Although Polynesians make up a small percentage of U.S. residents, they have a significant presence in the NFL.
Filmmakers Tony Vainuku and Erika Cohn examined the “Polynesian-to-NFL pipeline” in the 2015 documentary In Football We Trust, which initiated discussions on cultural identity among local API community members.
The film opens with statistics, based on NFL roster data and the U.S. Census, demonstrating the correlation between Polynesians and football.
“There are 240,000 Samoans and Tongans living in the U.S., yet they are 28 times more likely to play football in the NFL than any other ethnic group,” the film states.
In Football We Trust profiles four high school athletes in Salt Lake City who pursue their dreams of playing professional football. The documentary follows these young men and their families for four years as they go through the college recruitment process. One of the four NFL hopefuls featured in the film is Harvey Langi, who is currently a linebacker at Brigham Young University.
The film also includes commentary from Polynesian NFL athletes, including Troy Polamalu, a former strong safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Haloti Ngata, a defensive tackle for the Detroit Lions.
Vainuku, who directed the film, grew up playing football and was surrounded by cousins and friends who wanted to play in the NFL.
According to Vainuku, Polynesian cultures complement football because they have a strong emphasis on respect, camaraderie and loyalty. The cultural emphasis on family, he said, is a major contributor to Polynesians’ success in the sport.
The Seattle Asian American Film Festival (SAAFF) will screen the documentary on February 20 at the Northwest Film Forum. It will be the only film in the SAAFF lineup that features Polynesian communities.
In 2015, Vainuku became the first Tongan director to show his film at the Sundance Film Festival. Because of the lack of Polynesian representation in mainstream American media, Vainuku said that he was careful about how he portrayed his community.
“Here in Salt Lake City, Polynesians are known either for the gang violence and things they are doing wrong in the news or their talent in football—one or the other,” Vainuku said.
But this kind of attention, he said, overlooks the many Polynesians who are not involved in gangs and do not play football.
SAAFF organizers Martin Tran, Adrian Alarilla, and Christopher Woon shared similar sentiments. Without diversity behind the camera, Tran said, portrayals of API communities can be inaccurate and stereotypical.
“You can’t let other people tell your stories,” Tran said. “Often we get written out, tokenized or turned into one-dimensional characters.”
Vainuku said his film is not only about football. The central characters face financial hardships and familial pressures.
Va‘eomatoka Valu, the program manager for leadership at the University of Washington (UW) Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center, attended a screening of In Football We Trust at the Redmond Regional Library on January 23. The screening was followed by a discussion led by Sili Savusa, executive director of the White Center Community Development Association, and Jack Thompson, a former NFL quarterback who was elected to the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame.
Valu said he was proud to see kids of his heritage highlighted in the film but was concerned about its possible impacts, specifically on non-API viewers who are not familiar with Polynesian communities. To Valu, it is important that audiences understand the context surrounding the film.
“I didn’t want them to walk away thinking football is the only thing these kids are good for,” Valu said.
But according to Valu, several of the social and cultural issues portrayed in In Football We Trust are realities for many Polynesian youth.
One of these pressures is familial expectation. The film explores the pressures faced by athletes whose parents expect them to play in the NFL and provide financial support for their families.
Most football players enter college optimistic about being drafted in the NFL, according to Taniela Tupou, who played football at the UW from 2011 through 2015.
But the vast majority of college football players will not get drafted.
According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), only 1.6 percent of NCAA football players will play football professionally.
Aaron Gordon, Tupou’s agent and the founder of Uso Sports, said that even if a football player is drafted to the professional league, his career will not last very long. Gordon’s work involves helping athletes plan for their second careers after football.
Although there seems to be some controversy over the average length of a NFL athlete’s career, the brevity of professional football careers is common knowledge.
At a 2011 University of Virginia forum, DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), said the average NFL player will only spend 3.2 years playing in the league.
Jarett Finau, who played football with Tupou at the UW from 2011 through 2015, said that despite these statistics, playing professional football is still appealing to many young Polynesian men who aim to achieve financial stability early in their careers.
Often, Finau said, Tongan families tend to put more expectation on men than on women to provide financial support. Within Finau’s own family, playing football for the NFL was the epitome of success. Finau’s uncle, Vai Sikahema, was the first Tongan to play in the NFL. Finau said his grandfather engrained the idea of him becoming a football player during his childhood.
Both Finau and Tupou said they played football for the love of the sport, but also with the goals of achieving college degrees and financial stability.
“If someone is playing to provide for their family, it adds fuel to the fire and makes them more dangerous on the field,” Tupou said.
Finau and Tupou graduated with degrees in philosophy and comparative history of ideas, respectively. Without football, they said, they may have not attended college.
After graduating from the UW, Tupou played at the 2016 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl on January 23 with hopes of getting drafted in the NFL.
“UW is my home,” Tupou said. “I’m truly blessed and grateful that Coach Petersen, Coach Kwiatkowski and Coach Choate gave me the opportunity to showcase my skills.”
Finau said that without scholarships, many Polynesians living in the U.S. lack the resources to pay and prepare for college.
“We are the minority of minorities because of how new and how small we are,” Finau said.
According to the 2010 Census, Polynesians made up approximately 0.1 percent of the U.S. population. A report by the White House Initiatives on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders stated almost 20 percent of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders live in poverty.
Both Finau and Tupou spoke about socio-economic inequalities as barriers between many Polynesians and higher education. They both hope that people will not think of football as the only avenue for Polynesian youth to achieve the American dream.
“I think programs like Poly Day and Polynesian outreach programs are really important for students because they show that you do not need to be a college athlete to be able to go to college,” Tupou said.