'Totally unacceptable': League to take action after players' blackface incident

This image three amateur Australian rules football players has been removed from Facebook. Source: Facebook

League officials in Tasmania vow to educate players to ensure such behaviour will not be repeated.

Amateur Australian rules football players from a Tasmanian club have provoked outrage after posing in blackface and posting photos on social media, in the latest in a string of similar incidents in Australia.

Three players from the Penguin Football Club in the state’s north dressed in blackface makeup and body paint posed for photographs impersonating tennis champions Serena and Venus Williams, and Kenyan-born Sydney Swans player Aliir Aliir as part of their end of season celebrations this week.

One of the players, Beau Grundy, posted the photos on his Facebook page before deleting them Wednesday morning as criticism mounted.

It comes just days after a controversial cartoon depicting Serena Williams in what many considered to be racist terms drew global criticism, before being republished on the front page of the Herald Sun newspaper in Victoria.

The Penguin Football club, which plays in the North West Football League, has not yet made any public comment on the players’ actions, but the AFL Tasmania CEO Trisha Squires told SBS News, "It is not acceptable behaviour and we vehemently disapprove of it."

"We will be working with the league and club to get more information and to see how we can assist in providing education to the players."

The North West Football League's President Andrew Richardson said the league would take action to educate the players and ensure such behaviour would not be repeated.

"The NWFL’s view is it is totally unacceptable and it is really important that we look to educate the players involved on why it is not okay.

"We will be addressing it with the club and individual players and ensuring that they undertake appropriate education immediately. The League will be working with AFL Tasmania to educate all players within our competition prior to next season as to why this behaviour is not acceptable. This is not what our league wishes to stand for."

The Penguins Football Club did not respond to SBS News’ request for comment.

People took to the club’s Facebook page to react.

"Seriously Blackface? Can you be more inappropriate and backward!? Shame on all of you ignorant people!” posted Natalie Barney.

But other comments said commenters were overreacting or being too politically correct.

Asked if dressing up in blackface constituted racist behaviour, Tasmania’s anti-discrimination commissioner Sarah Bolt told SBS News that it would potentially give rise to offensive conduct under the state’s anti-discrimination legislation. A formal complaint would have to be made to bring it under her jurisdiction.

"What it does is potentially give rise to offensive conduct under the legislation which means that to people from a particular race it may be seen by them to be intimidating or offensive or insulting,” she said.

Innocent intentions or ignorance of why it might be perceived as racist behaviour is no defence, she said.

"The intention of the people involved might be one of humour but the intention of the act is irrelevant, it’s the impact on other people... who might find it insulting or offensive or intimidating. That could give rise to a complaint,” Ms Bolt said.

Ms Bolt said the behaviour might “put people off from joining the club because they think the club itself may have racist overtones or discriminatory practices.”

Blackface originated as a form of entertainment in the 1800s where white performers wore makeup and costumes to caricature black and other non-white people in derogatory and stereotypical terms.

It persisted as mainstream entertainment, such as the UK’s ‘Black and White Minstrel Show’ as late as the 1970s.

Despite the practice drawing strong condemnation from civil rights and anti-discrimination advocates, there has been a string of incidents of people dressing up in blackface in Australia in recent years, including university students earlier this year, fans of Serena Williams who dressed up in blackface at the Australian Open in 2016, models at a party in 2017 and an Opals' basketballer in 2015, who subsequently apologised.

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