Pacific Island talent in hot demand in pro sport

SAMOAN DESCENT: England centre Manu Tuilagi is in the British and Irish Lions squad.
SAMOAN DESCENT: England centre Manu Tuilagi is in the British and Irish Lions squad.

A growing demand for Polynesian players in tough, physical football codes played around the world will ultimately lead to more tragedy, unless professional sports bodies reconsider their view of young Pacific Island athletes.

"Pacific Islanders have become the most prodigious and prevalent ethnic group of rugby sports migrants globally," says Peter Horton, of James Cook University in Australia.

"They've become ‘exquisite products' and prime commodities, as they are now a major force in the leading competitions worldwide."

Around 50 Pacific Islanders play in America's NFL, including Samoan superstar Troy Polamalu, of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Top college teams have hundreds of Pacific Islanders. American Samoa (population 70,000) sent more players to the NFL than any other population group. Boys born to Samoan parents are 56 times more likely to play in the NFL than other Americans.

No French club rugby side or Australian NRL franchise would think of fielding a side without Polynesians - 21 per cent of all foreigners playing in the French Top 14 competition are cheaply hired Islanders, 40 per cent of NRL players in 2009 were of Polynesian or indigenous heritage. The French national rugby squad to tour New Zealand next month includes a Fijian. There are three Pasifika players in the British and Irish Lions to tour Australia, including Manu Tuilagi, who was recruited to English rugby when only 13.

And while the system has made superstar millionaires and positive role models of many Islanders, big problems loom over a setup that treats these men as little more than trafficked commodities. David Lasika, of Sydney's University of Technology, in a pioneering survey of Pacific Islanders in the Australian Rugby League (NRL), found three influential pillars: "family, faith and football".

He questions whether these men are being "used or even exploited by the schools, clubs, academies, franchises and others". Opportunities yes, but also to alienation, discrimination and social injustice.

Suicides hint at deep pressure. Wests Tigers' Mosese Fotuaika, 20, and North Queensland's Alex Elisala, 20, both born and raised in New Zealand, and NFL veteran linebacker, Junior Seau, took their lives over personal issues.

Horton's Pacific Islanders in Global Rugby: the Changing Currents of Sports Migration, published in the International Journal of the History of Sport, says people from the Islands migrate in search of the three Es: education, employment and enjoyment.

"Often they end up instead with the three Ds - jobs that are dirty, difficult and dangerous," warns Horton.

Pacific families regard sports as a prized avenue for their men to gain future financial security and status, not only for themselves, but for their families.

But Horton told the Sunday Star-Times that many of the players "are under so much stress because of their family, community and church obligations".

"They will, as working adult males, be expected to ‘put in' to the family coffers and probably to their church - the pressure of being a breadwinner and of ‘intergenerational reciprocity' will have to be considered seriously."

Horton also questions the signings of very young players such as Tuilagi.

"The recruitment of a 13-year-old boy from an encampment in rural Samoa to play in a junior team in the Midlands of England must be viewed with the same level of concern as are the stories of young Africans being harvested from village teams to train in the football academies in Europe."

David Lakisa worries whether sports organisations can cope with cross culturalism and the additional pressure many Pacific men face.

"For many . . . their parents endured significant sacrifices to put their children in positions where they could succeed."

Sports codes need to understand that, he warns.

Sunday Star Times