When you’re a school that professes a commitment to lofty ideals, others will gladly point out how you fail to reach them. God knows how many times it’s been pointed out that the alumni of Ateneo de Manila, my alma mater, aren’t quite the men and women for others they were formed to be. I’ve lost count. The recent hubbub over anonymously written social media posts alleging sexual harassment in school have only added fuel to the fire.
The University of the Philippines in Diliman, renowned for its many iskolar ng bayan molded to serve the nation, woke up one day to leaked private messages between fraternity members that revealed a culture of entitlement, misogyny, and violence. This just weeks after yet another frat brawl broke out on campus embarrassed the school and led to resignations in the student council.
So perhaps it was with great relief that both schools forgot those problems, if only for a while, and cheered their men’s basketball teams as they found themselves matched up in the finals. After two intense games—fast-paced, high-scoring, and very well played—the Blue Eagles, this season’s 800-pound gorilla, were champions again, and the Maroons, the scrappy, lovable challengers, were left consoling themselves with moral victories. (Maybe the best one: They’ll be better next year.)
How refreshing, after wondering how and why they had come to be represented by their worst members, that both schools could now delight in these two teams competing at the highest level of the college game driven by that pure fuel called school spirit. In these finals we saw two faces of our best selves: disciplined, methodical, unflappable (the Blue Eagles), fiery, ferocious, fearless (the Fighting Maroons). That is one way sports consoles, by showing us who we really are.
And yet we run the risk of freighting the symbol with too much meaning. Basketball is just a game, after all, invented as a winter diversion. Perhaps the reason we bring such passion to what should be a trivial thing like this is that so little is at stake. In the end, what does a championship bring? Nothing changes in the world out there, except that a multitude wearing one color turns happy, and another one wearing another color feels glum. Like the ancient grudge that fuels the bloody quarrel between the rival families in Romeo and Juliet, those not involved don’t really care.
It means so much, because we can’t help but bring the burden of narrative to sports. Floy Quintos, as accomplished a playwright and director as you’ll ever find, wrote an impassioned piece on this site explaining why UP needed to win this championship (“Divided he stands: why UP needs this victory now”). He writes, “UP needs to unite. We need to get our old spirit back,” one that was flagging and in need of reviving. His rousing piece contained this implied plea: Ateneo, you’ve won this so many times, can’t you let us have it just this once? It will mean more to us than to you.
As a long-time Atenean, this is how I understand my side’s obsession with hardcourt glory: The championship affirms our supremacy. All my life—grade school, high school, college—I’ve heard the exhortation to be excellent, to be the best. Sapientia et eloquentia, magis, lux in domino. The hardcourt is just another realm in which we stamp our excellence.
I’m pretty sure other schools in the UAAP have had enough of our excellence. It’s only been six years since the Slaughterhouse Five era ended. (I find “five-peat” ugly and refuse to use it.) Our championship drought feels like a day without rain, while UP has wandered the parched wilderness for 32 years and counting.
Quintos writes, “[L]ooking back at the recent history of controversies that have rocked UP, it seems like a lot is demanded from everyone who carries the Isko/Iska name.” So too does the person who calls him or herself Atenean. To wear the name (Isko/Iska, Atenista) is to accept the burden of lofty expectations.
Expectations we often fail to meet. Ateneans may think we’re special, but in truth we are no different from anyone else. I say this every now and then, to anyone who cares to listen, when yet another alum or student embarrasses himself and shames the school by his behavior.
UP friends seemed to feel the same way about their own when their frats brought the wrong kind of attention to Diliman. Then came that infamous call for harm to be done to Ateneo players issued by a member of the Board of Regents, someone clearly equal parts goon and buffoon.
We are not the wonderful examples of humanity we thought we were: an awful thing to discover and acknowledge. And so our spirits need lifting. Quintos writes, “We need a cause to remind us of what we need to do in the world, and who we need to be at this very moment of our national history.”
Can a basketball game do so much, come to our rescue in this dark time? Maybe it can. It’s a terrible burden for a game to bear, but we project onto it our hopes and dreams, our aspirations for a better world, our images of who we are and would like to be (men and women for others, scholars who serve the nation). Nothing fires the mind like symbols, and what is a basketball game if not a symbolic clash, the players our representatives? The result doesn’t wipe away the bad things. But it can rekindle an inner flame in danger of going dark.
Floy needn’t have worried. One thing the finals made clear is that UP’s fighting spirit is alive and well. Maroon-shirted fans filled the stadiums at both games, outnumbering the blue ones. There were more of them, they were louder, and they kept cheering their team on after the Eagles had built an impossible-to-overcome lead late in Game 2. After the game was decided, they showered their team, especially folk hero Paul Desiderio, with love. The bond between fans and team was palpable. Social media was awash with tributes, declarations of adoration, words of consolation ( such as “Even if you didn’t win the championship, you won our hearts”).
What I loved was that the messages from the maroon side often had that rich pugnacity our brethren up the road are known for. Fans at the game held up signs that read “ATIN ’TO (West Philippine Sea).” Tweets like “Talo, panalo, hindi bayani si Marcos” went out and pinged around the internet. They thumbed their noses at those who demanded an affair free of politics. (Is anything ever politics-free?)
In this the team was one with its community. On Twitter I saw a photo of the UP basketball team with a group of lumad holding up signs that read “Stand UP! Stop the attacks on lumad communities!” and “Stand with the lumad!” A Jesuit once said in a meeting I attended, “If you’re not excellent, are you really an Atenean?” I can imagine a UP counterpart remarking, “If you’re not serving the nation, are you really an iskolar ng bayan?”
Now that the games are done, it is time to come together. (How lovely that the street we share has a name that means “gathering.”) But then were we really that far apart? Despite the bickering that always accompanies a fierce competition, the two schools never felt like rivals. One Twitter wit called the series The Battle of Best Friends. Maybe we are, professing the same lofty ideals (academic excellence, service on behalf of the nation), finding ourselves falling short, getting back up again and trying harder to reach them.
The Battle of Katipunan is over, but the bigger one continues to rage. School spirit brings us together to shout an appropriate response: Fight.