On Thursday, January 21, Take Two and Indie Lens Pop-Up presented a conversation on the cultural and physical impacts of football on the Polynesian community in the United States. The discussion accompanied a screening of “In Football We Trust,” a documentary feature film that follows high school athletes on their journeys through the so-called Polynesian Pipeline to the NFL. A Martinez hosted the panel, which took an in-depth look at football and its place at the intersection of culture, education and economic opportunities for Polynesian communities.
Football engages cultural values of Polynesian communities
The program began with a discussion of the cultural values that make football a fit for Polynesian communities. Coach Pene Talamaivao, who played with the San Diego Chargers and now works with Prime Time Polynesian Athletic Training, explained, “It’s easy for us to play this sport – because there are components in there that are true to us: There’s love, there’s unity, there’s compassion, there’s pride, and there’s the whole concept of family rooted in there.”
Sydney Seau, daughter of legendary NFL linebacker Junior Seau, agreed: “It’s all about unity, having a family outside your family – it’s invoking a passion for something that can provide for so many.”
Football as a pathway to education
Beyond the cultural compatibility, many in the Polynesian communities see football as a pathway to a college education, according to Shawn Tanuvasa, an educator with Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He shared his experience working on his doctorate and cited football as a means to get that education for him and many Polynesians. “[Football] is a vehicle to education. At the end of the day, that’s what’s going to get you a better life.”
Talamaivao added that financial access to higher education poses a significant challenge: “We can hang with anybody academically; it’s just that financially, our families cannot afford that.” He continued, “Colleges are willing to offer 28–30 scholarships every year, which is mandatory by NCAA. That’s a huge motivating factor for Polynesians in general.”
The risk of injury as the cost of opportunity
The discussion turned to the realities of injuries and why athletes are willing to face those risks. Tanuvasa said, “Sometimes [student athletes] feel that they have to sacrifice and even suffer so that their families could be blessed for the sacrifices that were made on their behalf.”
Seau added, “There are more than just physical risks when you play football. A lot of young people have now come to know the mental risks as well…You don’t know how many concussions it’ll take.”
Talamaivao said Polynesians face many stereotypes: “Sometimes there’s a misrepresentation that we’re big people and that’s it – that there’s nothing up here.” Tanuvasa added, “Football has been a vehicle to let the world know who we are, but I think it’s only the beginning. When people finally realize the gifts and talents that make the Polynesian people who they are, they’re going to become more successful in many different ways.”
Seau spoke more personally of her father, whose birthday would have been two days before the event. She shared, “He had an extraordinary talent, and he used it to the best of his ability, but he was so much more than just a sport. He’s relevant because of what he left behind. He left behind a community that loves him, a family that loves him, and he still has his foundation that’s still giving back. He was more than just a person—something that transcends time.”
“In Football We Trust” is directed Tony Vainuku and Erika Cohn and is available for viewing online on PBS Independent Lens until February 25. More information about the film is available at www.infootballwetrustmovie.com.
A Martinez - Co-Host of Take Two
Gavin Dougan - Executive Producer, "In Football We Trust"
Sydney Seau - daughter of the legendary NFL linebacker, Junior Seau
Coach Pene Talamaivao - Prime time Polynesian Athletic Training; former NFL player with the San Diego Chargers
Shawn Tanuvasa - educator with Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints