Ricci Rivero must have really turned off La Salle's top guns for them to drop him flat from the Green Archers lineup. This happened just last week. The move surprised many because Rivero is not your ordinary basketball player. He may not have the mojo of a Jeron Teng, not yet, but the teen star has the potential to become perhaps the best Archer of next season.
His reputation has grown so big after last season’s breakout performance that, when news that he has been booted out of the La Salle lineup surfaced, speculation grew frenzied about which school he could possibly be playing for. Rumors spread that leading the chase for his services were Ateneo University, University of Santo Tomas, and National University, although Ateneo quickly denied the news, saying it was not interested.
On the other hand, rumors persist that Ricci — with his brother Prince and their friend Brent Paraiso — may be headed for UST to join Aldin Ayo, the young and brilliant coach who has engineered two college titles, one each for Letran and La Salle plus a runner-up finish for La Salle, within three short years. He left the Green Archers after two years to coach the UST Growling Tigers.
But you have to give it to La Salle. The school is known not to leave any stone unturned to get the best players and sometimes also known not to shy away from employing whatever it takes to get them. This obsession with winning backfired several years ago when a recruiting scandal — fielding ineligible basketball players is, in fact, a scandal — forced it to return a basketball championship and ban its sports teams for an entire year.
In the Rivero case, can it actually be about not just winning? Can it finally be about principle? It’s unclear. All we know is that, uncharacteristically, La Salle has been willing to lose a high-caliber player like Rivero and, with it, to lose the chance at another run for the UAAP basketball championship this year.
News reports say the university dropped Rivero because of commercial deals the young player had signed. Ricci reportedly signed endorsement deals with Titan, Aquafina, and Gatorade, but it was not certain whether his brother Prince and their friend Paraiso had also signed deals.
Ricci has a different take on their ouster. He does not deny the endorsements. But, he says, the three of them are merely taking a leave of absence from training with the La Salle team, as he and the university sort out the long-term implications of this development.
In an interview at a Gilas Pilipinas practice at the Meralco gym some nights ago, the 19-year-old forward said the door has not totally closed for his return to the Archers team. Ricci noted that he is still enrolled, is still studying, and as long as he is both, a return remains possible.
In the same interview, Ricci revealed that the new rule on celebrity endorsements was a complete surprise to him. Past Archers had been allowed to sign endorsement deals, and when the new rule took effect this year, he had already signed the endorsement contracts, Ricci said.
Because of this, he added, he could not back out. “Nag-yes na ako and all, tapos bigla ko na lang di gagawin,” Rivero told SPIN.ph at the Gilas Pilipinas practice where he is an active participant.
La Salle could not be reached for comment. A check with other UAAP member schools, however, reveals that they have no problem with the practice. Ateneo, for instance, allows its players to sign commercial deals, with just one restriction. Deals are not to be made in the middle of a basketball season. “OK lang yun sa amin yun, basta not during the season,” says Richard Palou, Ateneo's former athletic director.
It’s difficult not to sympathize with Ricci, and for that matter, other college players in the same predicament. They see the league, its sponsors, television coveror, officials, and coaches profiting from their skills, their image and popularity, their face and name. But they, who draw people into the stadiums and bring in the sponsors, are made to endure minor humiliations like poor boarding facilities and minuscule allowances.
They also see their schools recruiting imports, generously giving these foreigners free round-trip tickets, deluxe accommodation, maybe even car and driver — and, yes, that elephant in the room, the under-the-table allowances.
Maybe there is, indeed, something unfair here? Homegrown talents can injure themselves, and in a flash their big dream and their big future are gone. They may graduate, but perhaps more poorly educated than their peers because they spend more time perfecting skills in gyms than in classrooms. They may advance to the professional league, but how many college stars really shine as brightly in the pro league?
If schools cannot share the bonanza from the tens of millions they get as share from TV companies, or from the deals that schools enter into with shoes and apparel firms, then athletes like Ricci Rivero should be allowed to sign endorsement deals. It is only fair.