By Michelle Banh
How many big-name Asian Pacific American (APA) athletes can you name?
Tiger Woods, Michelle Kwan and Michael Chang are some of the names that come to mind. Considering these athletes’ sporting events (golf, figure skating and tennis, respectively), it is no surprise that most APA athletes have careers in sports outside of what Americans consider the holy trinity: football, baseball and basketball.
To the casual sports observer, it’s rare to ever spot an APA logging game time in these three all-American athletic events. For decades, Americans considered the “Asian” physique far too diminutive and feeble to match the likes of Caucasian and African American counterparts on the field or on the court. However, the corporate attitude has moderately improved in recent years as more APA athletes are being drafted to the professional leagues: National Football League, Major League Baseball and National Basketball Association
According to the 2010 Racial and Gender Report Card, the NFL boasted 39 APA players, making up two percent of the league. MLB followed close behind with 23 APA players—1.2 percent of the league—while the NBA came in with just three players, totaling one percent. In the 2011 RGRC, MLB surpassed the NFL with 2.1 percent of its baseball players citing APA heritage.
While these statistics are encouraging, they are still low compared to those of other racial groups.
“There is promise, but not yet prominence, for people of Asian descent in American sport,” said Richard Lapchick, chairman of the DeVos Sports Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida.
According to the 2011 RGRC, Caucasians have dominated MLB and African Americans have overwhelmingly monopolized the NFL and NBA since 1990.
So what are aspiring APA athletes to do when the racial standards of these all-American sports seem stacked against their favor? How can APAs hope to attain the glory and recognition the American dream has come to associate with making it big in the NFL, NBA and MLB?
For many APA athletes, the answer lies in redefining and expanding what people consider an all-American sport.
Essentially American sports, like football, tend to pit one athlete against another in a battle of brute force. In these sporting events, physical strength and stature translate into success more readily than would cerebral qualities like mental focus and finesse. APA athletes, however, strike a fine balance between the two as they excel in more individualized sports like golf, figure skating and tennis.
Tiger Woods, of Thai heritage, could not have made it to the top of the golfing arena had he not capitalized on the value of his intense mental strength and focus.
“His [Woods’s] mental game is every bit as good as his physical game. If he’s seven shots out, he still thinks he can win,” said professional golfer Bob May.
At the 1998 national championships, Chinese American Michelle Kwan stepped onto the rink in spite of a foot injury that could have derailed her whirlwind figure skating career.
“She [Kwan] just went out there with such determination and focus that nothing phased her,” professional figure skater Peggy Fleming recalls, “and she went out and skated a brilliant performance.”
Many of Kwan’s fans consider this performance the program that defined her lifetime.
During the 1989 French Open, 17-year-old Chinese American Michael Chang embarked upon an over four-hour long match against Ivan Lendl, number one ranked tennis player in the world, knowing that the odds were against him. Even though Chang demonstrated speed and athleticism, he had to rely on strategy and mental strength to get him through the excruciating remainder of the match when severe muscle cramps set in early on.
“Michael showed that with patience and mental toughness you could get close to players who were supposed to beat you, and even beat them,” said former Grand Slam champion Tony Trabert.
With their blend of physical and mental prowess, these historic APA athletes evoke in Americans a rallying spirit that is truly irrelevant of race and ultimately at the heart of every all-American sport.
As consumers of sports media, we must contribute to the effort of such APA athletes by using our buying power to advocate sports that operate blindly with respect to the race of its players.
By choosing to support other sports like golf and figure skating where APAs have a fair chance at success, you communicate to corporate big shots at the NFL, MLB and NBA, that racial profiling needs to end in their recruitment techniques.
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