Getting In The Game
After decades of watching from the sidelines, Asian collegiate athletes are slowly changing perceptions
By Lydia Lum
Last season, news media from around the country fixated on the University of Southern California football team, the speculation escalating with each game. Would they successfully defend their title as national champions? Would star running back Reggie Bush win the Heisman Trophy or would quarterback Matt Leinart win the award for the second straight year?
Attention was also paid to brothers Ryan and Brandon Ting — for the mere fact they were on the team. As two of only a handful of Asian-Pacific Islanders (APIs) in college football, the young men are used to stereotypes.
Historically, the absence of APIs from college sports has been due largely to the lack of role models in professional and amateur leagues. For years, coaches on the recruiting trail overlooked Asian athletes, often dismissing them as too small, too slow and too wrapped up in their studies. API parents, meanwhile, often discouraged their children from becoming jocks out of fear they would derail their grades and, consequently, their job prospects. Some sports pundits believe that because some APIs earn above-average family incomes, they aren’t as motivated to pursue sports as a pathway to college. And many APIs still tend to view sports more as recreation than as a potential career field, which might explain why APIs are more likely to participate in lower-revenue sports, not the big money programs.
Certainly, APIs are quite visible on college campuses, especially on the West Coast. They comprise about 50 percent of the student population at the University of California, Irvine, and other UC campuses aren’t far behind. But they made up less than 2 percent of football, basketball and baseball players in the 2003-2004 academic year, according to the most recent statistics from the NCAA. The numbers crept up in sports like men’s tennis and men’s volleyball, where 5 percent of the athletes were APIs. But only a handful of sports that year featured double-digit participation from Asian athletes. Asians represented 21 percent of female badminton players, 13 percent of female archers, 14 percent of female fencers and 13 percent of male fencers.
The numbers suggest that coaches are slowly shrugging off racial stereotypes.
“They don’t care if you are a square or a polka dot as long as you are talented,” says Carol Iwaoka, associate commissioner for the Big
The growing number of famous API athletes illustrates her point.
Michael Chang rocketed to the top of the professional tennis ranks in the 1980s and 1990s. Paul Kariya, who was also on the scene at the time, continues to thrill hockey fans. Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan brought new attention to figure skating during the ‘90s as well. Brian Ching has established himself in Major League Soccer. And APIs are some of the most recognizable figures in golf, including Vijay Singh, Michelle Wie, Grace Park, Se Ri Pak and Tiger Woods (who is more often known for his Black roots than his Thai and Chinese heritage).
Iwaoka believes the lingering scarcity of API student-athletes may actually stem from student choices. One deterrent for any young person in college sports is the level of sacrifice required to compete. Parents of Olympic hopefuls often uproot their families and move cross-country so they can live close to top-notch facilities and trainers. Once they’re in college, the athletes usually lack the time for rigorous courses.
“If you want to become a scientist,” Iwaoka says, “how do you have time to work in a lab? It turns out, you don’t.”
“If we somehow influence another Asian kid — or anyone of another color — to play ball, that’s great.”
— Brandon Ting, Senior, Free Safety,
University of Southern California Trojans
The Tings, who are 22-year-old identical twins, play for one of the country’s most glamorous college football teams. The Trojans were arguably the best team in the nation in 2003 and won the title outright in 2004. Movie stars and musicians regularly graced the sidelines during the team’s run to this season’s national title game, which they lost to the University of Texas in January. Heisman winners Bush and Leinart are celebrities, but within Los Angeles’ API community, the Tings are just as popular. Twice, they rode atop a convertible in the annual Chinese New Year parade there. And API children ask them for autographs at USC games.
“They keep saying how cool it is that we play football,” Ryan says. “It’s a little weird thinking of ourselves as role models.”
And the Tings are just backups for the Trojans.
Growing up in California, the young men were introduced to Pop Warner football at age 8 and quickly branched into track and field, baseball and basketball. Their father, renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. Arthur Ting, often introduced them to his patients — athletes like football Hall-of-Famers Barry Sanders and Joe Montana and baseball slugger Barry Bonds.
“We were always impressed by their discipline and work ethic,” Brandon says.
While trying out for high school teams, the brothers were taunted with racial slurs from students in the stands and on the sidelines.
