What lies beneath | Inquirer Opinion
Editorial

What lies beneath

/ 01:22 AM October 22, 2014

Now that the merrymaking over National University’s UAAP championship run has quieted somewhat, it’s time to give that tale of triumph a rational once-over.

For starters, congratulations are in order for the Bulldogs, who broke a 60-year curse of non-title seasons, most of which were spent enduring unflattering labels: Doormat. Cellar-dweller. Bottom-feeder.

That NU pulled off the feat after graduation and career decisions ripped away practically its entire starting unit—including two-time MVP Ray Parks, who decided to forego his eligibility to chase after bigger basketball dreams—makes the Bulldogs’ triumph doubly sweet.

Then there was an unintended perk that hitched a ride: For the first time in the UAAP’s Final Four era, there was no Ateneo or De La Salle—two schools whose winning traditions are interminably linked with each other and with the league—in the championship match.

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Battles between those fierce rivals generated the biggest profits for both the UAAP and TV carrier ABS-CBN. The advertising and gate revenues had emboldened both the league and the broadcast giant to split a doubleheader that involved a Blue Eagles-Green Archers match into two separate tickets, the better to cash in on the ardor of college basketball fans.

Any title showdown involving either Ateneo or La Salle was also known to break attendance records and make cash registers go ka-ching!

When neither Ateneo nor La Salle made the finals—a first in over two decades—there were worries that the UAAP was headed for its least-watched title duel yet. In fact, a former star of one of the two schools suggested on social media that a battle for third place be held between the Eagles and the Archers, if only to rescue ticket sales from a seemingly inevitable plunge.

But what do you know? Along came the Bulldogs, and losing finalist Far Eastern University, generating so much interest that the title series smashed—twice—the all-time record for a basketball audience at the Big Dome. The series proved that even a tiny, oft-overlooked campus in some nook in Sampaloc can be half the reason for a basketball blockbuster.

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Which brings this once-over to a reality check: Just how different is NU’s basketball program from that of the “elite” schools?

NU’s benefactor claims that money did not exactly fuel its championship. But it’s tough to figure out what else greased the wheels of several of the school’s Cinderella runs. This was by no means the work of a magical glass slipper as it was of brand-new athletic shoes. However one looks at it, this wasn’t a minnows-to-mighty narrative as it was a rags-to-riches story.

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Just consider NU’s spanking-new gym, no longer the dilapidated facility built of, among others, old lumber and GI sheets. Consider, too, its recruitment program. These days, NU does not have to settle for talents that slipped through the cracks of other programs; it can now raid other high school nests and has first dibs on talents from faraway provinces.

It’s not all about money? But even the school’s most creative recruitment methods—cardboard cutouts in SM malls nationwide enticing athletes to play for NU and offering mall jobs to the families of prospects—have serious monetary value and veer away from the traditional way of reeling in athletes. Gone are the days when student-sports stars would slave for a scholarship alone. In fact, some college stars might actually be earning more than their professional counterparts in the PBA. It seems that the road to a college championship now runs on corporate currency. Look at the three schools that won the last eight UAAP titles: They have business tycoons funding their programs.

These are the new faces of varsity recruitment. On one hand, it is probably fair to the athletes. After all, the UAAP collects hundreds of millions of pesos in revenues off athletes, so these varsity stars might as well grab a piece of the pie. On the other hand, there is a sense of something… off-key.

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Certainly, there is a different beauty in NU’s championship, something hardcore basketball fans can latch on to and whoop over. But what lies beneath is an unsettling reality that takes solid shape with every passing season: Amateurism, that pure soul behind varsity athletics, is dead, buried beneath the confetti and champagne of every championship celebration by a tycoon-backed program.

TAGS: amateurism, Ateneo de Manila, De La Salle University, Far Eastern University, National University, UAAP

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