Sports Sports Feature

Broad shoulders and huge expectations: Foreign student athletes in the UAAP

In a crowd of Filipino basketball players, they stand out. Figuratively, they are fish out of water. From the way they run, to the way they make their presence on the court, foreign student athletes in the UAAP play as if they’re under a microscope, with the championship aspirations of their team hinged on their performance on the court.

Unlike the foreigners who ply their trade in the Philippine Basketball Association, these athletes take on different roles: most, if not all, are tasked to be the defensive anchor of their respective teams, while only DLSU’s Ben Mbala, and perhaps AdU’s Papi Sarr play pivotal roles on offense.

The addition of foreign-student athletes has become a growing trend, not just in the UAAP, but in other collegiate leagues as well. In fact, the practice can be traced back to the 80s, when FEU paraded Anthony Williams, the first foreign student athlete to win the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award, back in 1981. Fast forward to 2016 and Mbala, who has become a polarizing figure since transferring to La Salle, will take home the MVP honors in Season 79.




Clarifying the UAAP’s “foreign student-athlete”

UAAP rules state that each member university is allowed to include one foreign student athlete on their roster for each sport. For example, a 16-man roster for men’s basketball is permitted to only have one foreign student-athlete. Previously, teams were allowed to have a maximum of two foreign players on their roster, with the condition being that only one of them could be on the court at a given time.

“We explain to the presidents of the eight universities that the UAAP is aligned with the national sports program,” Edwin Reyes, DLSU’s representative to the UAAP board, says. “And for us to be able to help and contribute to the national sports development program, we have to expose our kids to the natural environment outside.”

Reyes goes on to mention that many of these college athletes, whether local or foreign, dream of pursuing professional careers and bringing in bigger and more seasoned players can help these student-athletes gain the much-needed experience. Through the current rule, he also explains that the level of competition rises, allowing truly deserving locals to fight for more spots on their respective rosters.

It is important to note that Filipino-Foreigners are considered locals by the league, as Philippine laws have allowed for dual citizenship, a privilege that the likes of DLSU’s Jason Perkins, Julian Sargent, and Abu Tratter, ADMU’s Raffy Verano and Adrian Wong, and even AdU’s Jerrick Ahanmisi and Robbie Manalang enjoy.

According to Reyes, there are minimal differences in the screening process for foreign student-athletes as compared to Filipino student-athletes. Among the differences he enumerates are the need for a foreign student athlete to secure an Alien Certificate of Recognition from the Bureau of Immigration, and for a university to secure the student’s transcript of records, one that must contain the seal from the Philippine consular office in the country of origin.
“So, yun lang, the UAAP board just wants transparency,” he says, recounting what happened to a foreign student-athlete who had to sit out a year due to miscommunication with immigration. “If you tell them ahead of time [about] the activities of these kids, tapos. Wala, you won’t get any resistance or objections.”


Staying on top of the game despite challenges

Ben Mbala of the DLSU Green Archers was the player to look out for when the UAAP Season 79 Men’s Basketball Tournament started. After accomplishing his residency in DLSU, the Lasallian community was hyped for Mbala’s debut on the court. With a 13-1 regular season record, the fans were not disappointed as Mbala put on a show in every single game, averaging 20.6 points per game and, together with the team, bringing the mayhem brand of basketball to the country’s most popular collegiate league.

Being one of the most talented foreign players to enter the league, the expectations for Mbala seemed to be higher compared to other players, especially when it came to receiving and being called for fouls.

“I think it’s just expecting hard fouls on me and how they’re calling,” Mbala recounts. “I think they [probably] think I can just play through it, [or] I won’t mind it… or I dunno even if they’re playing dirty,” he explains furthermore. “I mean, the fact that I’m smiling all the time is making them think that it’s okay to do that.”

With higher expectations and tougher gameplay, Mbala powers through challenges with smiles and a training regimen that mimics the actual intensity of the UAAP games. He started training harder and expected tougher calls when it came to court action, and even took some bad calls in a positive light. He maintains the mindset that referees and things outside the court should not affect your game. He points out that, as a player from La Salle, he should be level headed during the game regardless of the calls he gets.

“You can’t just be out there complaining or trying to hit back when you get hit because [of] the kids, the fans watching out there… You can’t just have a certain type of image that won’t be good for the school,” Mbala explains. Furthermore, he adds that he tries to embody the Lasallian values on and off the court. “You should really be a model when you’re a player. You know there’s a lot of fans looking up to you and you showing that you got a dirty side won’t be really nice for your image and your image for the school.”


Fair treatment and equal opportunities

Green Archers head coach Aldin Ayo makes sure that he keeps his players on equal footing. The coach believes in equal opportunity for all of his players, regardless if they’re imports or locals.
He says that his coaching approach is the same for everybody. “Sabi ko nga, equal opportunities walang favoritism, although mag-dedepende yan sa roles na ginagampanan nila, pero basically pantay-pantay lang,” he further explains.
When asked about how referees give out foul calls, coach Ayo believes that referees base their calls on the individual player. He explained that bigger and stronger players get harder fouls, yet smaller and local players have it easier with soft fouls.


Looking forward

The presence of foreign students athletes will remain in the UAAP, but the past few years have shown that it will be commonplace for all universities and not just in basketball. The ASEAN integration and the emergence of globalization are among the factors that have encouraged the movement of people, and not just athletes, to other places that can help them cultivate their craft.

“Most of the universities, at least, the big ones, are trying to open [their] doors to foreign students. So, by that alone, I think we’re making it easier for everybody to come,” Reyes says, adding that there are still standards when it comes to accepting these foreign students.

Foreign student-athletes not only face the obstacle of being under the spotlight of the fans, but also have to adapt to a new culture and style of play. Though he can be emotional at certain points of the game, Mbala understands that to win the championship for La Salle, he has to be at the top of his game. “I just don’t wanna be a flopper all the time, begging for fouls. I’m out there to play and focus on what I have to do,” he says.

Gio Gloria

By Gio Gloria

Marnellie Alegre

By Marnellie Alegre

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