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NBA joins NFL, MLB in taking part in annual AAPI Symposium

The 2022 AAPI Sports and Culture Symposium event is annually run by Asian employee resource groups at the NBA, MLB and NFL.

The MLB, NBA, and NFL co-host a roundtable discussion and networking event featuring (from left to right) ESPN writer Joon Lee, NJ/NY Gotham FC Defender Caprice Dydasco and AMAZN HQ founder Pranav Iyer during the 2022 AAPI Sports and Culture Symposium at MLB headquarters in New York. | (Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

NEW YORK Korean American and ESPN staff writer Joon Lee always dreamed of working in sports. Growing up in Massachusetts, he was a massive Boston sports fan despite there being limited Asian athletes represented. The first sports publication he ever bought was a Sports Illustrated for Kids with Japanese outfielder Hideki Matsui on the cover. 

Despite his apparent passion, his career interests were questioned both internally by his Korean community as well as by others around him. “You can be a doctor, you can be a lawyer … all of those stereotypical things,” Lee recalled being told. 

The turning point for Lee came with the rise of Jeremy Lin’s NBA career and the “Linsanity” craze that emerged in the 2011-12 season. 

“Seeing that there was a story that only Asian people could tell in a truly authentic way and understand the nuances and cultural factors that made his rise so important …” Lee said. “All of that was really important to look at my parents and be like ‘this is something that we can do.’” 

Lee shared this story at the 2022 AAPI Sports and Culture Symposium event annually run by Asian employee resource groups at the NBA, MLB and NFL. The symposium, which first convened in 2018, was held here last week at MLB headquarters and aligns with Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. This year’s event attracted over 150 people both virtually and in-person from all three leagues, teams and partners, including league executives such as Oris Stuart, the NBA’s Chief People & Inclusion Officer.

The hourlong symposium kicked off with a keynote address from the MLB’s SVP of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Special Assistant to the Commissioner, Billy Bean.

Billy Bean, Major League Baseball’s SVP of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and the Special Assistant to the Commissioner, Billy Bean, talks during the AAPI Symposium. | (Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Bean shared his background of being the first openly gay MLB player, and how playing professionally in Osaka, Japan, helped him revive his baseball career — after learning to embody his Japanese teammates’ hard-work ethic. Bean praised the league’s ERGs for allowing employees to come together and speak on shared experiences.

“The honor to represent the employee resource group community, provide platforms for us to get to know each other, and better understand the experience that this group is going through … it’s just a real privilege,” Bean said. 

Following the keynote, Lee led a panel with other special guests: Caprice Dydasco, a defender on the National Women’s Soccer League’s (NWSL) NY/NJ Gotham FC and Pranav Iyer, the founder of AMAZN HQa news and media platform focused specifically on sharing the stories of Asian American athletes. 

The panelists discussed topics ranging from facing adversity while pursuing a career in sports, seeing limited coverage of Asian athletes in the media and sharing experiences of discrimination. They all agreed they sometimes feel pressure to be the main representative of the Asian community within their respective careers. 

The three event panelists (from left to right) Lee, Dydasco and Iyer. (Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

“Whether it’s the ballpark, an NBA arena or conferences, especially in the sports world … it’s a thing that’s in the back of your head, because I am the only Asian or one of the only Asian people here, everything I could do could be representative to someone who doesn’t interact with an Asian person every day,” Lee said.

“A lot of people look to you for the answers. You are the one who represents the community, so you have to portray the community in the right light, but the Asian American Pacific Islander community is very broad and diverse — so it’s hard to do that as a single person,” Iyer added. “You are forced to take on that role a lot of times.”

Dydasco added she feels a duty to speak up and educate those around her.

“With teammates in the locker room, people might see things about Asian people on social media … a lot of my time is spent explaining that’s only one representation of the Asian community and trying to educate them,” she said.  

John Xu, a Digital Content Analyst at the NBA and Co-Chair of the NBA’s ERG, the Asian Professional Exchange (APEX), spent months planning this year’s symposium along with Jess Park, the SVP of Global Fan Marketing at the NBA and Executive Champion of APEX. Xu grew up with a father who emigrated from China and used his basketball-playing background as a way to assimilate. Park’s father was an undefeated heavyweight Taekwondo champion, and when he came to America from Korea — he brought Taekwondo with him.

Both said experiencing and witnessing Asian discrimination as well as wanting to build a sense of belonging amongst AAPI league staff and fans at large is the reason they looked to join and further develop an Asian community in the workplace. 

“After I started to recognize some of the Asian hate crimes that were happening within the last few years, and understanding I was working at an organization that had such a voice in the social justice arena — I really wanted to understand how I could lean in and be part of the conversation,” Park said. “I hope we can continue to set an example and raise awareness of things that are impacting my community in particular.”

There were over 10,000 anti-Asian incidents chronicled in the last couple years, underscoring the alarming levels of violence and discrimination against the AAPI community.

“Stop Asian hate is a real thing,” Xu said. “I have people that I know personally that have been either directly attacked or indirectly; it’s been a huge strain on life either on your mental health or your physical well-being. Being able to provide a space for conversations like this, where we can freely allow ourselves to be ourselves and talk about these issues is incredibly important, because we don’t know who else might be going through something.”

Suicide is the No. 1 cause of death for Asian American young adults, making AAPI the only racial group with suicide as a leading cause of death. Amidst Asian discrimination in the United States, Xu believes basketball serves as a uniting factor for people of all backgrounds. 

“When you step on a basketball court, it doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, what you look like, the game equalizes itself,” Xu said. “We have so many devoted followings that we almost don’t even fully tap into. There are more people that consume NBA content in Asia than domestically on certain platforms. We just have to be the people that showcase that.” 

The 2022 AAPI Symposium had over 150+ attendees. (Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

The panelists and organizers all agreed the three leagues can do more to encourage and support Asian American athletes and fans, but creating a platform for events like this to take place is a great start. 

“I hope that everything that was said in the panel … sheds light on the AAPI community,” added Szewan Cheung, who is part of the APEX community at the NFL and works as a payroll analyst. “It’s not just about our community, it’s about everyone. Making sure everyone respects each other and collaborates and learns from each other.” 

NBA employees at the 2022 AAPI Symposium at MLB Headquarters (Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

“We not only are actively supporting people of color and people that are underrepresented, but we’re going out of our way to really have a lens of social justice in our work,” Xu said. “Asian fans are really passionate. As long as we continue to spread these messages, and share the love for the game … it’s the most beautiful part of what we do.” 

Park added it is a focal point for the NBA to continue its inclusion efforts and take advantage of this unique opportunity with ERG’s to build a broader sports community.

“Being part of the AAPI Sports Symposium is a testament to our commitment to nurturing the growth and development of our community of AAPI sports professionals,” Park said. “As we celebrate both AAPI Heritage and Mental Health Awareness this month, we are proud to be part of the League’s overall efforts in cultivating a sense of belonging for all — whether you are a fan, athlete, ally or staff member.”