Pacific athlete challenges similar across continents
Some of the challenges young Pacific Islander athletes encounter in the US are comparable to those aspiring NRL stars face back home, according to Wests Tigers and Kiwi star Dene Halatau on his return from an eye-opening educational visit to the US.
Halatau recently spent a week in Los Angeles with NRL Education and Wellbeing Manager Nigel Vagana after receiving an academic excellence award along with Bronson Harrison, George Rose and Joel Thompson and a big part of the focus was on the experiences of minorities such as Native American and Pacific Island players coming through high school and college sports hoping to turn professional.
"Coming into contact with student athletes, the pathways for those guys into professional sports – they deal with a lot of the same challenge NRL players deal with and that was probably a standout from the people we met," Halatau told NRL.com.
"The systems to get through to professionalism is a bit different in terms of the college system – everything's just bigger over there."
Having attended both a college gridiron game and an NFL game on consecutive days, Halatau said he was struck by the scale of the entertainment on offer in American sports.
"It's more entertaining in terms of game day experience at college football; if you went to a university rugby match over here you'd be expecting park footy standards but it was massive, it was probably the highlight for me was going to that college game and just experiencing the band, the marching bands from both sides, they're on another level the way they do things."
Another highlight was presenting to a Pacific Islander Student group on the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) campus.
"There's only a small contingent of them there but they come together and talk about any issues or challenges they might be facing. They do some mentoring for student athletes in high school to try and progress through to college and keep them focused on their studies while they're still trying to succeed in sport," Halatau said.
"I think they were a bit in awe of what the NRL does in terms of its education programs and what Nigel's trying to do – they don't really have anything like that over there and it's a credit to Nigel and the team for what they do and paving the way in that regard.
"Their cultural identity is very similar to the Pacific Island people that are here.
"A lot of the way they're brought up and putting your family first and responsibility to your family while still trying to achieve something... that added pressure of trying to make your way in professional sports or whatever they might be doing and trying to make a better life for your family is something that was fairly noticeable," he said.
The group had the chance to meet proud Samoan, San Francisco 49ers legend and four-time Superbowl winner Jesse Sapolu.
"He's a Samoan guy who grew up in Hawaii and spent 15 seasons in the NFL and won four Superbowls. One of the challenges he faced, and he sees a lot of the young guys face, is once they do make it the number of cousins they have grow by times 10 – they have a lot more family and friends tap them on the shoulder and want to be a part of it and that added expectations and extra responsibility as well," Halatau said.
"That's part of the Pacific Island culture is to look out for your family and if possible provide a good life to your family. The amount of Islanders that are becoming elite sports people, it's a great vehicle for doing that but along with that does come that added pressure and there's definitely a parallel there."
One similarity between what the players saw at UCLA and what the NRL is trying to achieve on this side of the globe is a mentoring system that aims to empower young Pacific Islanders to become leaders at their clubs and in the game, according to Halatau. But he added the system they have that marries study with sport through the college system is something Australia could arguably learn from.
"It's a good way for guys to get into studying, using sport to get a degree. It'd be great to have something like that over here. At the very least if you're trying to become a professional athlete and it doesn't work out you've got a college degree behind you," he said.
"That's something where they're probably ahead, they have to go through that system to become a professional whereas for us you go from club footy to junior reps into first grade. Studying is becoming more important but it's still optional for people to take it up."