Australian Rules Football.
As difficult as it is to forge a name for oneself in the game, multicultural players such as Wilkinson have had to deal with a whole different sort of challenge.
“I’m big on having the sports try and control what they can control,” Wilkinson said.
“There seems to be some conjecture about the fact that sport is sport, and they can only control that environment.”
Having been the victim to a number of racial taunts both on the field and throughout his life, Wilkinson said that education is vital for both the sport and society to progress when it comes to racism and its prevalence.
“There are programs and a lot of great education sources amongst the AFL,” Wilkinson said.
“These sources are teaching players that it isn’t a law that is saying not to vilify someone, but rather it’s a matter of the human spirit.
Quite often, the reason surrounding the use of racial vilification is that what was said occurred in ‘the heat of the moment’.
However, Wilkinson said that – in contrast – the passion of sport only brings out the vilifier’s true mentality.
“The mentality that I’m receiving is that these comments correlates with what their mindset is away from the game.
“You just wonder whether they truly think what is said or whether it’s genuine ignorance, but I think that some things are deeply ingrained and the sporting culture exposes that.”
Wilkinson said that while the AFL is doing everything in its power to help eradicate racism, there is also the onus on the individual.
“Sometimes, people don’t really know: it shows that while there can be a bit of hate, there can also be a bit of ignorance there.
“What good is it if away from the field, people aren’t using taunts, but once they head home they’re saying these kind of things?”
For Wilkinson, it has not just been the last three years which have seen him deal with the cruel nature of racism, but rather a constant reality throughout his entire life.