Joe Wheeler has been taken off air by Sky Sport after his comments mocking the Asian accent following the Highlanders’ win over the Crusaders last Friday night.
In an email to Stuff on Wednesday, a Sky spokesperson said: “Joe Wheeler has apologised for his comments and Sky has made it clear where we stand.
“Joe has acknowledged that he has some work to do and we’re supporting him through this. Joe is off air at this time.”
The spokesperson did not specify how long the rugby presenter would be off air.
Wheeler’s on-air remarks came after Friday’s Super Rugby Aotearoa clash between the Crusaders and the Highlanders in Christchurch.
He asked Highlanders first five-eighth Mitchell Hunt about the performance of Japanese team-mate Kazuki Himeno, who starred in their 33-12 upset victory over the defending champions.
“He was leally impressive, wasn’t he? He was leally, leally good,” Wheeler said to Hunt.
Shortly after, Wheeler apologised on Twitter. Other users described the comments as “disgraceful” and “disgusting”.
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“Tonight I stuffed up,” he wrote on Friday night.
He said he had spoken to Himeno and apologised to him and the Highlanders for his conduct.
“I absolutely accept this is not the standard expected of the sideline team,” he said.
“I’ve got some work to do obviously, but I’m absolutely committed to doing better.”
Before taking Wheeler off air, Sky chief executive Sophie Moloney said the comments were “very disappointing”.
“They are not who we are at Sky, and we need to do better,” Moloney said in a statement on Saturday.
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“Joey Wheeler has apologised sincerely and is genuinely very sorry and remorseful for his mistake; and we are working closely with Joey and will continue to reinforce what is expected of all of our team.
“We will learn from this, and we will keep striving to reflect and respect everyone in our community.”
Race relations commissioner Meng Foon condemned Wheeler’s remarks.
He said such off-hand comments and racist micro-aggressions could stack up and become hurtful.
“These sorts of comments are best not heard nowadays,” Foon told Stuff on Saturday.
“There’s a huge sensitivity on racism issues now going forward, and I know the younger generation is definitely not tolerating this.”
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Foon said with a change in society’s values and relationships with diverse communities, language and accents should be respected.
Off-hand comments were bad and a stereotype, he said, and even if someone laughed a comment off, they could be hurting underneath.
“All the micro-aggressions that accumulate, even though they may be small, they do become quite tiresome and hurtful to the people receiving them, so these new micro-aggressions need to stop.”
Himeno replied to Wheeler’s tweet on Friday night, saying he accepted his apology.
“It’s ok joe. Let’s enjoy and celebrate our big victory. Let’s go landers!!”
Wheeler, 33, hung up his boots in 2020 after a 12-year professional rugby career and has turned to broadcasting.
The former lock played for his hometown team Tasman, the Crusaders, the Highlanders, the Māori All Blacks and Japanese club Suntory Sungoliath.
He won a Super Rugby title with the Highlanders in 2015 and last played for them in 2017.