Saturday, September 19, 2009

More on Covert Racism in Sport – Samoan Football Players

Yesterday, NPR’s “All Things Considered” ran a story headlined, “Young Polynesians Make a Life Out of Football.” The story profiles the high proportion of star high school football players in Utah who are of Samoan ancestry. The large number of Samoan families in Utah is, of course, due to Mormon influence in American Samoa and (Independent) Samoa.

Not surprisingly, the story frames the issue of Samoans’ prevalence in high school football as uncritically positive, all the while covertly interweaving verbiage that cements stereotypical notions of Samoans as all brawn and the additional social qualities typically associated with fierce physicality.

First, however, this story further cements the common notion that all Polynesians (Samoans in particular) are big boned, physically imposing, and therefore innately suited from a physical standpoint to be successful linemen across the gridiron.

Polynesians have distinguished themselves at football's elite levels for many reasons, including their traditional body types: broad shoulders, wide hips, thick legs. These football players' love of hard physical contact and fierce competition has its roots in Polynesian culture as well.


They have the classically thick Polynesian builds that Miami Dolphins football executive Bill Parcells once called "perfect for the trenches." That's the key area around the line of scrimmage in a football game, inhabited by the biggest players on the field.

Notice how NPR's story naturalizes the Samoan body:
"A calf comparison between Thomas Hamilton and one of his teammates. At 5 feet 11 inches and 305 pounds, Hamilton has the traditionally thick body many Polynesian players have."

How does this racialized portrayal of Samoan youth resonate within society's broader cultural framework?

Additionally, the story draws on traditional Samoan culture, associating it with athletic drills that build quick feet, agility, and balance that are useful for linemen. And even when the Polynesian culture is presented in a non-violent, gentle way, American football swoops in to provide a mix of attitudinal aggression with that so-called massive physical size.

They also share a cultural heritage of Polynesian dance, which most Pacific Islanders learn as kids. It adds agility to their size.


Of course the biggest, most agile football players are nothing without a mean streak. And here, Teo and Hamilton are confounding: In the traditional Polynesian way, both are nice, respectful, laid-back people. But in pads and helmet? They become snarling, Samoan warriors.

Teo remembers playing high school football in American Samoa

"Your mentality is to get ready to kill somebody. That's no joke. We would spend hours talking about, 'Hey, this is our village, this is our family.' So the coaches would build that up to the first hit," Teo says.

And herein lies the crux of many problems. Whether in sport or beyond, the predominant racial stereotype of Samoan youth is that they are big, mean, impervious to pain, athletic in explosive sports, but lacking in intellectual capacity and motivation. The story does briefly mention one player has a 3.7 grade point average. However, the latter part of the story waffles between the larger number of Samoan youth (in this case males) who drop out of school and experience cultural dissonance.

Football then is framed as an intervention that can successfully bridge the Samoan-American culture gap.

For many young Polynesian men, playing football in the U.S. and seeing that experience through the end seems a way to straddle the culture gap. On one hand, the sport is a source of great pride among many Pacific Islanders. On the other, it can be the classic means to an end — Katoa hopes a much bigger end.

"Football has been really good to us in a sense of publicity and getting our kids out there and some going on to the NFL arena," he says. "It's that we just want to be known for more."

Haven’t we heard this same narrative before with African Americans? Big, dark, dangerous, athletic in explosive sports, etc. And in reality, when an increase in this type of athleticism is tagged upon a certain group, it tends to hold an inverse relationship with intelligence in popular culture – as athleticism goes up, intelligence goes down.

In turn, for the much greater number of Samoan youth who do not make it to the NFL but have invested so much of their time, efforts, and emotions into football rather than other activities, where do they go once football ends after high school or college? Given the physical and cultural stereotypes cast upon Samoans and how they are funneled into a violent, collision sport, should we really be surprised Samoan youth are also disproportionately represented in arrests and adjudications for violent offenses in numerous cities (e.g., Honolulu, Seattle, Oceanside, Salt Lake City, Oakland)?

And what about gender? Seeing as this is the masculine domain of football, girls are not even mentioned. Thus, as I’ve written before, only Samoan males are privileged in the one conventional institution (sport) that values Samoan youth. Samoan female athletes, even highly successful ones, take a serious back seat to footballers, in the rare cases that they are recognized at all.

Promoting youth sports for any particular group is not the problem. The problem is using sport to naturalize social categories and not presenting sport for all that it is (good and bad). The lack of critical analysis when covering Samoans’ over-representation in football speaks to our society’s infatuation with football and inability to see sports’ negative relationships with other societal sectors.

