How American Football Became Samoa’s Game

During the first half of the twentieth century, American immigrants often adopted sports in their host country, not only as a method of assimilation but also as part of their pursuit of the American dream of wealth, social mobility, and acceptance. Basketball, for example, used to be a Jewish sport in New York City in the decades before the Holocaust, and ethnic kids lived and died for their Giants, Dodgers, or Yankees. Now, Lisa Obirisa, the daughter of one of the first Samoans to play in the NFL, writes, Gridiron Capital: How American Football Became SamoaA loving and detailed ethnography of the relationship between migration and sport in our transnational world. Her slim, accessible book raises the question of why American football arouses such passion and distinction among Samoan men. Her answer, though bittersweet, is based on two sources: the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s view of sport and society, and the history of the relationship between American colonialism and Samoan culture.

Let me just say a quick word about the great French sociologist, before moving on to the details of Uperesa’s wonderful book. Bourdieu had the great insight, in his remarkable composition in 1979 Excellence: A social critique of the judgment of tasteTaste preferences in modern capitalist societies are not merely personal choices but expressions of class attitudes. Tastes act as a kind of resource, what he called cultural capital, which people use to gain prestige and to put down competitors. While preferences for art and music were particularly expressive, the body was also a major locus of class-based taste: the working classes seemed to prefer sports that valued strength and collective sacrifice while the upper classes tended to sports that rewarded individual ability, such as tennis. Whereas Bourdieu focused on the division of taste in France in the 1960s, Uperesa took his framework and applied it to the case of Polynesian immigrants living amid two sets of values ​​in two systems of stratification.

Politically, American Samoa became an “unincorporated territory” of the United States in 1900, although it was not until the 1960s that diasporas began to be established in the United States and elsewhere in the Pacific. Margaret Mead’s bestselling anthropological monograph of 1928 Coming of age in Samoa He introduced general readers to a culture in which girls are allowed to have free premarital sex and settle down to raise a family. In the 1980s anthropologist Derek Freeman, as well as many Samoans, attacked Mead’s characterization of a permissive culture, leading to something of the cause during which several anthropologists who did research there vigorously defend her argument. .

Uperesa’s book is not about young people’s love lives, but rather their efforts, as few other opportunities exist, to pursue what she calls the “American/Samoan dream” of rising, both at home and abroad, through football. The goal is to secure capital in the United States, through a college scholarship and a professional career. However, back home, what is known as the “Samoan way” prevails: although saturated with American goods and media, the culture retains its collective crew, with large family groups and deference to major indigenous authority. There, the cultural capital that young people seek involves performing a diverse group tautua “Services” to their family, especially material transfers (large gifts of cash, a car, even a house), as well as the charisma that gives them success in a career in the land of the “new and modern”.

In Samoa, fathers and sons avidly watch the NFL on television, and boys grow up learning the game from older siblings, at skill camps, and, later, at high school, where they are trained by previous generations of gamers serving Totoa. the society. The great appeal of football stems not only from its view of a modern form of capital – a path to wealth and success, in other words – but also because it fits with the sublime ethos of masculinity, and its values ​​of daring and a commitment to organized teamwork. .

Uperesa introduces us to the case of her father, Tu’ufuli, who went to the University of Montana and then played for the Philadelphia Eagles for several years. The game, which he began playing after immigrating to Hawaii in high school, eventually allowed him to represent his community as well as give back to his parents, siblings, and children, after he retired and returned home. But it left his knees bad, chronic pain, and eventually cognitive impairment. Uperesa describes this result as “bittersweet […] A sacrifice ‘which her father voluntarily made as it enabled him to become an efficient Samoan man was’ an (educated) business[r] In the global sports industry ‘close in’ wide […] diaspora. “

Like Uperesa’s father, Samoan players generally accept the ‘market […] Logic ‘by which they become a commodity whose value must be maximized through extensive training, skill acquisition, and Sunday performance. More frankly, they become ‘physical capital entrepreneurs’ whose hard work is hidden from their adoring fans, who tend to be attracted as fierce, old, and curious talented aliens. “Normal” for the game.

The tragedy of Junior Seo – a Hall of Fame player who played with Chargers, dolphins and Patriots for 20 years only to kill himself in the midst of a severe deterioration of brain damage – the risks to American Samoa players are exposed but usually denied. They are stoic, to say the least, and often don’t report having a concussion, hoping work in the weight room will protect them. Rather than fear of injury, they are said to experience an “unbridled joy in contact sports.” When they are young, they are taught a “special form of masculinity with a high tolerance for pain” and the idea that a good man is expected to do hard manual labor for his family. So what they do as footballers is similar to their work at home, but it translates into a lot of capital.

Uperesa’s book should appeal not only to anthropologists, but also to readers in general. She explains in an engaging way what football means to a whole group of Samoan players — in college and NFL programs, as well as on youth teams and high schools back home — and offers a compelling description of how the two divide systems, one on indigenous values ​​and one in capitalist imperatives, come together. For better and worse. Football thus presents an opportunity to assert and claim economic and cultural capital in a way that differs from what the sport meant to the antebellum generations of working-class American immigrants, who had just played and solidified to achieve success in their new community.

However, there is one thing that Uperesa’s ethnography ignores: the book does not actually refer to the physical, emotional, and tactical satisfaction of playing football. It reminds the Samoans who say how much they enjoy hitting and hitting opponents. But aside from a sentence or two, she never told us anything else about what the gaming experience was for these guys, or how it might be part of the story you wanted to tell. Now, this omission could reflect a cultural reservation or it could be a research error. Either way, it doesn’t diminish my enthusiasm for Uperesa’s book at all. Readers interested in sports and culture in a transnational world will no doubt find Gridiron Capital copying.


David Lipset is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota.

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