Symposium shines light on football, culture in Samoa

Former Steelers safety Troy Polamalu is of Samoan descent.

With three men draped in dapper Hawaiian shirts, the symposium promoting Rob Ruck’s new book looked more like a country club get-together than an academic endeavor.

Headlined by professor emeritus Richard Scaglion, Theodora Polamalu — the wife of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ beloved safety — and Penny Semaia, Pitt’s senior associate athletic director, the event highlighting “Tropic of Football,” a book detailing the culture of American Samoa and its affinity for football, certainly pulled out all the stops.

Ruck, who earned his doctorate at Pitt in 1983 and has since continued to teach at his alma mater, has done this before. This is his sixth book in total, and the fourth one that involves sports and the impact that minority groups have had on the game.

The event was held inside of a packed room at Posvar Hall on Friday afternoon, and began with an exclusive airing of the trailer for the Polamalus’ upcoming documentary, “Songs of a Lost Island.” While the audience may have bemoaned being subjected to a documentary, the trailer was far from bland. Scaglion commented on one clip where a group of Samoan boys at a football camp belted out a traditional song. 

“It really shows the spirit of Samoa,” he said. “It’s not like any of them are trained singers. They sound fantastic.”

Scaglion, an anthropologist who spent most of his career studying the people of the Pacific Islands, kicked off the event by providing some background details about the inhabitants of Samoa, who would be the stars of the next two hours.

“Polynesians don’t get much respect, but they certainly deserve it,” Scaglion said. “I mean, how did these people do it? The prevailing opinion has been that they inhabited these islands by accident, pushed along by the winds, but they brought crops and pigs to the islands with them. You don’t bring pigs on a fishing trip.”

As would be the theme for the event, Scaglion mixed facts with fun, condemning the way the Samoan islands are subjugated by the West — Samoa and American Samoa, both inhabited by the same cultures and people, are cut apart by the international date line — with an amusing anecdote.

“Travelling between the two nations, the IRS didn’t believe that I could have had two hotel rooms on the same night,” Scaglion said.

Polamalu then spoke about the culture of her husband’s people. Fa’a Samoa, or “the Samoan way,” is paramount in their lives, both at home on the islands and long after they leave. The Samoan way puts a premium on family, service, religiosity and discipline — something that came under public scrutiny after Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa revealed he and his father’s stories of his strict upbringing.

It is Fa’a Samoa, all of the speakers agreed, that has led to the disproportionate dominance of Samoans in sports today — in rugby or on the gridiron. With Pacific Islanders making up less than 1% of the American population, the youths who join Pop Warner or school teams by the thousands each year vastly overrepresent their relatively tiny population, especially in California and Hawaii. American Samoa, with a population of less than 60,000, had more than 30 people in the NFL as of 2014.

Although hard work, passion and discipline are the intrinsic traits of Fa’a Samoa that set the islanders apart from their peers, the pride with which they carry themselves and their penchant to live life to the fullest has also caused many problems in Samoan society.

The speakers also discussed how many talented young athletes who are recruited to play college ball find their grades suffering once they get to college. A college education is difficult enough to adjust to without having to compromise for learning a new way of life. The heightened expectations can be too much to handle, and some of them are forced to drop out, half a world away from home and too ashamed to go back and face their communities.

“One of my brothers joined a gang. We long for that sense of community, discipline and belonging, and that can cause some problems,” Semaia said.

The Samoan community is plagued by health problems as well — according to Semaia, 47% of Samoan adults are diabetic, and as many as 90% are classified as overweight or obese. The influence of western culture that has brought them football and a chance at the American dream has also left them with the same obesity epidemic that hounds America today.

The late, great linebacker Junior Seau is perhaps the best example of the double-edged sword that is Fa’a Samoa. Seau, revered for his passionate, fierce presence on the gridiron, tragically took his own life in 2012. He was posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the neurodegenerative condition caused by repeated blows to the head, despite the fact that he wasn’t diagnosed with a single concussion in his 20 years in the NFL. His inability to step away from the game he loved and the sense of duty he felt toward his team ultimately cost him his life.

With the threat of CTE pushing more and more parents and their children away from football every year, Samoa remains unfazed. Ruck explained how during a visit to Samoa, he saw youth at a football camp run around with the same joyful, reckless abandon that made Seau and Polamalu legends — many in outdated, unsafe equipment.

It is both of these things that “Tropic of Football” seeks to draw attention to — the underrepresented beauty of Samoan life and culture, and the systemic problems that threaten their way of life.

“The Samoan people are artists. Their tattoos, their singing, their dancing — [all] are so important to what defines them,” Ruck said.

Nearly half an hour of questions followed the presentation, the audience intrigued by the joy and passion of the Samoan people, and the several dozen copies of the book supplied by the University Store quickly sold out.

After he finished his energetic speaking performance, Semaia dabbed his sweaty brow with a handkerchief.

“I don’t call it burning calories,” he said. “I call it burning passion.”

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