And these types of images (University of Hawaii mascot) don't exactly help.
(Photos courtesy of NPR).
Academics Blogs


  1. You miss the point. For Samoans it's not a sociological issue, it's a economic one. The majority of the island is on state welfare, for these kids it represents an opportunity off "The Rock." It's disturbing to read anything that counters the groupthink in our country that there are no biological or social differences between people but in fact Samoans are big, go shake the hand of any Samoan and you'll see what I'm talking about, and there are cultural aspects including the primacy of the group over individual needs, respect for authority and tradition, and the importance of "toughness" as a virtue that in fact does lend to success in football and rugby

  2. Ed, I'm not denying that on average Samoans are bigger than people from other groups. If you read the 3rd paragraph of my post, I note the way the NPR article frames the issue is by essentializing all Samoans as this way (not all Samoans are big). What's more important, however, are not the innate average size differences. The important part is the meaning(s) attached to that average size difference by society (e.g., Samoans are big and scary). Historically and I would argue still today, the public perception is that as brawn (i.e., size) goes up, brains go down. I live in Hawaii, and I've worked with numerous Samoan communities, including athletes. The over-emphasis on sports and attendant lack of focus on academics is not just a result of the kids' enthusiasm. It also stems from teachers, coaches, administrators, parents, media, etc. who praise these boys for their physical abilities while not encouraging them to excel in the classroom.

    As I said at the end of my post. I'm not anti-sport for any social group (I'm a former college athlete myself). But when a group sees sport as the sole means of upward social mobility, there's a major problem. When the rest of society also presents sport as the best way for kids to get out of low-income housing, the problem is even worse.

    See here (my research with Samoan community leaders in Hawaii seems to support my thesis on this very issue of over-emphasis on sport):

    Mayeda, D. T., Pasko, L, & Chesney-Lind, M. (2005). You got to do so much to actually make it: Discussing racism and sexism with Samoan girls in Honolulu, Hawaii. AAPI Nexus, 4 (2), 1-20.

  3. Also, economics are a central part of sociology. Think about all the Samoan college football players who don't make it to the NFL. That would be the majority. What happens after their college eligibility is up? What if they don't graduate (as many college football players from all ethnic groups don't). Wouldn't that lead to sociological problems? The exploitation of athletes simply cannot be denied. I know athletes get special privleges in college (again, I was one). But when we see disproportionately high numbers of kids used as college athletes, not graduate, not make it to the pros, and then lack a diverse range of occupational skills for the rest of their life (50 years or so left), there's a big economic and sociological problem. Some may blame the athletes for not taking advantage of the college opportunity. Some may blame the social institutions that discourage academic motivation. Some may blame both. Whatever perspective, poverty is perpetuated.

  4. This in terms of the bigger picture would be a reflection of the societies we live in. This sounds all too familiar and it isnt just subject to samoans. Polynesians or pacific islanders in general are tied with the assumptions, contructions and stereotypes about themselves in the context of sport. For the majority it isnt seen as a bad thing but more as somehthing that represents our polynesian identity and people, that is being big and strong reflect the health and beauty within our cultures. The meanings that have been tied to these constructed identities are unfortunatly and still at present arent seen by our people but rather act as a cloud to hinder these hidden agendas and issues that should be contested.This isn't too say its peoples faults but people need to be MORE AWARE that the society they live within is not neutral of influence and to whom's ideas and interestes are relected and implemented. Peop
    Especially in the case of gender, as a samoan female athlete i too have witnessed and been through the experience of being second to male athletes in terms of attention, funding, etc but then again is this not the case for all us women. Even till today you still see majority of sports coverage being of male sports and not just male but a hegemonic masculinity that people deem as the normative and thus accept it integrating it into our OWN cultures. Society is an ever changing field that is always contested, to point and discuss these issues and controversies is one thing but at the end of the day it is up to US to make the change we want to see whether it be as an individual or collective.

  5. They're real big!

  6. SAMOAN YOUTH get in TROUBLE when their culture gets infected with gangs. Family is numero uno after God. Family means the whole dang tribe which is extensive. SO if a cousin gets into some gang issue.. He only need look to his fellow cousins who will stand by his side and inadvertantly get wrapped up into the thick of it.. just because they followed the culture of their Samoan Heritage. Always stay close and take care of the family first. Cousin relationship is as tight as brother relationship mixed with best friend.

    ******* SAMOAN YOUTH GET IN TROUBLE when they don't play sports with a purpose. If they aren't serious then they get subject to distractions ******

    You know the CDC was going to redo the growth chart for the Samoans because the US avg don't apply. The American Samoans are taller and heavier on a much higher avg. The current tactic has been to compare with the WHO growth charts.

    You must not have read the study the US GOV had done on Samoan Metabolism. Apartly it has some non standard features that respond differently to feast or famine situations.

    Look.. no one is saying Samoans are BETTER at football.. But if you are looking for something over 6'5 and 300+ .. you can find that in any Samoan household.

  7. Samoans do have big ol thighs and some big ol calves naturally. When you think big ol booty.. you think what.. and you are prob right.

    Samoans grow differently. its an adaptive trait to living on their island.

    Just like Eskimos and their unique usage of more receptors to determine night fall. Normal peeps use their eyes and the body just releases melatonin.

    It the north pole the days and nights don't go like that. So Eskimos are genetically programmed to usitlize more receptors to help keep their circadian clock in check.

