SEPTEMBER 11, 2022
DURING THE FIRST HALF of the 20th century, American immigrants often adopted the sports of their host country, not only as a way of assimilating 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 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 sports in our transnational world. Her slim, accessible book raises the question of why American football has aroused such passion in, and excellence among, Samoan men. Her answer, bittersweet as it is, draws on two sources: the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s instrumental view of sports 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 going on to the details of Uperesa’s wonderful book. Bourdeiu 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 expressions of class-based positions. Tastes serve as a kind of resource, what he called cultural capital, that people use both to gain prestige and to put down rivals. While art and music preferences were particularly telling, the body also made up a key locus of class-based taste: sports that value strength and collective sacrifice seemed to be preferred by the working classes while the upper classes tended to like sports that reward individual abilities , such as tennis. Whereas Bourdieu focused on taste stratification in 1960s France, Uperesa has taken his framework and applied it to the case of Polynesian immigrants who live 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 Samoans began to establish a diaspora in the United States and elsewhere in the Pacific. Margaret Mead’s bestselling 1928 anthropological study Coming of Age in Samoa Introduced general readers to a culture in which girls were permitted to have free sexual relationships before they married and settled down to raise families. In the 1980s, anthropologist Derek Freeman, as well as several Samoans, famously attacked Mead’s characterization of a permissive culture, which resulted in something of a cause célèbre during which several anthropologists who had done research there were led to mount an aggressive defense of her argument .
Uperesa’s book does not concern 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 at home and abroad, through football. The goal is to secure capital in the United States, via a college scholarship and a professional career. Back at home, however, what is known as the “Samoan Way” prevails: though saturated with American goods and media, the culture retains its collectivist cast, with large family groups and a deference to Indigenous chiefly authority. There, the cultural capital young men seek involves the performance of a variety of tautua “services” to their families, especially material remittances (big gifts of cash, a car, even a house), as well as the charisma bestowed by a successful career on the gridiron 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 elder siblings, in skills camps and, later, in high school, where they are coached by previous generations of players who are fulfilling tautua service to the community. The great appeal of football not only derives from its being 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 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 started to play after emigrating to Hawaii in high school, eventually allowed him to represent his community as well as giving back to his parents, siblings, and children, after he retired and returned home. But it also left him with bad knees, chronic pain, and eventually cognitive impairment. Uperesa calls this outcome a “bittersweet […] sacrifice “that her father willingly made because it enabled him to become an effective Samoan man who was both a” (cultured) labore[r] in a global sporting industry” and a relative in “a vast […] diaspora.”
Like Uperesa’s father, Samoan players in general accept a “market […] logic” by which they become a commodity whose value must be maximized via intense training, acquisition of skills, and performance on Sundays. More bluntly, they become “entrepreneurs in bodily capital” whose hard work is hidden from their adoring fans, who tend to fetishize them as big, fierce, exotic foreigners with a “natural” talent for the game.
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 in the midst of a steep decline due to brain damage — illustrates the risks to which American Samoan players are exposed but usually deny. They are stoic, to say the least, and often will not report suffering concussions, hoping that work in the weight room will protect them. Instead of fearing injury, they are said to feel “unbridled joy in the contact of the sport.” When young, they are taught “a particular 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. What they do as football players is thus like their work at home, but translated into gridiron capital.
Uperesa’s book should not only appeal to anthropologists but also to general readers. She engagingly explains what football has come to mean to a whole range of Samoan players — in college programs and the NFL, as well as on youth and high school teams back home — and gives a compelling account of how dual systems of stratification, one based in Indigenous values and the other in capitalist imperatives, combine, for better and worse. Football thus offers a chance to assert and claim economic and cultural capital in a way that differs from what sports meant to prewar generations of working-class American immigrants, who just played and rooted to succeed in their new society.
There is, however, one thing that Uperesa’s ethnography neglects: the book makes virtually no reference to the physical, emotional, and tactical satisfactions of playing football. She does make mention of Samoans who say how much they enjoy hitting and being hit by opponents. But apart from a sentence or two, she never really tells us anything else about what the experience of playing is like for these young men, or how it may be part of the story she wants to tell. Now, this omission could either reflect a culturally based reticence or it might be a research blooper. Either way, it does not dim my enthusiasm for Uperesa’s book at all. Readers interested in sports and culture in a transnational world will no doubt find Gridiron Capital engrossing.
David Lipset is professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota.