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Joint NBA, NFL and MLB symposium shows how Asians have impacted sports

Nearly 90 years ago, a basketball teammate of Kathy Yep’s grandmother did something extraordinary. No, it wasn’t that she played basketball. Lots of people did that, including girls of Chinese descent growing up in the Bay Area in the 1930s. Her grandmother’s teammate dared something even bolder: She slapped a white opponent who had struck her first.

“This was during segregation, the time of the Yellow Peril [that indicated Asians were a danger to the U.S.] and the Chinese Exclusion Act that prevented Asians from immigrating here,” says Yep, a professor of Asian American Studies at Claremont Colleges. So, what made the woman fight back? “Sports allowed [my grandmother and her teammates] to stand up and be empowered. This was a moment that showed what sports could be in this space of segregation.”

Yep shared the story at the recent Asians in Sports & Culture Symposium, an annual event jointly run by Asian employee resource groups (ERGs) at MLB, the NBA and the NFL. The symposium, held virtually during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, was first convened in 2018. This year’s theme was “Representation Matters” and attracted more than 200 people from sports, entertainment and business.

The hourlong event featured a keynote address by MLB Senior Vice President Jim Small, a U.S. native who lived in Asia for 16 years nurturing baseball’s growth there. He discussed baseball’s outreach outside the United States and how sports helped him and his family find common interests overseas.

Yep and three other prominent scholars who have studied the relationship between the Asian diaspora and sports discussed a variety of topics, including the anti-Asian violence that has risen since COVID-19 began spreading around the world. Their main focus, however, centered on how the passion Asians have for athletics has largely been ignored in the U.S., even as that fervent participation has helped immigrants feel more American.

“In U.S. history, baseball, football and basketball have been key sites where people can play into citizenship,” said Stan Thangaraj, a Socio-Cultural Anthropologist at the City College of New York.

“For immigrant and refugee communities that I’ve studied, they all signaled sports as one of those realms — unlike other reams, where they felt stereotyped as too foreign, too immigrant, not man enough — where they could claim their own belonging and do it on their own terms. When you have a deadly crossover and you break someone’s ankles, your ethnicity doesn’t matter.”

I really appreciated the historical context and it was an eye-opener to understand how sports became so big in the Asian demographic.

Ilene Tsao

A co-chair of the NBA’s ERG, Asian Professional Exchange (APEX), Gautam Kapur helped conceive the symposium. He was born in Washington D.C., but spent his formative years in Australia, Singapore and India. Despite having never been to a live NBA game or seeing a South Asian NBA player to relate to on the court, Kapur still loved the game. He believes we will soon see more NBA players of Asian heritage, but we must remember the pioneers that paved the way.

“Most people tend to think Asian history in basketball starts with Yao Ming or Jeremy Lin. But that’s not the case. In fact, the first NBA player of Asian descent [Wataru Misaka] was drafted over 50 years before Yao Ming,” Kapur, now a Basketball Technology and Innovation Senior Analyst at the NBA, said afterward. “That’s what inspired us to create the symposium. We wanted to create a platform where our community could share our sports stories and histories. There are very few spaces in which to do that.”

During the symposium, Ryan Reft, a Historian and Curator at the Library of Congress, discussed the history and impact of baseball on Japan and Japanese Americans. He revealed how the sport helped build bridges between Japan and the U.S. after World War II, and how Japanese Americans held in internment camps formed baseball teams.

Chia Youyee Vang, an associate vice chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who has studied Hmong migration, talked about how football has captivated those of Hmong descent, many whose families immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s. Vang played softball growing up, but her son plays for his high school football team and can always hear her cheering. “He told me, ‘Mom, you’re the smallest mother but the loudest.’”

Even so, each speaker discussed how Asian Americans often face disrespect when it comes to sports. Thangaraj mentioned how Jeremy Lin was a top basketball player in California his senior year of high school but received little attention from major programs. He also said media portrayals of Asians limit them. For instance, South Asians, who have won 11 of the last 13 Scripps National Spelling Bees, are portrayed as “all brain,” Thangaraj said, and the infrastructure to acknowledge their athletic talents doesn’t exist.

The three sports leagues, they said, can do more outreach to encourage and acknowledge the passion that Asian Americans have for sports. Those who attended the symposium agreed the event was a great start. “I really appreciated the historical context and it was an eye-opener to understand how sports became so big in the Asian demographic,” said Ilene Tsao, who like Yep’s grandmother, grew up playing basketball in the Bay Area. Today she’s an associate manager in Global Partnerships at the NBA and an APEX co-chair.

“I hope people walked away with a little more appreciation for how Asians fit into this larger picture of mainstream American sports. As one of the professors said, we often get forgotten,” Tsao continued. “I also loved the community aspect of this event. The fact that we got 200 people to be part of an event that focused on Asians and sports was incredible. I hope people felt that community. And if you left the symposium thinking ‘Hey, Asians are a bigger part of these sports than I thought,’ then it was a success.”