How American Football Became a Samoan Game »

DURING THE FIRST HALF of the 20th century, American immigrants often embraced the sports of their host country, not only as a means of assimilation, but also as part of their pursuit of the American dream of wealth, social mobility, and prosperity. ‘acceptance. Basketball, for example, was a Jewish sport in New York in the decades before the Holocaust, and ethnic children lived and died for their Giants, Dodgers, or Yankees. Now Lisa Uperesa, the daughter of one of the first Samoans to play in the NFL, has written Gridiron Capital: How American Football Became a Samoan Game, a loving and detailed ethnography of the relationship between immigration and sport in our transnational world. His slim and accessible book begs the question of why American football has sparked such passion and excellence among Samoan men. His answer, bittersweet as it is, draws on two sources: the instrumental vision of sport and society of the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, and the history of the relationship between American colonialism and Samoan culture.

Let me say a quick word about the great French sociologist, before going into the details of Uperesa’s wonderful book. Bourdieu had the great insight, in his 1979 magnum opus Distinction: a social critique of the judgment of taste, that taste preferences in modern capitalist societies are not just personal choices but rather an expression of class positions. Likes are a kind of resource, what he calls cultural capital, that people use both to gain prestige and to beat down their rivals. While artistic and musical preferences were particularly revealing, the body was also a key site of class taste: sports that value collective strength and sacrifice seemed to be favored by the lower classes while the upper classes tended to enjoy sports. that reward individual abilities. , like tennis. Whereas Bourdieu focused on the stratification of tastes in 1960s France, Uperesa took his framework and applied it to the case of Polynesian immigrants who live in the middle of 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 Samoans began to establish a diaspora in the United States and elsewhere in the Pacific. Margaret Mead’s best-selling anthropological study of 1928 Coming of Age in Samoa introduced general readers to a culture in which girls were allowed to have free sex before they married and settled down to raise a family. In the 1980s, anthropologist Derek Freeman, along with several Samoans, attacked Mead’s characterization of a permissive culture, resulting in a kind of cause celebre in which several anthropologists who had researched there were brought in to mount an aggressive defense of his argument. .

Uperesa’s book is not about the young men’s love lives, but rather their efforts, where few other opportunities are available, to pursue what she calls the “American/Samoan Dream” of upward mobility, both in country and abroad, thanks to football. The objective is to secure capital in the United States, via a university scholarship and a professional career. Back home, however, the so-called “Samoan Way” prevails: though saturated with American products and media, the culture retains its collectivist character, with large family groups and a deference to authority. native leaders. There, the cultural capital that young men seek involves the representation of a variety of tautua “services” to their families, including material remittances (large cash gifts, a car, even a house), as well as the charisma conferred by a successful career on the grill in the land of “the new and the modern”.

In Samoa, fathers and sons avidly watch the NFL on television, and boys grow up learning the game from their older siblings, at skills camps and, later, in high school, where they are coached by the previous generations of players who perform tautua service for the community. The great appeal of football derives not only from the fact that it is seen as a modern form of capital – a path to wealth and success, in other words – but also because it fits the ethos of Samoan masculinity, its values ​​of fearlessness and commitment to organized teamwork. .

Uperesa presents the case of his father, Tu’ufuli, who went to the University of Montana and then played for the Philadelphia Eagles for several years. The game, which he started playing after immigrating to Hawaii in high school, eventually allowed him to represent his community and give back to his parents, siblings, and children after he retired and returned home. But it also left him with knee problems, chronic pain and eventually cognitive impairment. Uperesa calls this result “bittersweet” […] sacrifice” that his father voluntarily made because it enabled him to grow into an efficient Samoan man who was both a “worker (educated)[r] in a global sports industry” and a parent in “a vast […] diaspora.”

Like Uperesa’s father, Samoan players generally accept a “deal […] logic” by which they become a commodity whose value must be maximized through intense training, skill acquisition and Sunday performance. More bluntly, they become “tangible capital entrepreneurs” whose hard work is hidden from their adoring fans, who tend to fetishize them as tall, fierce, exotic outsiders with a “natural” talent for gambling.

The tragedy of Junior Seau — the Hall of Fame linebacker who played with the Chargers, Dolphins and Patriots for 20 years only to kill himself amid a steep decline from brain damage — illustrates the risks players face American Samoans are exposed but generally deny. They are stoic to say the least and often do not report concussions, hoping that the work in the weight room will protect them. Instead of fearing injury, they are said to feel “an unbridled joy in contact with sport”. When they are young, they are taught “a particular form of masculinity with a high tolerance for pain” and the idea that a good man is supposed to do hard manual labor for his family. What they do as football players is therefore like their work at home, but translated into grilling capital.

Uperesa’s book should appeal not only to anthropologists but also to the general public. She engagingly explains what football has come to mean to a range of Samoan players – in college programs and the NFL, as well as youth and high school teams at home – and gives a compelling account of how dual stratification systems, one based in indigenous values ​​and the other in capitalist imperatives, come together, for better and for worse. Football thus offers a chance to affirm and claim economic and cultural capital in a way that is different from what sport meant to prewar generations of working-class American immigrants, who were content to play and put down roots to succeed in their new society.

There is one thing, however, that Uperesa’s ethnography overlooks: the book makes almost no reference to the physical, emotional and tactical satisfactions of playing football. She mentions Samoans who say how much they enjoy hitting and being hit by opponents. But other than a sentence or two, she never really tells us anything else about what the experience of playing for these young men is like, or how it can be part of the story she wants to tell. Now, this omission could either reflect cultural reluctance or be research bloopers. However, that in no way dampens my enthusiasm for Uperesa’s book. Readers interested in sport and culture in a transnational world will no doubt find Grill Capital captivating.


David Lipset is a professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota.

About Betty J. Snyder

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