Future former Filipinos

THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco - The Philippine Star

People are the greatest export of the Philippines. From the time of the Great Depression until today, the country has sent tens of millions of nurses, engineers, seamen, domestic helpers, welders, drivers and other skilled workers to seek more prosperous futures overseas. OFWs are to the Philippines what military personnel are to America. Many have experienced loneliness, hardship, ill treatment and even incarceration. But a significant number have also had success, found love, realized happiness, and never saw the need to return to their motherland. The growing exodus of basketball players to Japan has fueled a new discussion. Are athletes going to be the next wave of OFWs to do the same?

What do athletes look for when they go abroad? Primarily, they seek the same things other overseas Filipinos do: higher income, a better working environment, upward mobility, chances for professional growth, and so on. Stronger currencies and better benefits are also a stronger attractor. Unlike other professionals who toil in anonymity, though, athletes are seen on television, written about in newspapers, and offered endorsements. They are exposed to a wide array of other opportunities, which lead to more work abroad. In the past, some of these opportunities did not exist. Coaching is now more and more of an option, as countries are more open to foreigners teaching locals. Time was when patriotism trumped actual progress. Besides, you can teach for private institutions or teams when you retire from active competition. Sprint queen Lydia de Vega has been coaching in Singapore for close to two decades. More recently, PBA All-Star Jimmy Alapag left the country and is now an assistant coach with the Stockton Kings in the G League.

What happens next? For the most part, having sacrificed so much to survive and flourish in an alien environment, these athletes would tend to stay. The personal investment would have been too high to forsake its fruits. They would have had to learn the language, customs, and organizational flow. They earned acceptance. The only reason for coming back to the Philippines is if overseas exposure would have made them worth more. In many cases, the money is just too good to leave. Besides, in most situations, merit is king. Sadly, in the Philippines (particularly in team sports), there is so much back-biting, favoritism and spite, it gets in the way of true success.

Let’s say a young basketball player moves to another country. He (or perhaps she) meets someone who helps alleviate the loneliness and guides him through the culture. Eventually, they may decide to have a family. Obviously, the children’s formative years are spent overseas while one parent is still an active athlete. Their environment reinforces the foreign culture. Learning Filipino is harder, since nobody speaks it. In science, a body at rest tends to stay at rest. Staying put would be a more convenient option. Inevitably, if the children also grow up to be athletes, they will attract attention in the Philippines. But more often than not, playing for the Philippine team is part-time and impermanent. There are still greater benefits to a career abroad. (For example, 6’8” Kamaka Hepa, whose father Roland is half-Filipino, was a McDonald’s All-American in high school, and opted to play in the US instead of for the Philippines.)

Some purists say Filipinos have been homogenized into American culture through sports, entertainment, fast food, and advertising. The truth is that the country has been blended into Spanish, American and lately, Korean culture, which have influenced the language, thinking and consumption of generations. Now, if the internal culture and economic benefits of professional sports in the country does not improve, a growing number of our athletes will simply become future former Filipinos. And we will be all the poorer for it.

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