Today we are joined by Rob Ruck
, Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh, and the author of Tropic of Football: The Long and Perilous Journey of Samoans to the NFL
(The New Press, 2018). In our conversation, we discussed the origins of football in American Samoa, the disproportionate representation of Samoans in Division 1 college football and the NFL, and the cultural origins of Samoan sporting success.
In Tropic of Football
, Ruck addresses the paradox of Samoan accomplishment in American football. Samoans are roughly forty times more likely than non-Samoans to compete in the NFL. Ruck argues that their capabilities do not come from any genetic predisposition, but from the particularities of the Samoan way, the so-called fa’a Samoa, which emphasizes a warrior mentality, strong work ethic, rigid social hierarchy, deep family ties, and competition without fear. At the same time, Ruck also finds influences from outside of Samoa, including: the US Armed Forces, the Church of Latter Day Saints, and a range of savvy football recruiters willing to look beyond their usual hunting grounds in the Midwest and South.
Fa’a Samoa propelled a wide range of footballers to success, including the first Samoan in the NFL, Al Lolotai, Junior Seau, and Troy Polamalu and Ruck’s analysis traces Samoan sporting triumphs in three locations: American Samoa, Hawaii, and California. In American Samoa, football battles divided competing villages but also provided the whole island with a sense of pride as an increasing number of men left with athletic scholarships to pursue education on the mainland. In Hawaii, the “Polynesian Pipeline” delivered footballers for annual battles between Honolulu’s top private schools and their north shore rivals, helping to create a rich multicultural web of sporting connections across the island. In California, the children of US marines used football as a way to integrate into American high school life, but they also brought a distinctly Samoan energy that appealed to coaches. In each case, as the fortunes of Samoan footballers rose, they also faced challenges associated with the loss of the fa’a Samoa in the face of Americanization and globalization.
Even as Samoans provided outsize influence to America’s leading American football institutions, Ruck’s work also examines the long-term costs of football in Samoa. The same hyper-masculine culture that empowers Samoan footballs to play with no fear (no fefe), also stops them from reporting injuries. This is especially important as the threat of chronic traumatic encephalitis becomes better known. The growing medical crisis of CTE parallels other Samoan health emergencies associated with Americanization, including widespread diabetes and obesity.
Much more than a sports history, Ruck’s work will appeal to scholars interested in American football, but also those interested in immigration/migration studies, Hawaiian history and US imperial history.
Keith Rathbone is a lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He researches twentieth-century French social and cultural history. His manuscript, entitled A Nation in Play: Physical Culture, the State, and Society during France’s Dark Years, 1932-1948, examines physical education and sports in order to better understand civic life under the dual authoritarian systems of the German Occupation and the Vichy Regime. If you have a title to suggest for this podcast, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.