PACIFIC ISLAND PLAYERS underpaid and overworked

PHYSICALLY powerful young men have become Polynesia’s highest profile export. In a bittersweet trade, youngsters who dreamed of playing professional American football risk neurological damage, while international rugby prospects are blighted by allegations of exploitation.

Figures from the International Rugby Players’ Association show that 630 of the world’s roughly 4,000 registered professional rugby union players are Pacific Islanders – a surprisingly high percentage given that only 3.4 million people live in Polynesia, the Pacific region between Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand. The numbers only change a little in deciding whether Fiji is in Polynesia or not – or where the division exists inside Fiji. Srikingly, American Samoa, home to just 55,000 people, provides 4% of the players in the U.S. National Football League.

“In just a few decades, the sons of Samoa and Tonga, mostly young men who came of age in the States, have quietly become the most disproportionately over-represented demographic in college and professional football,” said Rob Ruck, a historian of sport at the University of Pittsburgh. His upcoming book on gridiron and the Pacific holds facts and emotion about the unusual arrangement.

He quoted Robert Louis Stevenson calling Samoans “god’s best, at least, god’s sweetest works.” Added Ruck: “The more I know about these men and their back stories, the more I realize why Stevenson fell in love with Polynesians and their culture.” Ruck said that Polynesians brought a warrior self-image and an attitude by Michael Field of “no-fear” to the sports they played. Both qualities made them sought after players, but vulnerable to head injuries.

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