AFL Demons hope last really will be first


Freeo tackles Demon Even in secular societies Christianity is preserved in proverbs. For example, in Jesus' saying, 'the first will be last and the last will be first'. Maybe that sounds a little optimistic — like the solace of wooden-spoon-winners all over, a defiant war cry for the backend of the premiership ladder.

I wouldn't know if Jesus ever played competitive sport, but he did know a thing or two about systems of rank.

Take the ancient world's penchant for lining guests up around a dinner table in order of importance. Not so much the modern day angst over the politics of seating plans at weddings, as the out-and-out assumption that a host can measure each guest's importance and simply tell them where they rank. Public shaming or flattery on a regular basis, depending on where one falls.

Well, for those who've been following the Aussie Rules this season, the modern day shame of those ranked last is ably described by the trials, tribulations and (brief) elation of the Melbourne Football Club. They had six demoralising losses before a recent, unexpected win. The Chairman's speech, the Captain's injury and the Coach's newness to the position did nothing to help.

So, given that the Demons look to have the bottom of the 2008 ladder all tied up, they've naturally copped plenty of criticism. But at some level they've just been bearing the natural consequences of a system of rank: where there are winners, there must be losers too.

My criminology lecturer once referred to this kind of thing. He'd been asked to advise some schools in the US about why students fail. He went about his research. He surveyed teachers, and they gave well-reasoned answers — students fail in school because they have unsettled home lives, for example.

Then he went to the school board, and told them why students fail: 'Because you already decided that a certain percentage of students would fail. You standardise for it.'

In systems designed around rank, someone will always be at the bottom. There are risk factors — like students in unsettled homes, or football teams with long injury lists. But such factors are just the things that shape who might be at the bottom. That someone will be there has already been determined.

Perhaps the Demons might be comforted by remembering that, in football, there really is movement between first and last. They might've started out badly, but they did beat Freeo, and there'll be other seasons anyway. In fact, for a system of rank, the AFL's pretty egalitarian. The draft system and the priority picks help. And there is always next year. (There have been 43 next years since Melbourne was last Number One).

Unlike football, however, our other ways of ranking people — by what stuff we have, where we went to school or where our family comes from — are rarely fluid. Those at the top are practised at consolidating their advantage. It's into this human condition that Jesus said that the first will be last and the last will be first. And, from those he hung out with, he knew what it was like to find yourself at the bottom of the pile.

We might wonder, though, is it any better to just reverse the order? To keep the ladder going, but stack the teams at the bottom so they become the winners? Surely that's a time-limited solution. But don't be fooled into thinking Jesus means there might be a 'good' and a 'bad' way to go about ranking people. I think he's saying something quite different.

Jesus hosted dinners at which 5000 or more people sat wherever they wanted. He told parables in which people who had started working at the beginning of the day or late afternoon were all paid the same amount at the end of the day. He wasn't on about just tinkering with the ranking, like some new magic-bullet draft system; he was on about a new way of seeing the world — looking past social ladders to genuine human equality.

Not everyone's into that. Those accustomed to the advantage of coming first are reluctant to give it up to participate in something new. Why be free to sit anywhere, when you're used to the seat of honour?

But that's how we could come last: by falling into the trap of keeping on weighing each other up. By looking at those who used to be further up or down the table, and just holding off from joining in the feasting while we work out how the seats should be assigned.


Kylie CrabbeKylie Crabbe lives in Northcote and is preparing for ministry in the Uniting Church.


Flickr image by Michael Spencer

Topic tags: kylie crabbe, first will be last, aussie rules, afl, melbourne demons, sport and theology



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Existing comments

thanks Kylie, I was provoked by your insightful article. I was provoked because I was in a mood of transference where I was seeing myself as the person discriminated against by those with wealth and power and having my place in society lowered. Your last paragraph hit the mark - falling into the trap of weighing each other up. Here I was doing just that from what I thought was a humble position.

Your comment "He was on about a new way of seeing the world". This is what equality is about. It springs from my personal commitment to seeing the world in a new way.
Lindsay Gardner | 22 May 2008

Why just join in feasting? Why not learn from modern capitalism, and take over the banquet? Surely Melbourne should combine with Collingwood and call the joint venture the Nesting Magpies, which would include all the demons you would ever want. That would give Collingwood some social respectability, Melbourne some reliable supporters, and the combine more premierships than any two other clubs together.
Dan McGonnigal | 22 May 2008


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