How Asian American and Pacific Islander athletes in the NFL express their cultural pride

Feb 9, 2024, 1:21 PM

One might think rookie Nikko Remigio would be fielding all kinds of questions on making it to the Super Bowl in his first pro season. But leading up to Sunday’s game in Las Vegas, his family in the Philippines have asked more about Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift.

Why haven’t they asked for anything, not even Kansas City Chiefs merch? The 24-year-old wide receiver’s new level of visibility already feels like a prize.

“One of the big things not only for me — but I know for my dad and his sisters, and my grandma and grandpa — is just people being able to pronounce our last name the right way,” said Remigio (pronounced ruh-me-HEE’-oh). Representation, he said, is more valuable than money or any material objects.

Remigio has been on his team’s reserve/injured list since August and makes a much-anticipated return to the field this weekend.

Historically, Asian Americans have been stereotyped as more brains than brawn or treated as foreigners in U.S. sports. But for nearly a century, they have had a presence on the NFL field. And for decades, football has been a mainstay in Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities — yielding a fair share of star athletes.

Many current and former athletes of AAPI heritage agreed that such misconceptions have mostly faded. Increasingly, major athletes have been able to amplify their culture on a public stage and be embraced.

The League sent a similar message earlier this week in Las Vegas when the NFL and the Las Vegas Super Bowl LVIII Host Committee recruited over 15 Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander organizations, including The Asian American Foundation, to put on an inaugural Lunar New Year Night Market for media. Four high school football players from the Hawaii town decimated by a deadly wildfire in August will be part of the Super Bowl coin toss.

Manumalo Muasau, a New York Giants linebacker for two seasons starting in 2012, was among those at the Night Market. The 33-year-old now serves as a mental performance consultant for the Tennessee Titans and for private clients. He grew up admiring Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, a fellow Samoan American who had long locks like him. Now, he happily watches young pros like Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa honoring his Polynesian heritage in a way players before him were likely unable to.

“When they’re walking into the locker room and all the media’s there…for Tua, he’s in the Samoan community and the cultural attire is an ie faitaga,” Muasau said, referring to a formal, rectangular cloth worn like a kilt or wraparound skirt. “So he’s displaying his culture during that pre-game game day fit.”

Most of his life, Muasau went by his middle name Jake because he thought it sounded more “American” and was easier for people to say. But in 2017, he decided to embrace his full name.

“That’s an experience that many of our AAPI communities can also relate to,” Muasau said. “My first couple of years in graduate school, when I was learning to really reintegrate my Samoan identity, part of that transition for me was introducing myself as my first name.”

Growing up Asian and Black American or “Blasian” in Orange County, California, Remigio didn’t feel a sense of belonging. His neighbors and classmates were mostly white; He was called racial slurs and often questioned about his hair and skin color. As an adult, he understands that that behavior isn’t about him.

“They’re probably dealing with more difficulties than they’re putting off, which is why they’re acting that way,” Remigio said. “Just people in general who act like that, I don’t really give them my time of day.”

The relationship between AAPI people and a lot of Western sports dates back to colonialism in Hawaii, the Philippines and other parts of Asia, said Constancio Arnaldo Jr., an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Historically, in U.S. sports, Asian American men have been treated as outsiders and their masculinity questioned.

“Asian Americans have always in many ways used sports as a form of American belonging, as a form of identity,” Arnaldo said. “When we think about race, it’s very much along Black and white lines. Asian Americans are always kind of troubling and in this liminal space of a black-white binary, even in sports.”

Arnaldo, who co-edited the book “Asian American Sporting Cultures,” said it makes business sense for the NFL to try to appeal to Asian American spectators. Football has long been a source of pride across Polynesian communities including Samoans to Tongans.

“The NBA and Major League Baseball, they actually have dedicated Filipino heritage nights,” Arnaldo said.

With expanded representation though, anti-Asian racism still lingers. In 2021, former player and assistant coach Eugene Chung said he was told in an interview for a coaching job that Asian Americans were “not the right minority ” to lead the NFL, even though the league’s policy recognizes them as a marginalized group. The Korean American, who was only the third Asian pro athlete at the start of his career in the ’90s, accused the NFL of brushing him off.

In the NFL’s next season, there will be nine coaches of color, the most in the league’s history. But none of them are Asian or Pacific Islander. (Six are Black, one is biracial, one is Mexican American and one is of Lebanese descent.)

According to the 2023 racial and gender report card from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics In Sport, two-thirds of all NFL players (66.7%) are minorities, 53.5% of whom are Black. Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders are only 1.8% of players, a slight increase from 1.5% in 2022. Asian players only represented 0.1%.

There are at least two dozen NFL players of Asian or Pacific Islander descent, according to AMAZN HQ, an online hub curating news on Asians and Asian Americans in sports. Among them is Atlanta Falcons placekicker and South Korea-born Younghoe Koo and Minnesota Vikings safety Camryn Bynum, who, like Remigio, is both Black and Filipino. The two men were teammates at California in Berkeley.

When it comes to cultural pride, Bynum has worn his heart — and a Philippines flag decal — on his sleeve. He has called his home country “the best place in the world.” Fans were rooting for his wife when she finally obtained a visa in November to travel to the U.S. from the Philippines. On Instagram he posted a video of himself bringing homemade chicken adobo, lumpia and other Filipino foods to his teammates’ homes. Bynum also started a charity for disaster relief in the Southeast Asian island country. Remigio wants to emulate Bynum’s actions off the field and also destigmatize the sport.

He has encouraged other Filipinos and Asians to sign up their children for football if they’re interested.

“I definitely think with more presence in the sport and posting more success from AAPI individuals in the sport, like we’ll definitely have a trickle-down effect to getting more AAPI players.”


Tang is a Phoenix-based member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) at @ttangAP.

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How Asian American and Pacific Islander athletes in the NFL express their cultural pride