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Football Heirlooms: A Pacific Islander Legacy in the NFL

Community, Sports 30 Jan 2016   »   by TheWhatItDo


Sony Pictures Entertainment Studios released the film, Concussion, to reveal some truth behind America’s favorite sport. The movie is anchored by Dr. Bennet Omalu’s (Will Smith) troubled discovery of a neurological deterioration which later was coined, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) (Chronic meaning long-term, traumatic referring to trauma, and encephalopathy as a damaged brain), found in the brain of former Pittsburgh Steeler, Mike Webster. Webster – along with Andre Waters (Philadelphia Eagles), Justin Strzelczyk (Pittsburgh Steelers) and Dave Duerson (New York Giants) – each characterized in the bio-pic as victims of CTE, ultimately causing their suicides.

CTE threatened controversy in the National Football League. Hollywood aside, NFL medical doctors have uncovered symptoms of CTE in many NFL players (posthumous), and after strategically dismissing the topic altogether for years, the NFL now encourages current and former players to donate their brains for further research on CTE and concussion-related diseases. The NFL understands that “concussions are part of the profession, an occupational risk,” yet lacks urgency in spreading awareness to communities whose young boys are most likely to enter the football lottery.

Dr. Bennet Omalu’s real life medical contribution to the sport-related disease has challenged the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) Committee to assess the dangers of football and the long-term problematic impact it has on those who choose to pursue this short-lived career. The film engenders debate regarding the seriousness of CTE while also, unconsciously, targeting a social demographic that may be impacted the most.

Every Spring, Pacific Islander high school seniors across the nation sign promissory contracts in exchange for a college education, free tuition, and the likelihood of being courted by a NFL scout. This recurring dream of economic freedom and elevated social status is shared amongst a large population of young Pacific Islander boys who – as early as eight years old –  begin their training in Pop Warner Football (Little League) and into high school. Many incoming Pacific Islander freshmen experience football first, during the sweltering summer heat of ‘double-day’ conditioning before entering the classroom in the fall. Whether it be an obligation to self or to family, many young Pacific Islander boys experience the imbalance of being a student-athlete in high school because of the strong allusion to future financial security bound to football.

In the Tony Vainuku documentary, In Football We Trust, football solidifies wealth as an antagonistic theme many Pacific Islander families believe to be true. The film follows four Polynesian football players as they journey through the process of college football recruitment while also battling socioeconomic adversity. Much like Concussion, the characters in Vainuku’s film can be easily interchangeable because the storyline is strongly reflective of the larger narrative at hand; from birth, Pacific Islander boys are being bred into professional football players.

Countless reviews and articles perpetuate the stereotype that all Pacific Islander boys play football.  A Reddit Review tallied an impressive 54 Pacific Islander NFL players currently in the League, while Elite Daily identified Polynesians to be “genetically engineered” to play football and even re-defined American Samoa as “football island.”  These articles align with the film in brilliantly capturing the recently acquired birthright given to Pacific Islander boys in America. However, these sources severely lack a comprehensive view of the bigger picture. What happens to those who do not make it? And what is in store for those who do?

The cost of the NFL capitalizing on the athleticism and coachability of Pacific Islander players goes beyond monetary value. At the end of the movie Concussion– after all the knowledge was shared but right before the ending credits – the screen fades out of the final visual and into a still of former San Diego Chargers Linebacker, Junior Seau. Seau, whose suicide came as a surprise to thousands of his fans and the wider Pacific Islander community, left the world to ponder: how safe is the NFL?

The lasting audio of this short tribute to Seau is of his mother, Luisa Seau, weeping over the death of her son. When I heard this, I began to cry. Partly because the sound of a Polynesian mother’s pain is deeply-seated in my heart, but also because – like in the film In Football We Trust– her unfortunate circumstance is recognizable; it could have been my mother, my aunt, or my sister mourning the loss of her son.

The roster of Pacific Islanders in the NFL will continue to grow, as we are the smallest – yet most rapid in growth – demographic in the United States. The more Pacific Islander men commit to their ‘Not-For-Long’ careers, the more young Pacific Islander boys marvel at the chance of filling their shoes one day. And as long as the NFL remains a dangerous sport with high rates of concussion and long-term mental impairments, like CTE, our Pacific Islander community will be impacted for generations to come. W

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