On paper, UAAP athletes are considered amateurs. Supposedly, “student” comes before “athlete” in their status as student-athletes. But take one look at the current landscape, and the signs of contradiction are everywhere. Everything from the standards they are held to as athletes, the way their teams treat them, and even the people that manage them all reek of the antithesis of amateurism.

Recently, news broke out of the UST Men’s Basketball team coming together in the middle of a pandemic in order to train. While all other teams were reduced to home training and Zoom-meetings, the Growling Tigers were spotted in Sorsogon, running drills in a so-called “bubble”. The team drew a lot of criticism over what was perceived as harsh treatment of their players, supposedly risking the health and well-being of the student-athlete, all for a chance to get a leg up on the competition. While the details of what really happened during this training continue to be speculation to people that weren’t part of it, the question remains as to what would push a college team to such a risky training session, if it turns out that they really did.

Winning.

The way the athletes are presented to us, every move they make on the court is magnified. Every shot they make, every turnover, every dive for the ball, every decision, and every reaction build up to their larger-than-life personas. It’s not okay to be not okay in the college ranks. To be above average for an athlete is no longer enough; they have to be superb. 

Especially in this day and age of social media where anyone with a phone or laptop can comment on any event that has ever happened in public, the pressure rises for these athletes to not lose face in front of their school and outsiders. The fans hold them to such a high standard, as if they are expected to devote every waking hour of their lives to the game. The moment they perform like, well, students, they become the subject of ridicule and much derision. 

Stories of two training sessions a day are praised, no days off, no holidays. Until someone stops to think if that kind of schedule would leave the average athlete with enough time to do academic work, enough physical or mental energy to still perform as students. Yet they continue doing it because of the pressure, from the fans, from the school community, and most of all, pressure from the sponsors.

It’s a given in today’s UAAP that no team can succeed without the backing of a wealthy sponsor. Be it the Sys for NU, Pangilinan for Ateneo, Akari for Adamson, or the Gokongweis for UP, someone has to foot the bill for all the expenses required to keep a team competitive. How else would these teams be able to afford a head coach that competes at the FIBA level? Those training camps to Greece, USA, and Serbia don’t come cheap and it’s highly unlikely that a school would have the money to fund such an expense. Based on reports, rumors, and unconfirmed speculations, the managers of UST supposedly spent at least Php3-million on the Sorsogon training bubble, money that they expect returns on, returns in the form of wins.

So, it comes as no surprise that teams have a rotating door of coaches and players who are sent packing the moment they fail to perform. No, not the “star” players whose failure to be exemplary just means they are relegated to touching the ball on the court a bit less; the end of the bench players whose roster spots are the first to be given up to the next big recruit the program gets.

Unfortunately, schools can only grant so many athletic scholarships, and these scholarships are tied to these athletes maintaining a roster spot on their team. Getting cut often means losing their scholarship, and athletes can get cut for a variety of reasons, often not even attributable to their own shortcomings. These student-athletes can get cut from a team because of a nagging injury they sustained while playing, sometimes it’s just a matter of not fitting into the coach’s style of play; worse yet is getting cut for having disagreements with the coach or management.

If all student-athletes were like CJ Cansino who could find a new team to take him in less than 24-hours, then this would not be a problem at all. But for the majority of those at the end of the bench, many of whom uprooted their lives in order to play in the Metro Manila leagues, finding a new team is tough, but more immediately their concern becomes the status of their scholarships. A lot of them came to Manila with the promise that they would be able to study in a Manila university, have board, lodging, and be fed three meals a day. Getting cut from the team puts these benefits in jeopardy for them, many of whom rely on these benefits to get by.

This is not to say that players should never get cut from teams, but they should be given some degree of protection as student-athletes. The Student-Athlete Protection Act of 2015 only addresses the right of students to choose but doesn’t provide for measures beyond that. A regular employee has more rights when it comes to dealing with management when compared to a student-athlete. At the very least an employee has the right to security of tenure while a student-athlete can be cut on the coach’s decision.

While there are student-athletes struggling to keep their roster spots, others have the ability to shop their talents and offer their services to the highest bidder. Literal management agencies sign these athletes up in order to manage their affairs, helping them draft contracts, find endorsements, secure their exposure in media, and build their portfolio in preparation for the professional ranks.

Management agencies are a business and are motivated, first and foremost, by profit. Even the most altruistic of businesses look to turn a profit in order to continue providing their services. And these businesses often earn through commissions from contracts they help their clients sign. Sign an endorsement deal, the agency gets a cut. Sign with the PBA, the agency gets a cut. It’s business. But there’s no money for signing a student-athlete contract with a college team, right? Right? The law explicitly prohibits it. The spirit of amateurism prohibits it.

Having professional management agencies handling student-athletes inevitably takes away from the veneer of amateurism. While it’s absolutely possible that these agencies are 100% out to protect the interests of their clients and not just there to line their pockets, it’s undeniable that decisions will be made, not to see where the student-athlete will be happiest, or where they’ll get the best education. They’re out there making business decisions for people who aren’t recognized as professionals, working in the grey areas, leaving all parties involved vulnerable to mutual destruction and antagonism.

The reality is that nobody expects these athletes to act anything less than professional. They are treated as professionals and act like professionals, only occasionally raising the issue of amateurism only when it suits their cause. One of two things has to happen: Either college leagues stick to their guns and put their foot down against the over-commercialization of their leagues, put limits to the spending allowed for teams to recognize the amateur nature of the competition, or; embrace it. If this is the direction that college leagues are comfortable with, then they should embrace it completely. Let recruitment become more transparent, let the rights and obligations and benefits of these athletes be put into writing without fear of penalties when discovered.

Seeing how athletes are ready to abandon ship at the slightest hint that their season might be in trouble, and that rival teams are constantly ready to pick at the bones of an embattled program shows how commercialized the landscape has become. To maintain the fiction that the UAAP has amateurs on the court during games is simply put, a joke.