    Are they better? No. Is it a fact. Yes

  8. Hammos.. Rule.. I hear there is a Samoan afa kasi kid in Alabama.. any truth to this.. been watching for him. Was told class of 2013- very athletic. would appreciate any info I can get on this kid.. supposedly flying under the radar and with in being a racially motivated ALABAMA and SAMOANS in FOOTBALL I can understand.... SOLE... represent

  9. The uso in Alabama, is he the one that wrestles? If so, he plays for a team near Birmingham. I heard some talk about him to.

  10. Hi I am an Australian researcher. I've lived in the Maori/Pacific Islander community in Sydney for over 20 years and 'married into' a HUGE Cook Island family. All the same issues are happening here: sport represents the one way out of poverty, also only men are represented, no visible presence of Polynesian women outside of tourist brochures ...If anyone wants another look at this issue from a sociology point of view- Polynesians/masculinities and sport, I suggest googling Brendan Hokowhitu on Maori masculinity and sport - he has written extensively, so has Matheson (2001) - 'What's the white answer' - yes heaps of Polys in all codes of football but are they captains? Are they coaches? Not once out of the junior grades etc .... Lena

  11. I dont see how Vili the Warrior (UH Mascot) 'doesnt help'. WTF? Where do U live? He's invokes a great sense of pride in the culture and genealogy of island people. In fact, he's PRAISED for being so brazen and out there..he was never even recruited until he volunteered and showed up to games countless times dressed like this...banging on his drums. Now he's official, on posters everywhere, and is online with images like this.

    If u really think it 'hurts' the polynesian people and ideas people have about them u shouldnt have reiterated it...cuz I found this blog because of it..and have to say I disagree...LOL!

  12. I stand 5ft 7 in, and 200lbs. Played soccer, swimming/diving, and long distance runner in high school. Played rugby all through my college years. Never won any accolades, or selected into any all star situation. I am a fierce competitor. Nevertheless, I graduated from college with a Masters Degree and did post studies for even a higher degree. I never thought nor saw sport as the mean for me to get something, I earned my education fair and square on my own. Worked hard to pay for my own schooling. I did all that knowing who I am and where I came from. I am Samoan from Samoa. Manuia.

    1. Props brotha! Well said, breaking the stereo types!

    2. I praise your comment and I think this is the point that the writter of this article missed..

      I think sports is a great tool that help our youth to stay in school and continue on to college. So even if they don't make it to the NFL, at least they will earn a degree that will help them after college.

      I know a Samoan kid that play football in college but didn't make it to the NFL but graduate with a master degree. He told me football really helped him stay in school and stay focus.

      Fortunately a high percentage of our kids make it to the NFL so its a good thing....just thank God for the blessings

  13. Vili is not a Samoan, he is Tongan. Perhaps a wrong picture to represent our Samoan people.

  14. What do Samoans have against Tongans? Seriously, Samoans have no room to be calling Tongans horses when they themselves look like some species of gorilla. You're brothers at the same cost, both cultures look exactly the same, & each island isn't that far from each other, you guys really do a good job at showing how well you get along with your own culture.

  15. im neither samoan nor tongan but the answer to the question of the dislike between tongans n samoans r simple very simple!! the arrival of europeans whites if u wana know further why study the history of capnt cook n other whites who invaded ancient black islands yes i said black.. the island of tazmania n the aborigines n other pacific islands just look at the people there they look like they come straight out of afrika as a blkman born n raised n south central los angeles u r either black or mexican or salvadorian n they look like mexicans n some mexicans look black literally my 1st knowledge of a samoan was at gardena high school i thought the dude was black he laughed n said im samoan blks n samoans n tongans n all of california get along we team up wen needed against mexicans on the reasons of racism then gang territory this article is on racism tht samoans r experiencing tht all ppl of color has experienced thru out the conquest of white ppl

    1. Samoans and tongans are polynesians/oceanic/pacific islanders. Our identity and development comes soley from the pacific ocean region. Respect that and be flatter by the similarities but also understand the differences and not assume and confuse us and take credit for our being. Thank u very much

  16. This article understands what i have been arguing about on the topic of samoan/polynesians and footballs pro's and cons.
    Yes football is great for samoans and showing there talents and getting out there. But it also hinders us aswel. By only having this door be the most used one for polynesians meal ticket out and to better lives, is a heavy load to depend on...leaves it a bit crowded. It puts our females on the backburner while praising and pushing our males to do great things only. Our identity is more than football and we need to realize we can still express and flourish our talents and our people into other things and grow and become more than that typical stereotype. Sometimes i feel football and rugby is so integrated into samoan culture...that it forces our people to be one..even if they dont want to, which makes them lose other opportunities in life of becoming. Yes, football helps samoans alot but it can't carry the whole samoan people to better life...for some yes but others are left behind or hanging. Football shouldnt be the only door or windon open to our people and we need to start adapting and trying to open new doors/windows for our people to move forward too. In order to be strong as a country, we need to have everybody doing a part...not just some, who have to carry the most load. Im glad football gives samoans a place to shine...but it doesnt have to be the only place to express there talents in.

  17. excellent post. thank you for articulating this in such clarity.