Matthew Wright has one regret.
Five days before last year’s Christmas, an off-duty police officer gunned down a 55-year-old mother and her son in close range following a heated altercation. The incident happened in Tarlac—Wright’s province.
The star guard of the Phoenix Super LPG Fuel Masters couldn’t watch the video. It was too brutal. Too surreal. He didn’t say anything either.
“One thing that I regret (not speaking out on), remember that police shooting in Tarlac? That happened in my neighborhood, close to where my family lives,” said Wright. “I know a lot of people spoke out, but I wanted to go back home to Tarlac and help out, but I couldn’t. I was just so shocked.”
The gruesome incident was among the spate of police killings in the Philippines in recent months that moved some formerly apolitical celebrities to speak out publicly.
But though more and more public personalities have been speaking up on social concerns through social media, athletes have mostly been quiet and gun-shy.
‘Difference in culture’
It’s hard not to compare them to athletes in the United States (US)—LeBron James, Naomi Osaka, Megan Rapinoe, Maya Moore, Patrick Mahomes—who are leading voices in the fight against social ills. In the Philippines, vocal athletes are still more of a novelty than a norm.
“I feel like there are a lot of athletes in the PBA that come from humble beginnings, come from the province, small towns. They’re very quiet, very shy. Just hardworking people. They come from nothing, they’re just happy to be here. They don’t understand the strength that they have, the platform that they have,” said Wright.
For Bea De Leon, star middle hitter of the Choco Mucho Flying Titans, ”it’s a difference in culture.”
“In the Philippines, we’re very traditional. We’re very much brought up to respect our elders and the institutions around us. So it’s a bit harder to speak up in those ways, especially since everyone has different views,” said De Leon.
Anton Del Rosario, a former Philippine Azkals mainstay and now playing manager of Maharlika Manila FC, said the ingrained respectful nature of Filipinos cuts both ways.
“Filipinos don’t want to create conflict. I think it’s a big issue. But then when it comes to fighting for a cause, we do it in a respectful way,” said Del Rosario.
A different kind of culture also seems to be a factor for the social timidity of athletes: cancel culture. Social media is like a locker room—cluttered, noisy, grimy, fueled by adrenaline—minus the sacred privacy. A survey conducted by ESPN last year in the US revealed over 70% of fans support athletes who speak out on social issues. But while athletes, with their thousands of social media followers can easily help magnify social issues, there is also potential for blowback when they dip their toes in controversial issues.
In 2019, James, the Los Angeles Lakers megastar, was heavily criticized for his seemingly pro-China stance amid the Hong Kong democracy protests, claiming he “isn’t informed enough.” While he’s usually hailed for his social outspokenness and progressive views, many fans felt he conveniently ducked the issue to protect his lucrative deals in China.
“Sometimes we’d rather keep it to ourselves, to our friends and teammates. Nag-uusap naman kami sa mga social issue but sometimes ayaw na namin makisawsaw kasi madami na rin nagsasalita. Sa social media, let’s admit it, dalawa lang ‘yan: May magba-bash sa’yo or mag-a-agree sa’yo. So lalala lang. Nawawala ‘yung context ng mismong issue. So pick your poison talaga,” said LA Tenorio of the Brgy. Ginebra Gin Kings.
“Cancel culture has brought down a lot of people, some well-deserved in a way, but it has become so powerful nowadays. Before, it was just meant to hold someone accountable, but now, it’s become a way to really bring people down,” said De Leon. “I’m sure it plays a role in the fears of some people about speaking out.”
For Jamie Lim, a SEA Games gold medalist in karate, there are ways to get your message across and not inflame others, especially when it comes to political issues.
“I make sure I speak in the most polite way possible. I try to filter what I say and not make it too offensive. There will always be bashers, you just have to believe in what you think,” said Lim.
Marc Pingris, veteran forward of the Magnolia Hotshots, said he has accepted being bashed as part of his athlete life.
“Kailangan din talaga malakas ‘yung loob mo. Sa Instagram ine-erase ko agad kasi hindi ko kawalan ‘yun. Kawalan nila ‘yun. Tsaka sila pa ‘yung sisikat kapag papatulan mo sila,” said Pingris.
PBA commissioner Willie Marcial has already said that players aren’t barred from speaking out on social issues, saying it’s well within their rights and it doesn’t violate any league rules.
