- Playing with the Big Boys: Basketball, American Imperialism, and Subaltern Discourse in the Philippines by Lou Antolihao
Playing with the Big Boys: Basketball, American Imperialism, and Subaltern Discourse in the Philippines
Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2017. 189 pages.
A lecturer at the National University of Singapore, Lou Antolihao specializes in the study of sports, transregionalism, imperialism, and postcolonialism in Asia. Playing with the Big Boys is his first book, although chapters 2 and 4 were originally published as articles in Sport and Society and Philippine Studies, respectively (xviii).
Antolihao’s question is straightforward: Why is basketball popular in the Philippines? The question, seemingly so innocent, comes loaded with a host of historical and cultural baggage—from the sport’s origins as a tool of American imperialism to modern-day concerns about the average Filipino’s genetically imposed height ceiling. In fact, basketball’s ubiquity across the archipelago and its supremacy over all other sports within the collective national consciousness have often left foreign and local observers scratching their heads in disbelief.
Richard Holt (“Historians and the History of Sport,” Sport in History, 2014: 1–33) observes that, at least in sports history, sociologists have tended to “take general history as a ‘given’ in the sense of consulting a small number of well-known secondary works rather than attempting to explore a wider range of historical works available.” This is not the case with Playing with [End Page 529] the Big Boys. Antolihao’s bibliography shows a plethora of secondary sources and an extensive list of archival materials that were consulted in crafting his historical narrative. Thus, the book’s interdisciplinary approach combines abstract sociological theorization with a rigorous historical methodology. Antolihao’s routine citation of primary source material lends much weight to his analyses of the sociocultural phenomenon that is Philippine basketball.
A lengthy introduction sets the stage for much of his conceptual framework. A key focus is the presentation of Philippine basketball as a phenomenon outside of the common binaries in postcolonial studies. The usual juxtaposition of the native against the foreign, the colony against the empire, or the local against the global is transcended by locating Philippine basketball in local and regional arenas beyond the purview of the country’s colonial relationship with America. The book’s title, therefore, not only refers to the struggles of the subaltern Philippines to attain recognition and growth vis-à-vis its hegemonic colonizer (7), but also sets up a postcolonial discussion on a nation trying to locate itself both in its immediate locality of Asia and the world at large.
The rest of the book can be roughly divided into two parts, with a narrative-based approach slowly giving way to more sociology-based analyses of current phenomena in the latter segments. The first three chapters deal with events located further in the past and thus are more historical in nature. Chapter 1 traces basketball’s obscure origins in Philippine colonial history and identifies it as one of the many sports introduced by the trifecta of American colonial forces that brought modern sports into the archipelago as part of its “civilizing mission”: the American military, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), and the public education system. Here, Antolihao highlights how “physical education and sports were used not only to mold the body, but the spirit as well” (57). Insightfully, he contrasts the Spanish conquest through “the sword and the cross” with the efficacy of American colonial power through “the rifle and the baseball bat” (56–57).
Chapter 2 provides a historical analysis of the battle between ballgames in the Philippines, as basketball slowly overshadowed baseball in terms of popularity during the decades of American rule. The discussion includes the symbolic dichotomy between notions of metropole and province, modernity and parochialism, bourgeois and populist, that basketball and baseball, respectively, came to represent. It also showcases the many accomplishments of different iterations of the national basketball team in international [End Page 530] competitions as factors in its final cultural victory over baseball. Strong finishes in the international arena are also central in Antolihao’s discussion of Philippine basketball’s subaltern nature since...