Ateneo de Manila University

[OPINION] On Ateneo de Manila, a student basketball player, and ‘academic deficiencies’

Bennet Dychangco

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[OPINION] On Ateneo de Manila, a student basketball player, and ‘academic deficiencies’

Marian Hukom/Rappler

'Must this student-athlete be made to feel worse that his academic deficiency has been publicized, by his own school no less?'

A couple of days ago, Ateneo de Manila University posted on its website a statement on its men’s basketball player being ineligible to play in the upcoming season because of academic deficiencies; it has been picked up by news organizations since. At the outset, I should state that I am profoundly blessed and deeply grateful that I was graced to have devoted a substantial part of my education in Ateneo de Manila University. It was there where I discovered Ignatian spirituality, which has illuminated my life, served as my compass, and fueled my passion for social justice. 

Jesuit schools’ striving for excellence is rooted in St. Ignatius’s realization that he ought to be as knowledgeable as he possibly could to be able to undertake his discerned God-given mission, which was driven by compassion – a defining quality that you will find in many Jesuits, with Pope Francis being a shining example of what it means to be light in the Lord – Lux in Domino, as the Ateneo de Manila motto goes. 

So, does a school really need to publicize that its student-athlete who’s struggling academically has been excluded from the team? If a student-athlete is first and foremost a student, then doesn’t s/he ought to be treated, first and foremost, as a student? Schools, generally, do not publicize all their students’ academic deficiencies. It is difficult to see any wisdom or merit in doing so because that would be tantamount to public shaming. There is nothing constructive or Christian in doing that.

I imagine that the student-athlete is already distraught that he won’t be able to represent his school and compete alongside his teammates. Must he be made to feel worse that his academic deficiency has been publicized, by his own school no less? Whose reputation does this enhance and whose does it blemish? Incidentally, this is the same student-athlete who was rumored to have committed transgressions against the sister of his teammate after the aggrieved party herself hinted about it. Did the school publicize or conduct an investigation about that? The school stayed silent on it, and the student-athlete continued playing and helped the school win a championship.

I am deeply troubled for three reasons.

First, this is not just about one student-athlete being made ineligible to play. This is about a powerful institution shaping the discourse or conversation around topics like education, academic standards, student-athletes, the concept of excellence, values, what sports merit attention (and are, therefore, important), etc.; consequently, it also shapes people’s beliefs and attitudes towards those topics. But isn’t that the role of leading educational institutions? Yes, but Ateneo de Manila is not just any top-notch university. Just consider the number of top-ranking government and business leaders who come from Ateneo de Manila. Many of them send their children to study there. Ateneo de Manila is marked by a concentration of power not found in other Philippine schools. It is in a pivotal position to mold men and women who will either work for social justice or thwart it to serve the interest of the social class they come from. 

Second – which reinforces my first argument – a netizen commented that Ateneo’s handling of the matter is how it should be and how all schools should treat student-athletes. Should it? It has been a few decades since Dr. Howard Gardner theorized about multiple intelligences. Student-athletes’ giftedness in bodily-kinesthetic intelligence should not be viewed as inferior to linguistic-verbal intelligence or logical-mathematical Intelligence, for example; these intelligences are all different, yet complementary, and we are each gifted with a number of them in varying degrees. Should athletes be made to feel lesser because their intelligence translates to skill sets different from lawyers’? Arguably, our athletes have brought greater honor to the Philippines compared to lawyers who have not been as effective in promoting justice in the country.

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Athletes are often neglected and left to their own resourcefulness to support their training; only when they succeed and gain popularity do sponsors and patrons swarm them to piggyback on the athletes’ achievements to boost their own profiles and interests. Also, for many Filipino student-athletes, their sport is the most viable, or even only, option they have to get out of poverty. Most student-athletes are not scions of wealthy politicians or business magnates who have family enterprises to take over.

I support academic standards. I support preparing students to have more than one option when they graduate. But leading educational institutions – and Ateneo de Manila is certainly up there – need to be mindful of how they shape public discourse; they need to do so in an informed way, and harness their influence to promote the interest of the marginalized majority rather than the elite. Ateneo de Manila is a paragon in education and values-formation; it ought to behave as such. 

Lastly – which is what’s deeply personal to me – is that Ateneo de Manila making public a student-athlete’s academic struggle runs counter to the Ignatian values of magis (choosing the greater good in loving response to God) and cura personalis (holistic care for the person and his dignity). These are defining values of Jesuit education. To use a marketing framework, that’s what the Ateneo brand is about. We expect brands to live up to their promise and consistently behave accordingly. If we expect consumer brands to deliver on their promise and hold them accountable when they don’t, then why should we hold our educational institutions to a less stringent standard?

There are kinder, more compassionate, and more Christian ways of fulfilling the objective of exhorting a struggling student-athlete to rise to the occasion other than by publicizing his academic deficiency. I would not be honoring my Ateneo education if I stayed silent on all of this. –

Bennet Dychangco is an independent marketing communications consultant. He studied English and Communication in Ateneo de Manila University.

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