Whatever it takes?

It’s amazing how people get used to things. People now openly discuss the issue of “tanking” in the AFL. “Tanking” refers to “throwing” a game; deliberately losing. It came up again recently when the Melbourne coach’s tactics in the final minutes of a game were brought into question. Melbourne was in “danger” of coming last, which means they get to skim the cream of talent at the next AFL draft.

About eight years ago, I questioned the validity of this priority draft pick system: “The press treat the game as a sacred cow. They write endlessly of its droppings and by-products, but heaven help anyone who attacks the validity of the game itself and its protagonists. It’s time everyone woke up to the fact that their cattle is human.” At the time, no-one wanted to believe throwing a match was a compelling option, within a system that rewards last place above anyone else.

I recall posing a hypothetical question: the two bottom-feeders are locked on the same score in time-on in the last quarter of the last game of the season. One will get the “glory” of escaping the dreaded wooden spoon. The other will face the “ignominy” of coming last and getting the best picks in the land—blokes like Riewoldt, Judd, Hodge, Deledio. What do you reckon they’d do, even if they were presented with an open goal with one second to go? The point I was making to the AFL all those years ago was simple: Remove the temptation.

We’re sure the AFL and its press always suspected this on some level – say, at those times when a team has decided to ditch its most experienced players for the last few games in the guise of “experimenting with youth”, or “rested” top tier players. But people keep assuring us it cannot possibly be true that someone would lose deliberately.

So, believing its players and clubs are above temptation, the AFL have a system that tempts football sides to throw matches. A coach who only looked at the game in front of him, instead of the management of his list and the future of the team, would not last two minutes in today’s cut-throat market. Given that the AFL has set up a system whereby he who is last shall be first, a wise coach would, naturally, take advantage of it.

Yes, this has implications. Fans pay good money to go along to a game and see their team win. They don’t want dishonest, contrived results. But we don’t want the fans to become cynics, either. What if they started going along to games in the hope of seeing their team lose, so they can get those juicy priority picks that may one day result in a premiership? Would the AFL want that? Well, they have to start understanding the nature of temptation.

Whether we like it or not, the “real” game is not football; it is a club’s survival as a corporate entity. Whether we like it or not, the world doesn’t tolerate the normal cycles of boom and bust that used to be part of the life of a club. They want instant success. A coach can be half a season into his contract and find himself under pressure to resign.

To claim a coach would not choose such a moment to “experiment” in order to lose some inconsequential match has always been disingenuous. The fact that the press has now decided to recognise it doesn’t mean the temptation was not always there.

But that’s the nature of temptation; no-one is above it. In life, those who defeat temptation are not those with a will of iron or an incorruptible nature; it’s those who don’t put themselves in temptation’s way in the first place. Someone who is overweight with a weakness for ice-cream doesn’t keep a freezer full of the stuff just to prove they can beat it; they simply stay away from it.

No human is exempt. Temptation needs to be respected, and we need to keep out of its way. I guess that’s why Matthew once wrote, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” (Matthew 26: 40-42) And a famous prayer says, “Lead us not into temptation.” Notice, these prayers are not about resisting temptation, they’re about not being in its path. Even the strongest bloke out there must admit that there are times when the flesh is, indeed, weak. When it comes to temptation, we all have to pick our battles.

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