The MOA Arena wasn't full. Not even close. And with my limited experience in estimating actual arena capacity, I surmise that this is probably one of the least attended ADMU-DLSU games in recent memory.
I was there to watch a basketball game. What I saw was a massacre. A lopsided slaughter perpetuated by the Green Archers, led by Ben Mbala, the most dominant big man I've seen in the green and white since Don Allado was hailed King Archer. But despite the huge gap in the outcome (which was expected even without La Salle head coach Aldin Ayo and skipper Jeron Teng), it was your regular, run-of-the-mill rivalry matchup between the Archers and the Eagles, complete with hard fouls, near-fights, halftime shenanigans, fan heckling, and the stench of school spirit from the opposite end of Baywalk.
The thing is, it could have been something more.
A letter released by the heads of the two rival schools circulated on social media a few days before game day. In it, both Ateneo and La Salle, no doubt wanting to capitalize on the reach that the matchup usually gets, invited those attending the event to wear black in lieu of the usual green and blue in protest of extrajudicial killings and the possible burial of former president Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani.
Imagine that—a sea of black in a match between two rival schools, both finding a common ground and uniting not to spite the people in power, but in the name of a moral and social obligation to speak up against a violation of basic human rights. It would have been a powerful statement. And yet with the seemingly commonsensical decision to stand up against injustice, symbolic or otherwise, that day amidst the sea of colors (predominantly green, from where I was sitting), black was a minority.
I was in black. Dark gray if you want to be technical about it, but the only black items in my closet were a pair of black socks and a long-sleeved polo that didn't fit. From what I saw on social media, I knew entering the Arena that I was going to be part of the few that did. True, it was disheartening not to catch sight of a sea of blacks—or dark grays—but the problem didn't lie in the majority's unwillingness to comply; it was in the overwhelming sentiment that sports should be mutually exclusive from social and political issues.
Athletes worldwide have used sports as an avenue for discussing socio-political agendas. After winning gold and bronze at the 200-meter race in the 1968 Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the podium, in what is commonly known as the Black Power salute, to show solidarity with oppressed African-Americans. Known as the Indo-Pak Express, Indian tennis player Rohan Bopanna and Pakistan's Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi have teamed up on the court to promote peace between the two neighboring countries, even starting a peace initiative called Stop War, Start Tennis.
In the NBA, players such as Lebron James and Kobe Bryant have used basketball's biggest stage to fight against injustice, specifically regarding the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner. More recently, athletes such as Colin Kaepernick and members of the Toronto Raptors have been in the headlines for displaying various acts of defiance during the US National Anthem—a sign of support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
This phenomenon isn't limited to the athletes, either. Football club Chelsea and their fans have delivered pro-equality messages on the field and on the bleachers. Polish fans have been very outspoken about political issues, raising them during football and volleyball games. Sports also played a huge role to end apartheid in South Africa under Nelson Mandela's leadership. Doesn't the desire to beat China in the FIBA tournaments stem from a political desire to assert ourselves against a country we perceive as a bully? And in case you've forgotten, we all wore yellow once during an Ateneo-La Salle game as a sign of respect for the late Cory Aquino, undeniably political in its undertones and yet we all did so gladly.
I refuse to believe that sports is just sports. As fans, we all know that at some point, all sports eventually succumb to an idea greater than what it is. Sports is transcendent. It is powerful. And it is foolish and misguided to think otherwise. Mandela said it best in his Laureus World Sports Awards speech back in the year 2000:
#WearBlackSunday was not even a political statement to begin with, but an effort to make our voices heard peacefully in an event that is watched by thousands. What kind of world, then, are we living in when a Ben Mbala dunk goes viral and a call for unity against injustice is acknowledged with disgust? Or when it is easier to dedicate a victory to a suspended head coach than use it as a platform for social commentary? What could have been the most significant basketball moment of the week became a footnote to (admittedly jaw-dropping) alley-oops, a (well-deserved) suspension, a (slightly unnecessary) jab at that same suspension, and even Ginebra's impending escape from the kangkungan.
Last Sunday, we witnessed a great game (though exponentially less great if you're from Ateneo)—a game that was to be played regardless of any symbolic gestures from the spectators or the athletes, a game that should have meant more than ten guys trying to get a ball in a hoop. On the same day, we were also witnesses to our own selfish desire to enjoy just a basketball game (one we see at least twice a year), falsely hiding behind the excuse that sports should never be more than what it is, never mixing with what we perceive as politicking, and in the process, leaving a call for help and an invitation for unity to fall on deaf ears.
It has been few days after the game and I am left with lingering thoughts. I hope that we still believe in the capacity of sports to inspire and effect change. I still hold on to the notion that sports can mean so much more to so many people. I trust that the colors that filled the Arena that day were not the only measure of what we stand for. And when the last whistle was blown and the bleachers were finally empty, I found that I was glad I wore black.