The pressures and perks of being a UAAP star athlete

KURT BACHMANN was living his dream as one of the players of the legendary Yco basketball team when an injury to the knee during a practice for the National Team cut his sports career short. He was only 27 years old when he bid the game goodbye.

But Bachmann, who used to be a star player at De La Salle University, had left college with a commerce degree in hand, and he used this along with his relative fame to get jobs at respected companies. More than 40 years later, Bachmann is the president of Mantrade, which includes a Nissan car dealership.

Bachmann belonged to an era when student athletes were expected to hit the books as often as they hit the court. He says he wasn’t really a good student, but he had acceptable grades. At the time, student athletes were supposed to embody the perfect balance between brains and brawn, the prime examples of what it means to have “a sound mind in a sound body.”

School officials insist this remains true to this day, but the growing academic concessions especially to collegiate basketball players seem to have only left many athletes with the notion that doing good in class is not a priority. A taste of big money in the form of generous allowances, as well as compensation from playing in a supposedly amateur league, has also led some young and not-quite-mature college players to push education far down their to-do list.

Basketball league insiders say the imbalance between academics and sports among athletes actually starts earlier, which is why colleges usually have admissions concessions for incoming student athletes.

This was what happened to Lewis Alfred ‘LA’ Tenorio, who was the subject of earnest courting by many universities while he was still a high school senior in 2000. Taut, small-boned and a mere 5’7″, Tenorio doesn’t look like the strong and fast ballplayer that he was — and is. His high school was known to be a basketball heavyweight, but according to Tenorio, it wasn’t “tight” when it came to academics. He thus failed the entrance test at the Ateneo de Manila University, which he had chosen over all the others who had wanted him to be part of their collegiate team.

But Tenorio says the university’s Athletics Office appealed for his admission. His case was re-evaluated, and soon he was in. Ateneo allows this appeals process for any student based on high school grades and entrance test scores, but limits acceptances to two percent of the freshman class, around 40 students. Of those 40 slots, 10 are reserved for varsity athletes of any sport.

Similar consideration for athletes is standard at the other schools belonging to the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP), as well as those belonging to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). At La Salle, which belongs to the UAAP, a potential student who fails to make the cut-off scores for his chosen program can appeal for admission to a less competitive major. For athletes, this is often done with the assistance of the Office of Sports Development. “Of course, knowing they’re not as competent as the others,” says Daniel Jose, La Salle’s former sports director. “We tell them that there is a course in Sports Management. Basically, these are courses for athletes.”

Sports Management, though, is no longer offered as an undergraduate major, but has become a master’s program. Instead, La Salle has an interdisciplinary Sports Studies program, which Behavioral Sciences Department chairperson Christine Rodriguez defends by pointing out that athletics was an important part of Filipino life and needs to be addressed in higher education.

Rodriguez’s department oversees the Sports Studies program. “Let’s admit it,” she says, “sports has become a major industry in the Philippines. There’s a demand, but there’s no discipline, no attention given to it by academia.” She dismisses the suggestion that athletes take the course due to its reputation as lacking in academic rigor. “An important part of decision-making is interest,” she says. “That’s why athletes apply to the program.”

The major requires a total of 162 units. There is a healthy dose of humanities and social sciences, as well as the history of sports, sociology of sports, sports management and administration, sports psychology, sports ethics, and so on. These classes are taught by professors from separate departments who tailor their subjects to apply to athletes.

For instance, when he discusses Greek and Roman civilization, associate professor of history Dr. Rene Escalante devotes more time to the Olympic and gladiatorial games. Sports Studies program’s rationale reads: “a) a careful and systematic examination of the contributing factors and conditions; b) an unhurried appreciation of its beauty and attraction and its persistent value; and c) the active reshaping of its stakeholders, and the norms and ethics governing it.”

According to La Salle Executive Vice President Dr. Carmelita Quebengco, “less than 20” of those who successfully reapply for admission each year are athletes. But Quebenco declines to release cut-off levels for various programs, saying that she did “not want students to perceive that they are inferior simply because they are in a program that requires lower cut-off scores.”

