By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
Three to Look For:
These Pacific Islanders are predicted to be drafted in this April’s National Football League Draft
Mike Iupati — Offensive Guard — University of Idaho
Tyson Alualu — Defensive Lineman — University of California
Daniel Te’o-Nesheim — Defensive Lineman — University of Washington
“It’s in our blood.”
This is how Ink Aleaga, an ex-NFL football player and University of Washington Husky, explains the success of Polynesian football players.
According to a recent report on the CBS television show “60 Minutes,” there are more than 30 Polynesian players in the NFL, and the number expands each year. In addition, there are more than 200 players of Samoan or Polynesian descent in college football.
So what makes young men from the Pacific Islands so prepared to play football? Is it genetics, or is that generalization a stereotype?
Built to play
College football recruiters and NFL scouts say they like the body-type, strength, and agility of Polynesian athletes.
Are Samoans bigger than individuals from other ethnic groups? “There is nothing to support that argument scientifically,” said Dr. Bob Frankle in an interview with the Seattle P-I. Frankle was a professor of anthropology at Kapi’olani Community College. He has been studying Polynesian cultures for 25 years.
“That’s just the public’s perception [based on] the football players they see. When you look at the populace as a whole, you don’t get that sense.”
While it may not be scientifically proven, former University of Arizona quarterback George Malauulu believes that many Polynesian youth have the build, frame, strength, and agility to play football. Malauulu, originally from American Samoa, states that historically, they needed to use their bodies to survive. He credits this as the reason for their success. In American Samoa, many youth rely on their athleticism to do chores, farm, fish, and hunt.
Dancing may be another reason why Polynesian football players are light on their feet.
“A lot of the Polynesian athletes and non-athletes are coordinated because part of the culture is involved in music and dance,” said Aleaga. Originally from Hawaii, he believes that Polynesian athletes excel in sports due to their upbringing. “Within our culture, we are known to work hard because we have been taught that since we were young.”
A key attribute that is overlooked is the discipline and respect that many Polynesian athletes have for one another. This is due to the close knit family bonds in Polynesian culture. “Most come from a spiritual background and [are] linked to some church,” said Malauulu. “There is a strong foundation. A kid comes into [a college football program] coachable, if he gets out of line — one phone call to home, he will straighten up.”
Although Polynesian players are known as warriors on the football field, there is concern that the descriptions take on racial overtones.
“I find depictions of Polynesians as ‘naturally fit’ for football to be racist stereotypes that draw on a longer colonial history of misrepresentation not only of Polynesians, but also of other indigenous and negatively racialized peoples,” wrote Professor Ty Kāwika Tengan in an e-mail. Tengan is a professor of ethnic studies and anthropology at the University of Hawaii. He published an essay in December 2009 that chronicled how sports marketing and recruiting changed the image of the University of Hawaii football team to appear “warrior-like,” going so far as to abandon its old nickname of “Rainbow Warriors” to a more savage “Warriors” look.
“Samoan male bodies have been ‘commodified,’ ” said Dr. Rochelle Fonoti, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Washington. She explains that Samoans (and Polynesian players) and the depiction of them as savage warriors are being capitalized for profit. “It’s all good for football, but oftentimes, there is no career to fall back on.” Fonoti has three brothers that played in college, including one brother who played for the San Diego Chargers.
Although football is known to American Samoa as the way “off the rock,” Fonoti states that her parents never urged her brothers to play football. “My parents stressed football as a route to a collegiate education.” Fonoti added, “Football was not pushed upon [my brothers]. We were encouraged to play other sports.”
Helping youth for the next generation
A future consisting of more Polynesian football players is “definitely possible,” according to Malauulu. He expects the number of Polynesian players to “double, if not triple.” Aleaga believes that there is much more academic support to assist players with school. This will help in bringing more Polynesians to play football.
Aleaga cited the lack of academic support when he was a collegiate athlete. “[But the talent to play football] was always there since I was in college,” Aleaga said.
Malauulu, a college quarterback from 1989 to 1992, established a foundation for the next generation of Polynesian players. The AIGA Foundation was founded in 1997 in Carson, Calif., with other former student athletes. “Aiga,” the Samoan word for extended family, is a faith-based nonprofit dedicated to assisting student athletes in their pursuit of competing at the next level. The group conducts workshops and camps to support Polynesian and non-Polynesian student athletes.
Malauulu and his staff conduct football camps for high school players and track their progress in giving them an opportunity to compete at the next level. With a network of contacts, Malauulu states that he can provide a means of helping high school football players get noticed by colleges with the hope of landing a scholarship to play football.
Malauulu maintains relationships with his native American Samoa to assist schools on the island. Through AIGA, he has forged a partnership with Bally’s Health Clubs and 24 Hour Fitness in donating nautilus machines and weight equipment to high schools in American Samoa. In response to the September 2009 tsunami in American Samoa, AIGA sent 20 ships there full of supplies in support of the relief effort.
Aleaga, a linebacker for the University of Washington from 1993 to 1996, has started the Taro Roots Foundation, a grassroots nonprofit, directed toward helping youth achieve in higher education. He conducts camps with sixth, seventh, and eighth grade children geared toward teaching them football skills as well as the importance of academics. His camps will take place in Seattle in June and July 2010.
Aleaga is entering his ninth year as an academic counselor for 70 student athletes at the University of Washington. ♦
Jason Cruz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.