Bad day for athletes who transfer from one University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) member school to another. They will have to sit through the two-year residency requirement that the UAAP board of trustees imposed on them. Note that it is the UAAP board and not the receiving school that imposes residency on a transferee. That makes all the difference, as you will see.

One school representative to the UAAP board said, “This is to protect the school that made efforts in recruitment… to protect the time spent on the athlete and to keep them in their alma mater.” Another reasoned similarly, “The new residency rule is to protect the league because we can’t allow other schools to pirate the best available homegrown players…We took everything into consideration and we’re not depriving anyone of their rights.”

Say what?

There are no guaranteed investments on this planet. An investment is always a gamble. There is no certainty that the recruited athlete will become a star even with all the coaching, training, financial and moral support from the school’s sports department, there is no assurance that the athlete will not suffer a career-ending injury in the course of playing for the school, there is no telling whether or not the athlete will lose interest in sports. Recruiting, training, and coaching an athlete is a gamble. No one pointed a gun at the school to force it to recruit a particular athlete. And so it must live with the risk of losing an athlete for one reason or another, especially to a more attractive team or school.

A UAAP-imposed residency requirement is a penalty on the athlete who chooses to transfer to another school. A school-imposed residency requirement is not a penalty, it provides a necessary period of adjustment to the transferee. I can still recall basketball games where some transferees were subjected to merciless booing and cries of traidor from their old alma mater every time they held the ball.

If a school wants to keep an athlete then it better make itself so attractive that its best athletes will never want to play for another school. Debt bondage is not the way to do it. Indenture is a practice that is totally unacceptable in a free and competitive society.

Why do I call the residency rule imposed by the UAAP a form of debt bondage?

The Princeton University website defines debt bondage as “an arrangement whereby a person is forced to pay off a loan with direct labor in place of currency, over an agreed or obscure period of time. When a debtor is tricked or trapped into working for very little or no pay, or when the value of their work is significantly greater than the original sum of money borrowed, some consider the arrangement to be a form of unfree labor or debt slavery.”

The “investment” the school made is the “loan” the athlete must pay off through direct labor i.e. playing for the school team. The period of time for working off the “debt” is open-ended because it is the school alone, through the UAAP, that decides when the debt is fully paid. The athlete may not have been tricked into signing on but with the new UAAP ruling he is now trapped by the school that originally recruited him. And look at what a Keifer Ravena may have “borrowed” from his school compared to the payback that the school got from him.

Let’s say the athlete was recruited to play for the high school team. Why does the athlete’s obligation extend to playing for the school’s varsity team? Why does the debt extend even beyond the school year that the athlete played, was the year’s debt not paid with direct labor? Do schools have the right to tell their athletes you will keep playing for us until we decide that our investment in you is fully paid? Read again the arguments of the UAAP board, tell me that their residency rule is not just another form of indenture, and I’ll lend you some money in exchange for your labor.

The UAAP’s new rule is meant to protect the investment of its member schools. Period. It has no interest in the welfare of the student athlete, in fact it punishes the exercise of the right to choose where to pursue higher education.

The UAAP would be wise to withdraw its residency rule before government steps in and does it for them. As Sen Pia Cayetano told the UAAP, “Sorry, but when rights are affected, [government] can step in to protect its citizens.” As it should.

The UAAP also claims the new rule is meant to maintain competitiveness. How can the practice of having indentured athletes maintain competitiveness? More importantly, why is the UAAP placing the burden of keeping the league competitive only on the players? Is it the athlete’s fault if one school is more attractive than another? The burden of keeping the league competitive is on the UAAP board of trustees, they shouldn’t earn their keep on the backs of student athletes.

The UAAP may have forgotten that the U in UAAP stands for universities. Likewise some universities may have forgotten that they are educational institutions to begin with and excellence in sports is only a part of their mission. Yes, trophies bring money that can be used for the improvement of the school in terms of teachers and facilities but sports departments are not ends in themselves. Education is the end that trophies serve and not the other way around. The sports department of schools, through the UAAP, cannot be allowed to dictate where student athletes go for their education.

Buencamino is a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms. (