At the College of Human Kinetics of the University of the Philippines, Dean Gilda Uy makes no bones about the fact that while most students must pass the UP entrance test with a 2.8 grade or better, or have maintained an 85 percent average in high school, the school will make exceptions “if your athletic achievement is really high.” This includes national champions, gold-medal winners and athletes whose teams placed first in their league.

This is formally processed through the Varsity Athletics Admission System (VAAS), and their admission is contingent on signing a four-year contract to play varsity athletics at UP. In addition, they are required to take a diagnostic test that determines psychological health, interest-ability, and study habits. Uy says these requisites discourage athletes from failing out, or leaving for the professional leagues.

Uy notes that the concession for athlete-applicants is not unlike those made for students of music, fine arts, and Filipino creative writing courses at the university. These students, she says, do not have to take the UP entrance test, but do have to pass a talent exam. “If we recognize talents in fine arts and music,” she reasons, “why not athletic talent?”

Some school administrators in fact subscribe to the theory of “multiple intelligences,” and feel that entrance exams are not always indicative of future performance. The argument is that athletes are being offered a chance at education. Uy’s own daughter, a varsity fencer, did not pass the UP exam by a fraction of a point, but was admitted anyway. She went on to make the dean’s list last semester. “I tell her she was a late bloomer,” says Uy.

But sometimes, it can seem as though athletes have an unfair advantage, where schools have systematically created alternative options to enable them to gain admission — and later to stay. Yet while some schools simply become lax in applying the usual academic standards on its athletes, others provide tutors to make sure their players stand a better chance of succeeding academically.

Ateneo’s Tenorio had a tutor who explained concepts and assisted in editing grammatically shaky papers. Tenorio saw him almost everyday until his third year, sometimes missing practice, before he finally adjusted to Ateneo’s academic demands.

Ateneo’s grade-point scale is from zero to four, which is the highest possible grade. Tenorio, who had chosen to take interdisciplinary studies (which meant he had a relatively free hand in choosing his major subjects), barely scraped by with a 1.8 GPA the first year. By his senior year, Tenorio’s grade-point average (GPA) had reached 2.8; he graduated last March.

To determine athletic eligibility, Ateneo uses a QPI (Quantitative Point Index) that requires all athletes to maintain a GPA of 1.8 the first year, 1.9 the second, and 2.0 the third and fourth. For sure it helped that like many basketball players, Tenorio had spread out his undergraduate career over five years and had slightly fewer credits each semester then regular students to ease his load. This not only gave him time for training and games, but enabled him to take full advantage of his five years of playing eligibility.

La Salle’s Pancholo ‘Cholo’ Villanueva has not been as lucky, although his school’s academic requirements for athletes were quite reasonable: athletes must pass 70 percent of their enrolled units the semester before beginning of the UAAP season, and must be enrolled in at least 12 units (regular students enroll in 18), and observe the number of maximum failures allowed — 15 units in a school year, and accumulated failures of 21-24 units depending on the course. Villlanueva, who chose to major in educational psychology, had a difficult freshman year, which left him with GPAs at “1.5 or 1.7.” Ineligible to play for his school, he left La Salle for a year, then returned in 2003 with a renewed commitment to his studies. Now a senior, Villanueva has a GPA of 2.9.

He attributes his previous slip to immaturity, and points out that he was then still in his teens, as most basketball players who enter college are. “They don’t think that education is that important, because they think the professional league will provide for them,” he says. “When you’re a kid, you don’t think about the years you’ll play, or injuries. You’re not that mature, so you think you can play basketball and get money, so why study?”

In fact many of them are already living the life, receiving four-figure monthly allowances and becoming minor celebrities even beyond their own campuses due to the TV coverage of the games. As Villanueva admits, “I think the ‘basketball mentality’ slipped in my brain, somehow. That if you’re a basketballer, you get special projects, and just passing, not giving that much effort in lecture or going to class.”

That seems to be a dominant belief among many of La Salle’s male basketball players. A university study comparing academic performance from 2000-2005 shows that the average La Salle student’s GPA is 2.33 — a high C, or low B — but the average GPA for members of the men’s basketball team was 1.77, a cough short of the 1.8 required for a C. The women’s basketball team, however, did far better, averaging 2.4, while the softball team logged in a higher 2.6 GPA.

