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Tuesday 26 June 2012

A Ladder

On Saturday I had my first experience of watching an AFL (Australian Football League) match at the famous MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground). I was a guest with a former AFL player and manager of The Ladder, an organisation working with young people as part of the Foyer and (now) Open Talent approach in Australia.  I didn’t quite realise what the Ladder meant until the game, when I began to understand that the Ladder represented the table of AFL teams trying to reach the top of the league.  Since every time a player runs out for a game, they donate part of their match fee to the Ladder  charity (with some offering their time as mentors), there is a strong and sustainable link forged between the Ladder league and the focus of the Ladder charity on enabling young people to reach their own goals.   I only wish we had something like that built into the UK premier league. The future lies in these examples of alternative funding models that educate others to give.

The Ladder likes to point out that the 100,000 capacity MCG could be more than filled with people from homeless backgrounds, of which about a third would be young people. It’s a nice way of getting the message across.

The AFL game itself is also a departure from UK football. Not just in the combination of Irish hurling and rugby rules, but in the crowd. No segregation, lots of families, almost as many women as men. The atmosphere is a community letting its hair down for the weekend – providing some therapeutic release for the emotion we bury inside of us.  It’s certainly close to Shankly’s vision of a ‘big society all around us’.  However odd the rules, it was a thrilling game.  As an ex rugby winner I could appreciate the high levels of fitness and breadth of skills required to play. If the AFL represented how a Foyer should work with young people, then the focus was on agility, looking out for each other, a combination of defence and offense skills, and a lot of resilience. 

The game was framed by team songs (at the outset , and just the winner at the end), which sound like something out of a carry on film. A musical curse you spend hours later trying to forget. The players of both teams enter onto the pitch by running through a giant banner decorated for the match.  These simple rituals all add to the spectacle. It’s a reminder of how simple psychological tools used in games reach out to the ways we interact as humans.

I couldn’t say I left the arena as a fan – I was rooting for the losing team, as I always did in my youth – but I left feeling in need of a ‘ladder’ of our own.  It’s something special when a sport builds inside its model that the bottom teams each year have the first pick of the draft for new young players – in other words, the game ensures a sense of equality that every team can get a chance to lead the Ladder with the best players in years to come. That’s something our society so clearly lacks.  Of all the rules in the AFL, it’s the one we should be thinking how to adopt now: to ‘lock in’ a different vision of social mobility that protects the ladder of aspiration for all.

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