Last year, in the wake of the death of George Floyd, several PBA stars like Chris Ross, Gabe Norwood, Chris Newsome, Ray Parks, and CJ Perez posted videos in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. They held signs saying “It could’ve been me.” Some fans, however, didn’t appreciate their gesture, saying they’re just jumping on the bandwagon.
“I know a lot of people just want to play basketball. They don’t want to get caught up in all the political stuff. But there has to be some of us who aren’t afraid of what a CEO’s gonna say or losing some followers, a few dollars from sponsors," said Wright, who has close to 69,000 followers on Instagram. "Who cares how many followers you lose? As long as you stand up for something that’s right.”
Even Hidilyn Diaz, arguably the country’s top athlete, wasn’t spared from heavy bashing after she spoke out on the inadequate financial support for national athletes in 2019. Here’s someone who brought immense honor to the country with her silver medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics voicing out a valid concern, yet she still got vilified. Quite ridiculously, she even found herself on an alleged matrix of people trying to oust President Rodrigo Duterte.
“The government now, it’s a little scary. They’re very vocal about if you’re against them, they are in power, they can take it away from you. A lot of our athletes are breadwinners so they can’t afford to lose their jobs,” said Lim. “That’s why some don’t speak out.”
Agatha Wong does. In December 2019, she complained about national athletes getting deprived of 20% discounts in certain establishments, even though it’s part of the National Athletes and Coaches Benefits and Incentives Act.
Can we make R.A. 10699 on the national athlete’s discount benefits an imposed & required law to abide by?
Gets quite annoying to keep having to explain to managers that this kind of benefit actually exists & some are even doubtful. U think amalayer? ?— Agatha Wong (@AgathaWongy) December 21, 2019
“I think as Filipino athletes, we’re quite tolerant. But if there’s a recurring problem, we need to voice out our opinion and exercise our rights,” said Wong, the country’s top wushu athlete.
Being one of the more recognizable national athletes, her post quickly gained steam on social media, with several news outlets even picking it up. While it was not exactly a huge social issue, it showed her how her influence can enact change. A few days later, Manila Mayor Isko Moreno called for strict implementation of the mandated discount in all business establishments.
“I couldn’t understand why it has to be just one person to speak about it, someone who had to be in the limelight. I was surprised when my tweet went viral. But why did it start with me? I realized it’s all about the exposure of the individual,” said Wong, who was fresh off winning two gold medals in the SEA Games at that time.
Drawing the line
Professional athletes are also conscious of their relationship with their team owners, powerful businessmen with connections to even more powerful people. There’s always the fear of rubbing them the wrong way if one speaks out on a social issue. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, as the adage goes.
“You have to be respectful to the person who signs your check. There are a lot of powerful people in the PBA. They’re friends with other people in power. So there are players who wouldn’t feel comfortable voicing out because they might step on their toes, endangering their livelihood,” said Wright, whose boss, business tycoon Dennis Uy, is a known Duterte ally.
“Kahit gusto ko magsalita minsan against the government, ayoko magsalita agad kasi baka mamaya mali pala ko. So kailangan din mag-ingat. Kasi minsan salita ka nang salita tapos sumosobra na pala. Hindi na pala positive ‘yung effect,” said Tenorio, who plays for Ramon Ang, one of the richest people in the Philippines.
But inevitably, there is a threshold for some athletes between shutting up and speaking out, between principle and paycheck.
“What’s your livelihood? What makes you survive? That’s where athletes have to draw the line, if speaking out becomes an issue affecting your life,” said Del Rosario. “And that’s what athletes need to know, if you’re going to stand up for something, make sure it’s right, just, and creates a positive impact.”
“I’ve spoken out on issues that have no gray areas, things that are blatantly wrong: Extrajudicial killings, corruption. Wala kang masasabi na ‘Minsan, okay lang ‘yun.’ There’s no way you can go around those things. That’s the line for me,” said De Leon, who’s been urging people to register and vote and regularly shares political content on Twitter, where she has close to 590,000 followers.
So much hope rn ??? we’re next!!! Come out and vote!!!!! Nothing more I love than this country and its people. ??????— Bea de Leon (@_beadel) November 7, 2020
“You need to respect din ‘yung boss mo kasi sa kanya ka nagtatrabaho. Pero ako kapag nasa tama ako, I don’t care kung sino nasa harap ko. Puwede ko sabihin kung ano gusto ko sabihin,” said Pingris, who has 504,000 followers on Instagram. “Hangga’t nakikita kong tama ako, walang makakakuha sa akin ng prinsipyo ko.”
