How Asian American and Pacific Islander athletes in the NFL express their cultural pride

How Asian American and Pacific Islander athletes in the NFL express their cultural pride

One would think that rookie Nikko Remigio would field all kinds of questions to reach the Super Bowl in his first pro season. But before Sunday’s game in Las Vegas, his family in the Philippines has been asking more about Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift.

Why haven’t they asked for anything, not even Kansas City Chiefs merchandise? The 24-year-old wide receiver’s new level of visibility already feels like a prize.

“One of the big things not just for me — but I know for my dad and his sisters and my grandma and grandpa — is for people to be able to pronounce our last name the right way,” said Remigio (pronounced save-me- HEE’-oh). Representation, he said, is more valuable than money or material objects.

Remigio has been on his team’s reserve/injured list since August and makes a long-awaited return to action this weekend.

Many current and former athletes of AAPI heritage agreed that such misconceptions have largely faded. Increasingly, top athletes have been able to amplify their culture on a public stage and embrace it.

Manumalo Muasau, a New York Giants linebacker for two seasons starting in 2012, was among those at the Night Market. The 33-year-old now serves as a mental performance consultant for the Tennessee Titans and for private clients. He grew up admiring Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, a fellow American Samoan who had long locks like himself. Now, he happily watches young professionals like Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa honor his Polynesian heritage in a way players before him couldn’t.

“When they’re walking into the dressing room and all the media are there…for Tua, he’s in the Samoan community and the cultural dress is a faitaga,” said Muasau, referring to a rectangular formal garment worn like a dress. “So he’s showing his culture during the pre-match.”

For most of his life, Musau went by his middle name Jake because he thought it sounded more “American” and was easier for people to say. But in 2017, he decided to embrace his full name.

“This is an experience that many of our AAPI communities can relate to as well,” said Muasau. “My first two years in graduate school, when I was learning to really reintegrate my Samoan identity, part of that transition for me was introducing myself as my first name.”

Growing up Asian and Black American or “Blasian” in Orange County, California, Remigio did not feel a sense of belonging. His neighbors and classmates were mostly white; He was called racial slurs and was often asked about the color of his hair and skin. As an adult, he realizes that that behavior has nothing to do with him.

“They’re probably facing more difficulties than they’re pushing, so they’re acting this way,” Remigio said. “Just people in general who act like that, I don’t give them the time of day.”

The relationship between AAPI people and many Western sports dates back to colonialism in Hawaii, the Philippines and other parts of Asia, said Constancio Arnaldo Jr., an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Historically, in American sports, Asian American men have been treated as outsiders and their masculinity questioned.

“Asian Americans have always used sports in many ways as a form of American belonging, as a form of identity,” Arnaldo said. “When we think about race, it’s very much along black and white lines. Asian Americans are always kind of troubling and in this liminal space of a black and white binary, even in sports.”

Arnaldo, who co-edited the book “Asian American Sporting Cultures,” said it makes sense for the NFL to try to attract Asian American spectators. Football has long been a source of pride in all Polynesian communities, from Samoans to Tongans.

“The NBA and Major League Baseball, they actually have dedicated Filipino heritage nights,” Arnaldo said.

However, with expanded representation, anti-Asian racism still persists. In 2021, former player and assistant coach Eugene Chung said he was told in an interview for a coaching job that Asian-Americans “were not the right minority” to lead the NFL, even though the league’s policy recognizes them as a marginalized group. The Korean-American, who was only the third Asian professional athlete to start his career in the 90s, accused the NFL of turning him down.

In the upcoming NFL season, there will be nine black head coaches, the most in league history. But none of them are Asian or Pacific Islander. (Six are black, one is biracial, one is Mexican American, and one is of Lebanese descent.)

According to the 2023 Race and Gender Report from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, two-thirds of all NFL players (66.7%) are minorities, 53.5% of whom are black. Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders make up just 1.8% of players, a slight increase from 1.5% in 2022. Asian players represented just 0.1%.

There are at least two dozen NFL players of Asian or Pacific Islander descent, according to AMAZN HQ, an online hub that curates news about Asians and Asian-Americans in sports. Among them is Atlanta Falcons and Minnesota Vikings linebacker Camryn Bynum, born in South Korea, Younghoe Koo, who, like Remigio, is black and Filipino. The two men were teammates in California at Berkeley.

When it comes to cultural pride, Bynum wears his heart — and a Philippine flag keyboard — on his sleeve. He has called his country “the best country in the world”. Fans were rooting for his wife when she finally got a visa in November to travel to the US from the Philippines. On Instagram, he posted a video of himself bringing chicken adobo, lumpia and other Filipino foods to teammates’ homes. Bynum also started a disaster relief charity in the Southeast Asian island nation. Remigio wants to emulate Bynum’s actions off the field and also destigmatize the sport.

“I definitely think with more presence in the sport and more AAPI individuals posting success in the sport, as we will definitely have a trickle down effect to getting more AAPI players.”

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Tang is a Phoenix-based member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @ttangAP.

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