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Where is UAAP’s heart?

Anytime now, the courts will rule on whether or not UP player Rob Ricafort should be allowed to continue seeing action for the Fighting Maroons in the UAAP senior men’s basketball competitions. If the courts rule against Ricafort, UP stands to forfeit its 98-87 win over La Salle in the first round of eliminations and a 71-69 decision over UST in the second as he played in both games. If the courts rule in Ricafort’s favor, it will affirm the injustice that the UAAP committed in violating his human rights.

Dragging the courts to resolve this mess could’ve been avoided if only the UAAP saw the merit of Ricafort’s appeal for an exception to a rule that appears to be cloudy. The Board had granted an exception to two foreign athletes, UP’s Ibrahim Ouattara of Mali and UST’s Steve Akomo of Cameroon, to play this season in overruling another rule that is just as unfair. But for some heartless reason, Ricafort’s appeal was thumbed down.

The UAAP rule is an athlete must not turn 25 until the end of the entire season covering all sports. Ricafort turns 25 on Jan. 28 or after the basketball tournament will have finished. The spirit of the law is clear – the UAAP won’t allow overage players to compete. But Ricafort will still be 24 when the basketball campaign is over. Shouldn’t that be a consideration in granting an exception to the rule?

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In the case of Ouattara and Akomo, the rule is a foreign athlete must establish two years of residency in school. The rule used to be a foreign athlete had to establish at least one year of residency in school but two years overall in the country. But when La Salle’s Ben Mbala showed up, the UAAP suddenly came out with the rule of two years residency in school. It was actually in retaliation for another new rule imposing a two-year residency in school on Koko Pingoy for transferring from FEU high school to Ateneo university. La Salle voted to can Pingoy for two years and paid the price when a rival school rallied the Board to go against Mbala in a political counter-attack. Obviously, both decisions were prompted by school interests in complete disregard of a student athlete’s rights. The Pingoy rule was later abrogated by an act of law championed by then Sen. Pia Cayetano who said high school graduates have the right to enrol in a college or university of their choice without undergoing residency to gain eligibility as varsity athletes. The Mbala rule, however, remained because it pertains to foreigners so they’re not covered by Philippine law. Yet the UAAP allowed Ouattara and Akomo to play this season as an exception to the rule, probably because neither is a game-changer like Mbala. Ricafort, however, was outlawed.

Ricafort, who’d never played in the UAAP, would’ve been a perfect example of an exception for humanitarian reasons. He’s a reformed drug user who underwent a total of 16 months in two visits to a rehab center. All he’s begging for is a chance to right his life through basketball. He was once a La Salle Team B player, established residency at UST to gain eligibility and tried out for the Arellano varsity but couldn’t break out of his drug habit until now. UP coach Bo Perasol gave him a chance to rebound. The UAAP could’ve done the same.

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When the UAAP denied his appeal, Ricafort went to court for redress. A 20-day TRO was issued and the UAAP had no choice but to allow Ricafort to wear the UP jersey. He played in three games, two of which UP won. Last Friday, the UAAP even challenged Ricafort in court and sought to dismiss his case. But the judge rejected the UAAP’s motion and went on with the injunction proceedings.

Sadly, the UAAP seems to be misguided. Instead of focusing on the deteriorating officiating standards of the basketball games, it chose to destroy a player’s dream. Instead of demanding an explanation if the season’s theme of “Go For Great” was lifted from the NBA GLeague’s slogan of “We Don’t Go For Good, We Go For Great” in what could be a case of plagiarism, it chose to crucify Ricafort. Instead of investigating the shenanigans in the ongoing taekwondo competitions, it chose to shoot down an athlete’s hopes of turning a new leaf.

Look at the case of Pingoy. In all, he did three years of residency, two at Ateneo and one at Adamson. Those were three years taken out of his basketball career. This season, Pingoy is showing what he’s capable of doing on the court and he’s shining brilliantly as Adamson’s point guard. Imagine if he had played in those three years when he sat, Pingoy’s level of play today would be at an extremely high level. But that’s probably why the UAAP came down hard on him. The other schools wanted to stall his entry for their benefit like what they did to Mbala. Is that fair? Is that the kind of decision-making you would expect from academicians and purveyors of lofty values in the country’s best universities? Where is the UAAP’s heart? Where is its compassion?

In tomorrow’s column, Ricafort himself and UP coach Bo Perasol will speak out on this case.

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