It doesn’t really matter who started it. What matters is that our men allowed an official, world-stage basketball game to escalate into a vicious street-corner brawl. What matters is that our national sportsmen were so shamefully unsportsmanlike to their opponents, visitors to a country that prides itself in a culture of hospitality. And perhaps what matters most of all is that so many Filipinos cheered their hearts out for the violence inflicted by men who represent the Philippines to the world.
Last Monday night, a qualifying game for the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup erupted into a bench-clearing melee as the Philippine national team, Gilas Pilipinas, faced the Australian national team at the Philippine Arena in Bulacan. The skirmish broke out in the third quarter, when Gilas guard RR Pogoy shoved Australia’s Chris Goulding, whose teammate Daniel Kickert then retaliated with an elbow to Pogoy’s face.
What ensued was a brawl that would end in the ejection of nine Gilas players, leaving only three to finish the game: Gabe Norwood, June Mar Fajardo, and Baser Amer; all of whom did not evidently participate in the fight. Four players from the Australian team were also ejected: Goulding, Kickert, Nathan Sobey, and Thon Maker.
Tensions had already been rising prior to the brawl. Before the game, members of the Australian team reportedly ripped out hardwood advertising decals without permission. Then, during the pre-game shooting warm-ups, Australian players reportedly complained that Gilas was unfairly encroaching on their half of the court. Players tripped and shoved other players early on.
So the game itself began with a level of acrimony, which translated to on-court physicality (including a lot of cheap shots throughout) and apparent trash-talking. Everything boiled over when Pogoy and Kickert lost their cool, prompting the Gilas bench to storm the court for some fisticuffs.
But the brawl itself, while shameful, is not quite as permanently disgraceful as the aftermath.
It was, of course, in its entirety and from all angles, an embarrassment. Yes, basketball is an intensely physical sport, and yes, tempers are bound to flare up when the going gets tough. But when that happens, sportsmen are expected to use their words and appeal to the rules of the game. Sportsmen are expected to restrain their impulses. And if they fail, sportsmen aren’t supposed to let a stray fist or an unwarranted shove turn into a dogpiling, chair-throwing free-for-all. These expectations weigh even more heavily on national team players when they represent an entire country—its people, its culture, its values—on an international stage. But when nine Gilas players (and a mob of Filipino fans) let their emotions get the best of them last Monday night, all of that was thrown out the window. So much for sportsmanship. So much for ethics. So much for the enjoyment of the game.
But stupid, senseless shit happens in sports all the time; and the brawl itself, while shameful, is not quite as permanently disgraceful as the aftermath: cheers from the Filipino audience in the arena, crowd waves, and cell phone lights in the air to support our team. Where there was pointless brutality, a vast majority of Filipinos saw a glorious display of brotherhood and nationalism. Many of us actually take pride in our own savagery.
That same chest-thumping pride extended off-court, after the game, as Gilas players, officials, and fans continued to justify the actions of our national team players. Coach Reyes—who also happens to be the president of TV5—was initially dismissive, calling the brawl “unfortunate” and offering variations of “They started it!” and “You don’t know; you weren’t there!” Reyes eventually rendered an apology to Filipino fans on behalf of his team, but it feels empty because he continues to blame Australia’s Kickert while lauding Gilas’ twisted sense of camaraderie. He doesn’t seem to acknowledge that the Australian team’s faults—however many and however grave—don’t excuse our players from turning world-class basketball into Street Fighter 6.
In a tweet, Gilas guard Terrence Romeo stood by his conduct, and told anyone who disagreed (ostensibly referring to Jimmy Alapag and other local pro ballers who condemned the incident) that they should "convert to Australian"—which, last we checked, isn’t a religion.
Gilas backer Manny V. Pangilinan was brief and blunt about his stand on the matter, simply tweeting, “Not in our house.”
Thankfully, Japeth Aguilar, one of the ejected Gilas players, issued a thoughtful apology. So did Jayson Castro and Andray Blatche.
It’s heartbreaking to know that so many of us only know how to deal with violence by returning it in kind.
On the internet, responses to the incident have been divided, but it’s heartbreaking to see how many Filipinos willingly condone our own violence, how many of us sincerely believe that this is a matter of who threw the first punch. It’s heartbreaking to know that so many of us only know how to deal with violence by returning it in kind. It’s heartbreaking to see that Filipinos either refuse to take the high road or are unaware that such a road exists.
All it took to reveal the ugliest sides of our culture was a basketball game against a team of bullies. Our propensity for violence, our blind fanatical tribalism, our fragile machismo, our toxic nationalism—these were magnified that night, palpable and bare on display. We’d rather be tough than thoughtful. We’d rather swing back than talk things out. This is who we are. This is the tenor of Filipino life today. And if we had always been this way, now the world can see it in high definition.
After the brawl, the three remaining Gilas players intentionally fouled out to concede the game. The final score was 53-89, Australia. For all the punches we threw, for all the emotions that ran high, for all the petty reasons given to justify this violence, we won nothing. Nobody won. Everybody lost, and the Philippines lost more. But hey, at least we have a selfie to remember the moment.