Football is a commodity

Dr Lisa Uperesa asks what Samoan gridiron players in the United States teach us about colonialism and globalisation.

"I was inspired to do doctoral research by scholars such as Lila Abu-Lughod and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, and was initially interested in how the American presence influenced changing gender relations in American Samoa.

"But through my research I discovered the American military had brought sports equipment into American Samoa during World War II. Playing baseball was supposed to keep the soldiers out of the villages — essentially to keep them from fighting local men and dating women.

"This got me wondering if this was the way many contemporary sports ended up in Samoa. So that totally changed my research project.

Playing baseball was supposed to keep the soldiers out of the villages.

"I was also motivated by seeing sensationalised and simplistic media coverage of Samoan football players which racialised them as 'natives', as 'natural and cultural athletes'.

"I grew up on the high school sidelines in Samoa where my dad was a coach and sports administrator for many years. He had previously played football professionally in Canada, and two of my three brothers played football as well as many uncles and cousins.

"I knew from years of observation that there was nothing 'natural' or magical about Samoan football success — it relies on organisation, support, dedication, discipline, opportunity, and in many cases luck.

"I was also interested in how these older stories link to a relatively recent theory that Samoans accommodate to football's hierarchies because they are raised in Samoan cultural hierarchies, including the fa'amatai or chiefly system.

"I can understand why people might experience it that way, and some of the social dynamics might be similar. But the organisational principles are different, especially the higher one ascends in the football system.

"The fa'amatai is foundationally oriented around stewardship, care, and principles like pule, which incorporates both power and responsibility. While football shares some of these elements, especially in coaching relationships, the fact is at the higher levels football is a commodity; its imperatives are wins and profit. So I found this new narrative provocative and a bit problematic.

I knew from years of observation that there was nothing 'natural' or magical about Samoan football success — it relies on organisation, support, dedication, discipline, opportunity, and in many cases luck.

"Through conducting archival research and oral history interviews, I used history to contextualise present events. Unlike other topics there wasn't a wealth of information to tap into and I found myself assembling an archive.

"I found that coaches started coming down from the United States to recruit players with scholarships in the early 1980s, a practice that ebbed and flowed over time before continuing on an upward trend.

"I traced how cultural sensibilities intersected with colonial legacies and current-day globalisation, to shape the why and how of Samoan engagement with American football. Football is a good snapshot of how global trends affect local communities — and vice versa — and a great example of how Western sports have become indigenised in Pacific communities.

"To research the present, I conducted an ethnography, meaning I was at the games and the training camps, where people shared their knowledge with me. It was great to be able to do this work in Tutuila (American Samoa) and Hawai'i, and for one of my trips I took my daughter.

"I rounded that out with media analysis and interviews with college coaches. Between other projects, I'm now turning my doctoral research into a book. To do justice to the stories that people entrusted to me meant trying to get the detail and the wider view right, and I hope I’ve done that.

Football is a good snapshot of how global trends affect local communities – and vice versa.

"Before I came to Auckland in 2016, my family and I lived in New York for eight years and Hawai'i for five, both of which I loved. It feels like Auckland is somewhere in the middle: it's metropolitan and global (without New York's frantic pace) but is very much a Pacific city.

"I've been blessed with amazing colleagues in Hawai'i and here at the University of Auckland, and I enjoy working with our students. Besides, of all the places I've lived Auckland has the best coffee, so we'll stay put for a while!"