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‘Tropic of Football: The long and perilous journey of Samoans to the NFL’

Closeup of Rob Ruck
Author, and University of Pittsburgh history Professor Rob Ruck

Samoans and football. It’s a pairing that is much more complex than a simple write‑up, but is, at the very least, fodder for discussion on any number of issues, such as diversity, over‑ and under‑representation in sport, the warrior image, stereotypes, and the role of money.

“Tropic of Football: The long and perilous journey of Samoans to the NFL” will be the topic of a public lecture at Washington State University on Tuesday, Feb. 25 at 4 p.m. in Todd Hall 216.

Author, and University of Pittsburgh history Professor Rob Ruck, will be the guest lecturer. Ruck, who has a positive reputation as a sport documentarian, and has consulted on various projects for Major League Baseball, museums, Showtime, and HBO, has written such books as Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game, and The Tropic of Baseball. Or, perhaps, more germane to this case, Tropic of Football.

Especially in light of efforts in recent years by WSU to improve relationships with American Samoa and the Pacific Islands, sport management associate professor John Wong said these kinds of events are a good way to expose members of the WSU community to a different culture and demographic.

“Samoans, of course, have been a part of WSU for several decades,” he said. “Their numbers are likely to grow as the new head football coach has a track record of recruiting young student‑athletes from American Samoa and Samoan‑American communities.”

Wong said these events will focus on the history and culture of Samoans as much as football. Sports just often works well as a catalyst for discussion.

Closeup of John Wong.
John Wong

“Confronting diversity requires greater understanding of population groups with different historical and cultural trajectories and here, we can understand Samoans better and ‘where they are coming from,’” Wong said. “Most people approach sport with the belief that it is a meritocracy governed by rules and an ethic of fair play. As a result, it often offers common ground and a non‑threatening way to think about and discuss concerns or what can be sensitive.”

That may be true. But Wong said sports has also perpetuated certain views of athletic excellence as largely a matter of genetic background, which has its own inherent dangers.

“A century ago, when African‑Americans were excluded from Major League Baseball, many white Americans considered their absence a result of a natural athletic inferiority,” he said. “Today, many think that African‑Americans are overrepresented in sport because of their natural athletic superiority.

“Wrong then, wrong now.”

Along those same lines, many think that Samoans are overrepresented in football because of genetics. Wong said Ruck will argue that culture and socio‑economics are significant factors and a more plausible explanation for why Samoans are the most overrepresented group in the NFL and NCAA Division I football.

“He will discuss how contact with the United States during and since World War II affected their diet, health, and sporting culture, changing their bodies in profound ways,” Wong said. “He will also discuss the origins of the ‘warrior’ image that many of these young men embrace and, in fact, some schools use as a marketing device.”

Wong said that, while the public is encouraged to attend, it is highly recommended that all who are involved in a sport industry take part.

“Anyone working in sport will be confronted with incredible diversity and getting to know something about a group of people’s history and culture makes that work more effective and enjoyable,” he said. “Sport is increasingly global and fraught with contradictions between commerce and culture.”

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