Polynesian men a global sports commodity

MICHAEL FIELD
Last updated 13:46 26/05/2013
Manu Tuilagi
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SAMOAN DESCENT: England centre Manu Tuilagi is in the British and Irish Lions squad.

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There are just two million Polynesians in the world and for that reason their young powerful men have become sport's hottest global commodity.

American football, rugby, rugby league and even sumo are clamouring after the large and muscular that is the typical Polynesian man.

What was 20 years back politely described as the "browning" of Auckland's white club rugby now looks like high-edge blackbirding; rather than Queensland's cane fields, its global stadia.

"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."

But big problems loom over a system 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) as part of his PhD, 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, and NFL veteran linebacker Tiaina "Junior" Seau took their lives over personal issues. Social and personal pressures were behind Notre Dame line-backer Manti Te'o who was hoaxed over a non-existent girlfriend dying of cancer.

Te'o, who made it into the NFL last month to play for the San Diego Chargers, remands a fascination for US media. Vanity Fair has a spread on Te'o but what it shows more than anything is that while sports demands Pacifika bodies, their souls can seem abandoned.

Polynesians and Fijians stand out in the US National Football League (NFL), NRL and global rugby. No French club side would think of fielding a side without Polynesians - 21 percent of all foreigners playing in the Top 14 competition are cheaply hired Islanders.

The French side to tour New Zealand has a "Fijian" and three Pacifika players are in the British and Irish Lions to tour Australia.

Retired Springbok Chester Williams has been in the South Pacific scouting for talent under 22 to offer rugby clubs in Romania, admitting it was a long way from the Pacific.

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"Yes, but this our life, this is work," he says.

Horton's Pacific Islanders in Global Rugby: the Changing Currents of Sports Migration, published in the International Journal of the History of Sport, says there is a growing presence and impact of players from the Pacific Islands.

Pacific people make up six percent of New Zealand and add Maori that is 17 percent yet jointly they contribute over 50 percent of the provincial rugby players in the country.

"Large numbers of people in the Pacific 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....."

Pacific families regard sports as a viable avenue for their men to gain future financial security not only for themselves but for their families. Horton told the Sunday Star-Times though that as a result many of the players "are under so much stress because of their family, community and church obligations."

The trafficking usually begins with a football-based scholarship in a private school or a centre of sporting excellence in the state system.

"Many are thus directed in life to gain a 'contract' and obviously the odds of actually getting a contract are painfully low, as they are in all professional sports globally," Horton says.

With a contract and a basic salary a player is obliged to support his wider family.

"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."

The issue comes at both ends, with some Pacific players pulling in $1 million per season.

Australian born Tongan Wallaby George Smith in 2011 became Australia's highest paid Australian rugby player.

"At the other end of the spectrum 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."

The boy was Manu Tuilagi, now an England international and one of five brothers who have all plied their trade with Leicester Tigers.

Horton says the Pacific rugby experience offers a range of outcomes from phenomenal success to complete failure.

Success for Pacific man carries success for the whole family and sports codes should take care of their charges with players seldom able to adjust to being the public eye and few dealing well with being celebrities.

Around 40 per cent of NRL players in 2009 were of Polynesian or indigenous heritage - but over half of the code's elite under-20 league and two-thirds of junior representative players from western Sydney are of Pacific Island descent.

Tongan-Australian David Lakisa when with the New South Wales Rugby League Academy surveyed Pacific players.

The brown revolution cannot be stopped he told the Star-Times; "it is about getting onto the flow or staying one step ahead to cater to it."

He 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.

"One hundred percent of participants stated family has been the most influential factor in their success as a professional athlete," Lakisa's survey showed, with 55 percent saying they felt pressure to become the breadwinner for the extended family.

Seventy seven percent of the players were from families with four or more children; 86 percent were physically disciplined by an elder family member and 68 percent spoke another language at home.

Prayer was widely used and the majority attributed success to God. This translated into religious practices at matches such as a team huddling in prayer, ritual hand motions/gestures (the sign of the cross on one's body or pointing to the sky with the index finger), visible religious tattoos, scriptural references or quotes and the reference to God or a supreme being during media interviews.