In La Salle’s previous Sports and Recreational Management course, only 44 percent of all athletes enrolled (82 students) actually graduated. These numbers, however, refer to all athletes, not just basketball players. They look unimpressive until compared to the graduation rate for regular students taking the same course, which stands at 24 percent. The graduation rate for athletes in other programs stands at 40 percent.

Players’ attitudes notwithstanding, the concessions to athletes made by the institutions themselves do not seem to mix well with the increasing pressure to win. At La Salle, for example, official absences must be approved by the Dean of Student Affairs — but approved absences are unlimited. Unfortunately, the temptation not to show up in class has become greater. In the 1970s, college basketball players practiced for two hours a day, three times a week; today a player needs to clock at least three hours of training each day, six days a week.

Villanueva’s typical day, for example, starts at 7.30 a.m. By nine, his first class starts and he does not get off until about 3:30 p.m., with time in between for lunch and brief breaks. Six times a week, he has three hours of practice beginning at four p.m., plus another hour of weight training. He doesn’t get home until nine o’clock, at which point the few remaining waking hours are dedicated to homework, which he says is “the hardest part… you’re physically drained, and you’re mentally drained, too. It’s hard to focus after practice. You just have to get used to it.”

As if this weren’t enough, some players are also part of the supposedly amateur Philippine Basketball League (PBL), but which gives the student athletes that join it anywhere between P8,000 to P35,000 each a month. In the late 1990s, the “allowances” were even greater, the lowest somewhere near P20,000 while superstars like Ateneo’s Enrico Villanueva hauled in as much P200,000 a month. Florendo ‘Ren Ren’ Ritualo, who was in the PBL from 1998-2002, recalls it was there that he earned his first million, on a monthly allowance that reached more than P100,000.

Slots in the PBL are reserved for the best players in the collegiate teams. The students usually start playing in their second year in a team that has an affiliation or arrangement with their school. At present, La Salle is affiliated with ICTSI, a firm owned by Enrique Razon who is also one of the collegiate basketball team’s major sponsors. Far Eastern University is with Magnolia, while UP is with Granny Goose. Seventy percent of current PBL players are student athletes.

PBL commissioner Chino Trinidad acknowledges that the PBL’s amateur status is “purely nomenclature.” But he says it’s a win-win situation. The PBL season is eight months long as opposed to the four-month UAAP season. Playing for the PBL effectively triples the playing time of a collegiate basketball player, so schools can develop more mature players; the companies receive advertising and media coverage; the players get more experience and exposure; and the basketball-hungry public gets amateur games all year round.

But Felicitas Francisco, assistant sports director at the University of Sto. Tomas, has some reservations about the PBL. She worries that the amount of money college students can make in the league could lure them away from their books. “When they start to earn, they neglect their studies,” she says. “They will never realize the value of education. The first thing they will see is that they’re already earning.”

Jason Webb can attest to that. By the time he was a college senior in La Salle in 1995, he was earning 25,000 a month — then equivalent to a bank executive’s salary — with a PBL team. “I was supposed to graduate fifth year, but career-wise, it was good, so I ditched everything then played professionally,” he says. He had only three classes to go when he left school. He has since become a sports commentator and restaurateur with a young family. Last year, at age 31, he went back to college to finish his degree.

Sometimes, a desire to do well for the school and a sense of competition also keep players away from their studies. Mon Jose, who played for La Salle in the late 1990s, says that since a lot of players were receiving scholarships, dedication to the sport “was our way of giving back, performing well.” Recruited from a U.S. high school, he also says they were reluctant to miss practice for schoolwork or even family events due to a sense of competition. “(You had to) fight for your spot, fight for your playing time,” he says. “We all had to prove to our coaches that we deserved to be on the team, deserved our minutes.”

Yet while Jose went on to play in the professional Philippine Basketball Association (PBA), he made sure he graduated first — even making it to the dean’s list during one term. Several of his teammates, including Mike Cortez, Mark Delarte and Don Allado, were not as patient, and passed up a diploma for an early PBA contract. There is, however, some good news: just like Webb, Delarte and Allado have since reportedly returned to school.