Most of the athletes interviewed for this story admitted politics isn’t something they discuss often with teammates, proving it remains a sensitive topic. It still makes people uncomfortable, even those used to performing in pressure-packed situations. Plus, to most athletes, their main priorities are to hone their craft and prolong their careers. Politics is at the backend of the bullpen.
“It’s not really black and white. It’s also a privilege to be able to speak out, either for the government or against it. But ideally, athletes do speak out because it’s our civic duty as citizens of the country to think, speak, and criticize the government. Because that’s what makes the country grow,” said Lim.
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“Some athletes can’t afford to be socially active kasi they tend to focus more on what they want to bring to the country,” said Wong. “‘Some focus on bringing more medals, some want to speak out more. It’s really each to his or her accountability.”
"I guess that’s the tendency of a lot of athletes, they go into a bubble where all they know is the sport. But that focus is what also makes them so good. So for us to say, ‘They should pay attention more to what’s going around,’ it also means they have to take their focus away from their main goal. So it’s such a balance,” said Del Rosario.
Discussing politics might endanger team chemistry too, when one player has an opposite view from his teammate. So they just keep their thoughts bottled up. Then there’s the subtext of athletes feeling detached from social issues that don’t directly affect them like police abuse, drug war, and red-tagging, among others.
But even for some that hit close to home, many still are hesitant to speak out. One example: Duterte’s sexist remarks. Though all athletes have women in their lives, no one dares to denounce Duterte’s bigoted barbs to remind their fans that demeaning women is wrong.
“Hindi nga naman tama (sexist remarks). Pero minsan din kasi makikita mo marami na tumutuligsa sa kanya. So hindi na ko nakikisali. Kapag nababasa mo naman, marami na rin hindi uma-agree,” said Tenorio.
“I think for a president, it would be better to choose the words (carefully). I think he thinks lowly of women because he made a statement that the presidency isn’t fit for a woman. But it’s 2021, I think women have proved to be powerful as well,” said Lim, who graduated summa cum laude from UP Diliman.
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To an extent, De Leon has learned how to accept the situation. The outspoken 24-year-old said for her mental health, she doesn’t allow her indignation to consume her.
“Sometimes you have to keep your emotions in check because it happens so often,” said De Leon. “It’s frustrating, it’s annoying, it makes you angry every time you hear it, when he makes a sexist joke, a rape joke, without understanding the mental toll it could lead to women and how much fear it causes. It’s unfair.”
Pingris said Duterte is just flawed like any other person, but he has also done good things for the country.
“For me ang laki ng nagawa niya sa drugs. I salute him. Kasi may mga kaibigan ako na tumino dahil sa drugs. Siguro kung hindi si Duterte ‘yung umupo, ‘yung mga kaibigan kong ‘yun hanggang ngayon gumagamit pa rin,” said Pingris, who’s linked to politics with his brother-in-law Pasig Mayor Vico Sotto and uncle Sen. Tito Sotto.
Stick to sports?
A quick scroll of the Instagram pages of some of the country’s most-followed athletes, those who have at least 250,000 followers, shows a parade of sponsored posts, workout content, vacation photos, and personal hobbies. Posts on social issues are as rare as a hat-trick on a muddy field.
But since last year, with the country grappling with many issues, more and more athletes have started speaking out, including Kiefer Ravena, Asi Taulava, Alyssa Valdez, Jack Animam, and Irish Magno. Last June, Kobe Paras even helped raise funds to bail out jailed student protesters in UP Cebu.
Bakasyon? ? https://t.co/GFcK9KIj1v— Kiefer Ravena (@kieferravena) March 2, 2021
For the sake of my daughters and of all kids their age, I am hoping the right leaders emerge for this country. It’s about time...— Asi Taulava (@agelessasi88) March 6, 2021
“Hindi naman dahil wala kami sa social media, wala na kaming ginagawa. Pero tama naman na mas maging vocal kami kasi mas malaki ang influence namin, lalo na sa mga kabataan. Para rin kaming mga artista e. May mga tumitingala sa amin, may mga nakikinig sa’min,” said Tenorio.
More are starting to sidestep from the soothing shadows of silence into the sobering space of social responsibility, showing athletes shouldn’t be pigeonholed and ordered to just stick to sports.
