Punishing success, again

THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - May 18, 2013 - 12:00am

The UAAP supposedly passed an amendment to its controversial new residency rule. Now, each and every graduating UAAP high school athlete planning to go to college at a rival UAAP school may not have to face a mandatory two-year residency period, if he or she obtains a written clearance from the high school he or she originally played for. In other words, you may either have to sit out two years, or not at all.

Because we can’t really tell the intent of the rule aside from the league’s own admission that their schools are protecting themselves from each other, all we can focus on is its possible effects. Firstly, this new wrinkle dissipates negative reactions to its implementation. Instead of it being like a class action scenario, it now becomes a case-to-case basis. This would probably satisfy the schools who voted against it (Ateneo de Manila and University of the Philippines; host National University abstained). Now, the UAAP looks even more like a house divided, as it is every man (or in this case, school) fending for himself. Some of the five remaining schools (Adamson University, De La Salle University, Far Eastern University, University of the East, University of Santo Tomas) will undoubtedly make use of the rule and face whatever public scrutiny follows.

Obviously the focus will be on basketball and volleyball, the UAAP’s two mandatory sports. Men’s basketball and women’s volleyball have become very popular and lucrative commodities for the league, with the other sports more or less in the shadows without their own live game coverage. But the rule applies to everyone. Sadly, it gives undue power to coaches and athletic directors to determine the future of student-athletes who have – to be fair – already paid for their high school tuitions with their sacrifice and service to the school. Their freedom of choice is at stake.

What happens next? Well, the more “valuable” (meaning accomplished or skilled in basketball or volleyball) will bear the brunt of it, their loyalty to most likely be enforced by their mother schools. The saying goes success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan. Since winning programs attract more athletes, this rule is a contraceptive against success having a thousand sons and daughters, as well. Now, each school that avails of this rule will have to come up with its own strategy to justify holding its players hostage. Let’s see who will be the first to take the plunge and put a college freshman in purgatory.

It also doesn’t make sense for a school to continue giving an athlete free education if he or she isn’t playing. This may leave some athletes out in the cold, or render them hot potatoes other schools wouldn’t want to touch. But what if the college you want to go to has the engineering or medical course you want to take? Does this mean your high school won’t let you pursue your dream simply because their winning ambition might be scuttled? Sounds somewhat selfish to me. Sport is one way to get an education, with your time and talent the tuition instead of cash. Another way around the rule is to recruit them after their sophomore year in high school, so they sit out their last two years and can play as college freshmen. But that’s just swapping one victim for another, isn’t it?

Again, aren’t we punishing success? In the last three years, this column has analyzed sports stories that aim to ‘even the playing field’ by handicapping winning teams. When you look at it, rookie drafts do precisely that, strengthen the also-rans at the expense of the champions and contenders. Instead of making ourselves more competitive, we are instead superficially creating rules to hold teams and student-athletes back. In the US, a similar situation changed the face of basketball more than 40 years ago.

Entering the 1970’s after a phenomenal sophomore year at the University of Detroit where he averaged eye-popping stats of 32 points and 22 rebounds a game, Spencer Haywood was tired of being battered by racism, and decided he would turn pro. However, the NBA would not allow him to enter their draft. It had a four-year rule. you had to enter the draft at the same time as your graduating college class. In response, Haywood said he would play in the new American Basketball Association, instead. Fearing this would start a trend and feed the competition, Seattle Sonics owner Sam Schulman broke ranks with the NBA and signed Haywood for the 1970-71 season. The NBA tried to block the transaction, and Schulman filed an anti-trust suit against the league. In 1971, the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of Haywood, and the NBA subsequently created the ‘hardship rule’, which has benefited dozens of stars who either did not finish college or go to college at all.

With such a precedent, the residency rule does not look too wise. At the bottom of it all, it is protecting the schools that haven’t been winning recently from being raided by the schools that have been. Self-preservation is not a bad thing, per se. But doing it at the expense of players who chose your school for their own reasons isn’t fair, either. One year’s “residency” would not be so bad. But two years is an eternity in a young athlete’s career. They could atrophy altogether. It’s akin to a non-competition clause in business: I’ll buy your business, but you can’t put up a similar one within two years.

We put up leagues to showcase the best of our youth, who happen to be our students. Then when we realize we can get something out of them, we try to exert more control over their freedom. Does that kind of servitude still have a place in modern democracy?

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