“It’s not a ‘woe is me’ story, but I guess they were trying to get us off our game,” Ryan says. “It motivated us to work even harder, and times like that, it helped to have my twin by my side who knew what it felt like, because there were hardly any other Asians trying to make the teams.”
Brandon cultivated a love for basketball and Ryan was partial to baseball, but it was their talent on the football field that caught the attention of USC, which offered them scholarships. They’ve played for the Trojans since 2003, and appeared in every game during the 2005 season. Their older brother, Rich Ting, played quarterback for Yale University from 1998-2001.
The Tings aren’t the only APIs to realize their rarity in college sports. Former University of Hawaii quarterback Timmy Chang operates a Web site <www.timmychang.net> that pays homage to every API football player he can find, even high-schoolers. Chang, who broke the NCAA record for career passing yardage, most recently signed with the Philadelphia Eagles and was allocated to the NFL Europe League, where he currently plays for Germany’s Rhein Fire.
If Chang makes it onto an NFL roster, he’ll join other APIs earning paychecks on Sundays. The University of Oregon’s Haloti Ngata, a
6-foot-5, 338-pound defensive lineman, is leaving school early and expected to be a top pick in the NFL Draft later this month. Houston Texans linebacker Kailee Wong is poised to enter his ninth year as a pro, while Eugene Amano has spent the past two seasons on the Tennessee Titans’ offensive line. Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward, a wide receiver who’s Black and Korean, has played his entire
eight-year career with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
But Dat Nguyen is among the most inspiring APIs in league history. The Dallas Cowboys drafted Nguyen in 1999 after a stellar career at Texas A&M University. He wrapped up his senior year in college by earning All-America honors and winning the Bednarik and Lombardi trophies as the best defensive player and the best lineman nationwide. At 5-foot-11 and 238 pounds, many experts said he was too small for the NFL. But he proved himself a consistent playmaker, leading the Cowboys in tackles in 2001 and 2002. Nguyen recently retired after seven seasons, all with Dallas.
“There’s likely some [API] kid who’ll ask, ‘Why not me?’” says Peter P. Roby, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. “Maybe they’ll work harder in the weight room, grow four inches taller and who knows? The dream stays alive.”
Deborah Chin, the athletic director at the University of New Haven, has been involved with sports at the school since 1975. Before becoming A.D. in 1993, Chin was the women’s volleyball coach, where she tried to field as ethnically diverse a team as possible every year. But with so few APIs in collegiate volleyball during that time, “some years, we just didn’t have one here,” she says. Similarly, the numbers of APIs on UNH football and basketball teams during her career hover in the single digits.
The benefit of college sports participation is immeasurable for young APIs, says Lawrence Fan, who has been sports information director at San Jose State University for the past 26 years. “They see how to handle winning and losing,” he says. “It’s a dynamic environment.”
He wonders, however, whether the increasing globalization of American sports will squeeze out U.S.-born APIs. China’s Yao Ming has been a dominating presence since his 2002 signing with the NBA’s Houston Rockets, prompting more NBA scouts to visit China. Major League Baseball players like the San Diego Padres’ Chan Ho Park and the Seattle Mariners’ Ichiro Suzuki have helped open the door for others from Korea and Japan, respectively.
Athletes of Asian ancestry, regardless of whether they immigrate or are American-born, can help APIs in the general population become less isolated, says Dr. Richard Lapchick, who chairs the University of Central Florida’s sport business management department. As an example, when Chan Ho Park left South Korea to pitch for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1994, Korean-Americans turned out in droves for the games. That may have helped Koreans heal, Lapchick says, from the 1992 Los Angeles riots, when much of that city’s Koreatown was looted and burned. Trips to the ballpark brought Koreans back into mainstream society, if only for a few hours at a time. “So many of us isolate ourselves residentially that it takes something like sports for us to get out among the general population,” Lapchick says.
The Tings, meanwhile, plan to graduate in May and are considering postgraduate options, including medical school. Their academic decisions will determine whether they’ll have enough time to play for the Trojans in the fall, which marks their final year of eligibility. For now, though, Brandon explains their satisfaction with football this way: “If we somehow influence another Asian kid — or anyone of another color — to play ball, that’s great.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com