Most wanted coaching staff to know how important religion was and wanted worship services during away games and coaching staff to participate in prayers.

A stranger side of the rugby trade is that between Japan and Tonga.

It began in 1975 with a Tokyo university accountancy professor finding New Zealand too cold and looking for a warm place for a break. Tonga was nearby and in a coincidence Tonga's King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV wanted children taught how to use soroban or abacus. The professor took some Tongan men to Tokyo to learn it and instead they played rugby.

Dutch anthropologist Niko Besnier, writing in the American Ethnologist, says this began a migratory flow of athletes between two countries with no prior colonial relationship, no previous history of exchange, and very little in common.

Circulation of athletes across national boundaries is not new, taking place almost as soon as sports were invented in 19th-century Europe and North America, but it was long confined to neighbours.

Athlete mobility only began in the last decades of last century as corporatized clubs and teams began "searching for promising young athletes wherever they could be most cheaply acquired, often much farther afield than before."

Now the movement of young men mobilizes enormous energy, encouraging a "brawn drain" that plagues marginal sports nations.

The more obvious flow for Tongans would be to New Zealand rugby, but Besnier says there are serious hurdles, not least the extremely competitive natures of rugby here.

"More subtly but more consequentially, rugby in the two countries has a long genealogy of racial discrimination, fuelled by stereotypes of islanders as undisciplined and hyper-aggressive," Besnier says.

Tongans believe that Samoans work to actively exclude them from New Zealand professional rugby and to return the favour Tongans maintain a strong grip on Japanese rugby.

Besnier notes that in Japanese culture large, muscular and hirsute male bodies are deeply unattractive to the majority of contemporary middle-class Japanese people, whose masculine ideal is a slim and well-groomed look.

But large-bodied players, who tower over most Japanese players, are clear assets to teams in a sport in which size is particularly valued.

"For the Tongan athletes, playing rugby in Japan provides income-generating opportunities on a scale unheard of in Tonga and among most overseas Tongans (generally garnering them, in U.S. currency, low- to mid-six-figure yearly salaries). Professional rugby players' salaries in Japan are, in fact, higher than professional rugby salaries in New Zealand and Australia, except on elite teams."

What makes it so attractive for Tongans is that it allows players to support vast numbers of people back in the islands. Even Tongan players at Japanese university clubs are expected to "bear the burden" of family, church, village, nobility, and society.

The Tongan Government wants aid to build facilities to encourage the export of talent. Besnier says that with short rugby careers this "fuels a politics of hope that rubs shoulder with the reality of disappointment and exploitation."

The brown wave is strong in the US where around 50 Pacific Islanders in the NFL, including Samoan super star Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers. 

Major college teams have hundreds of Pacific Islanders. Samoa-Hawaii's legendary Tuiasosopo family has produced a stream of players.

Utah is the front line for Pacifika's advance on American football, in large part thanks to the Mormons.

The Salt Lake Tribune says Utah's college football programmes have long turned to Polynesians.

The "Polynesian pipeline" has reshaped college football and transformed Utah into a must-stop recruiting ground for colleges across the country.

"Utah is absolutely must-recruit territory," said Erik McKinney, ESPN's West recruiting coordinator told the Tribune. "You have to know who is in Utah at this point."

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.

Troy Polamalu told CBS's 60 Minutes that Samoans have little opportunity beyond the military or work in a tuna canning industry. Unemployment is 30 percent in American Samoa.

"The beautiful thing about football is it's allowed us to get into education. Football is something that comes naturally to us."

Former 49ers centre Jesse Sapolu, with four super bowls to his name, told the Los Angeles Daily News the structure of football is similar to how they were raised.

"Every family has a chief. The head coach is looked upon as the chief. Then there's the talking chief," he said, saying that was the coach.ESPN.com quoted University of Washington defensive lineman Tui Alailefaleula saying gridiron was a sport for Samoans.

"Football is the game where we can reach our goals and help our families."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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