The University of the Philippines — no, I dare say the nation — is still talking about our men’s basketball team making it into the UAAP Final Four (or semifinals) for the first time in 32 years, and ending in second place.
I love the fuss, with even bank tellers and market vendors giving me the thumbs-up sign, all smiles as they declare: “Panalo!” Winner.
People are feeling good for UP partly because we’re the only public school in the UAAP, and, being the national university (different from the National University, our friendly rival in the league), means we have fans all over the country—UP alumni or not—cheering us on.
Within UP, though, I have to be frank and tell you that people are not as convinced about the importance of the varsity teams, or sports in general.
This ties into the dichotomy made between “nerds” (those who excel academically) and “jocks” (those who excel in sports) and the idea that universities should prioritize academic excellence and, by extension, “nerds.”
Unfortunately, athletes and athletics are seen mainly in terms of the physical. I checked several dictionaries for the definition of “athleticism” and they all stick to the physical. Oxford Dictionary, for example, gives this definition: “physical qualities that are characteristic of athletes, such as strength, fitness and agility.” The American dictionary, on the other hand, defines athleticism as “physical prowess consisting variously of coordination, dexterity, vigor, stamina, etc.”
No wonder then that we even have faculty members who will discriminate against varsity team players, thinking of athletes as not being cerebral enough. Or, as one faculty member told me years ago: All they do is play. It doesn’t help that the Filipino word we use is “palaro.”
The biases people have against athletes are often based on an ignorance of the time and effort put in by the, well, players: hours of practice and conditioning so rigorous that the last UP men’s basketball training was described to me as more harrowing than a “military boot camp.”
Back in 2014 when our alumni formed a support group, nowheretogobutup, specific for the varsity players, I made it clear that UP would not compromise on academic requirements, even as I worried about how they could put in so many hours of practice on top of academics. But the alumni agreed and have poured in resources to help students with tutors and mentoring.
At the same time, the Human Kinetics dean, Ron Dizer, was instrumental in educating me about how in fact their college had gone beyond athleticism. After all, he likes to point out, the degree program where many of our varsity players are enrolled is BS Sports Science.
There is, in fact, science in sports as palaro, as play. We forget that human development relies on play. Watch children develop their motor and emotional skills through play.
Sports remind us that the playing must continue into adolescence and into adulthood, transformed into a science as the athletes and coaches become conscious of their “play,” planning and reviewing each practice, each game, including using modern technologies like videos to break down every moment, every move.
Most of our varsity teams are doing this now, with each athlete becoming conscious of his or her own potentials, as well as those of teammates.
Just last week, I was reading a document from a large consortium of Asia-Pacific universities with plans for promoting e-sports (the “e” standing for electronic). The document pointed out that e-sports leads to “the development of complex cognitive skills such as strategic thinking, team work and collaboration, systems thinking, creativity and rapid decision making….”
That’s certainly an interesting perspective on e-sports (which some will dismiss as “gaming”), but isn’t it time we recognized that sports without the “e” have been doing all that in terms of developing cognitive and physical skills?
Universities need to be looking into what our former vice chancellor for academic affairs, Dr. Benny Pacheco, called “athlemics,” tearing down the artificial distinction between athletics and academics to develop minds and bodies.
I will add, too, that in UP, we have a somewhat different take, captured in “utak at puso”—brain and heart—which is about intelligence in many forms, particularly emotional intelligence.
I’m proud of all our achievements in UP in the field of the sciences (natural and social) and technology, in arts and the humanities. Our recent achievements in the UAAP games are even more reasons to be proud, athletics as another aspect of academic excellence.
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