“I think that’s bullshit. A lot of people think we’re jocks. But trust me, a lot of us are smarter than people think. And this is what separates us. If we want to go out and we want to learn something and we want focus, we know how to do it. We’ve been able to make ourselves professionals in our sport, that’s almost a pinnacle of dedication,” said Del Rosario.
“We have to crush that notion na kapag athlete ka wala kang ibang alam about anything else. That’s not true. A lot of athletes are capable of forming their own opinion. They have strong and solid judgments. I think we just have to quietly ignore those who say otherwise,” said Wong.
Plus, with the wealth of available information these days, there’s no excuse for athletes not to be aware of social issues. Clearly, educating themselves will give more credence to their opinions and avoid the assumption that they’re just chasing clout.
“It’s also our responsibility to educate ourselves more on social issues,” said Tenorio. “Sa panahon ngayon, mas madali na kami maka-reach out, isang post lang pinapakinggan na ng fans. Kaya dapat maging extra responsible kami.”
“To me, it’s more of fear and not the lack of initiative (to educate ourselves) because we’re too focused on our sport. Besides, it’s a common responsibility of any citizen, regardless of your career, you have to be informed, you have to keep up with the current events. Kahit sa bansa mo man lang,” said De Leon.
“When I first moved here four years ago, I was just excited to be here, playing basketball. Now I live here, I’m paying taxes here, I have property here. I have to start paying more attention to things that happen outside of basketball because they can directly affect me,” said Wright, who grew up in Canada.
Former star quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who jumpstarted the surge of contemporary activism among athletes, had a popular Nike commercial in 2018 that said: Believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything. Even though he became a pariah in the NFL, he stood—or knelt, to be more exact—for something.
Not all athletes, however, have had their social awakening. Some are still finding their voice.
“It only takes somebody else to start the conversation, to start us off,” said Del Rosario, who’s always been vocal about the issues hounding football in the Philippines.
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Speaking out these days has become almost like an ethical responsibility as well, especially with the power and influence athletes have, which some of them are still trying to fully grasp.
“Naging atleta ako kasi gusto ko. But it also came with a power and a responsibility to be of influence. Sometimes I can’t wrap my head around it. Ganun pala karami ‘yung taong nakikinig sa’kin,” said De Leon, adding she’s still continually checking on her privilege. “I also forget that it’s a privilege in itself to set a social issue aside just because I can’t handle it.”
“One of the things I realized was the gravity of my role and my rank as an athlete affected the opinions of others,” said Wong. “That just blew me away because it shows you how when all the attention is on you, what you say can make or break somebody else’s opinion.”
What was previously a form of entertainment, sports has progressed into a moral milieu. It’s nation-building. It’s transformative. But while being socially engaged will always be a personal choice, Filipino athletes are still grappling with the risks and responsibility of making such a choice.
“It’s really important for a country to have critical citizens to flourish,” said Lim. “I don’t think things can get worse but if they do, I really hope that we do get more vocal because right now social media is super powerful.”
“It’s time na mapansin pa ng karamihan sa amin kung ano ‘yung kulang o ano pa ‘yung kaya i-improve. Siguro minsan nahihirapan din mga atleta ilabas kung ano saloobin nila kasi kulang sila ng usap sa nakakataas sa kanila para pakinggan sila o paniwalaan sila,” said Pingris.
These days, it seems the air is charged with a rich flavor of activism. A wave is slowly building among Filipino athletes. Spurred by the movement made by their counterparts in the United States, there’s fervent hope that Filipino athletes will begin to fully embrace their role in society and continue the momentum.
“It is our role to inspire people, to become socially responsible. Because people look up to us. We need to carry ourselves in a way that’s real so people still know there are struggles behind the victories we have,” said De Leon.
Wright is back in the Philippines, where he’s eagerly awaiting the opening of the 46th PBA season, which has been pushed back because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He admitted he’s never been a political person growing up in Canada. He has never voted before. But since being exposed to the endemic issues in the Philippines after moving here, he has changed his mindset.
“I know Filipino people like to rally behind their favorite athlete, so what more if their favorite athlete is standing up for their rights too?” said Wright. “We can’t let social media dictate what we can’t say. We can’t let 'cancel culture' worry us or scare us into silence. Because that’s what they want to do. They want us to stay quiet so that they can do whatever they want to do. We have bigger responsibilities as athletes.”
The shooting incident in Tarlac made him realize even more that speaking out on social issues should be part of an athlete’s fabric.
“I’m planning to register this year and vote,” said Wright.