Saturday, February 22, 2014

Fair Play: Switching nationalities in sports

(This is my Fair Play column for Sun.Star Cebu's Feb. 22 issue)
A FEW writers have spoken up in favor of the naturalization of JaValee McGee and Andray Blatche for Gilas Pilipinas. One, writing for Rappler.com, said should the process push through, there’s no point calling any of the naturalized athletes an import and that we’ll be fielding an all-Pinoy team in the Fiba World Cup.

He also paraphrased Rick Olivares and asked, “What’s wrong with naturalization? None!”

He’s right of course. But he also got it wrong.



There’s nothing wrong with naturalization. Acquiring another citizenship is familiar to most Filipinos as most of us have relatives who have gotten a green card or other citizenship.

But I have to disagree with them on this one. Like our kababayans abroad, John Lennon, Madeline Albright and the other famous personalities who became citizens of another country, none of them were recruited by the US to play basketball in exchange for a US citizenship.

That has been my point the whole time.

There’s nothing wrong with naturalization. There is something wrong with naturalizing foreigners just so they can suit up for your national team.

Is it allowed and legal? Of course it is. I know it is legal—it’s a point some of the more emotional fans fail to recognize, accusing those who are against of the process of ignorance. The moment I learned that there is this practice of countries naturalizing athletes just so they can suit up for them in international competitions, I thought, hey, “that’s not good.”

It was a case of an oil-rich nation winning its first Olympic medal, thanks to a naturalized athlete. The commentator, who was obviously against the move and blasted at the practice. I was 13 and I was watching the Olympics for the first time. My opposition was based on a simple premise: Each country has different naturalization rules and capacity to pay, hence there’s no level playing field.

But the whole issue of naturalization in sports is not simple. In the 6th Sports Law Lecture in 2006 on Nationality and Sport: Public Law vs. Sports Law, it was pointed out that nationality rules are of the public domain, sports rules are of the private sector, and should private sector rules overrule the public domain?

In that conference, the speaker said the IOC was looking for ways to level the playing field.

But, seven years later, it seems the IOC has given up.

sIn 2012, IOC president Jacques Rogge said, “I have reservations in some cases where athletes who obviously don’t lack any support emanating from their local sporting and government authorities, still change nationality. We cannot oppose it because it’s a sovereignty matter, but let me tell you very frankly: I don’t love that.”

He said that during the London Olympics, and half of Azerbaijan’s delegation featured 50 percent naturalized athletes.

It has gotten to that.

One more thing about this whole process that I don’t like. While checking online the requirements for becoming a naturalized Filipino, here’s just two of the numerous requirements; 1.) Must have been a resident for 10 years and must be able to speak the
language.

To get past that, the two NBA players will have Congress enacting a bill so they would become Filipinos for the sole purpose of playing basketball. If that’s the usual process, then tell me, who else became Filipino citizens because Congress enacted a bill for them?

Atty. Baldomero Estenzo, the basketball manager of the University of Cebu and the first to speak out against the move said he’s going to enlist the help of law students in lobbying against the move.

Well, deal with that.

Because that’s how this issue will end. Who will muster more votes from Congress, those who are for naturalization or those who are against it?

Imagine that. Congress debating on who should be on the national team or not.

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