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Why there are so few Asian Americans in major U.S. sports

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The cacophonous gyms of Texas were, in many ways, Natalie Chou’s second childhood home. More than a decade ago, with bangs covering her forehead and black hair bouncing, Chou grew addicted to basketball north of Dallas, amid the squeaks of sneakers and the trill of young voices. She made friends through the sport. Concocted dreams through the sport. By middle school, she’d decided that this — a game she loves for its universality — was where she wanted to be.

And yet a part of her felt out of place. “Alone.” “Different.”

At the time, she didn’t quite understand why. But the occasional comments from AAU opponents offered hints. “Their team has an Asian? That’s so weird,” some would whisper. Chou says that a few would match up with her, and inform their teammates: “I got the Asian, this should be easy.”

Dots connected in 2014 at USA Basketball tryouts. Upon being named to the U17 national team as one of the 12 best girls her age in the country, Chou, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, found out that she was the first Asian American to ever make the cut.

That’s when she began to realize. “Oh, wow,” she thought. “I really am on a path that no one has walked before.”

Her experiences — “I never looked like my teammates, or anyone that I played against,” she says — align with those of many other Asian Americans who’ve ventured deep into mainstream U.S. sports. Some 20 million people of Asian descent now comprise 6% of the U.S. population. And yet, in 2019-20, players of Asian descent made up only 0.7% of NCAA Division I women’s basketball players; 0.4% of Division I men’s basketball players; and 0.3% of Division I football players.

In professional leagues, the dearth was even more striking. Just 0.4% of NBA players were of Asian descent; and 0.1% of NFL players; and 0% of WNBA players.

In fact, for as long as experts can remember, perhaps for as long as organized American sports have existed, Asian groups have been underrepresented. The reasons are as diverse and nuanced as the Asian American population itself. It hails from dozens of different countries and distinct cultures, from different generations and circumstances that make it the most disparate minority group in the U.S. Experts say that any search for answers — to the question of why so few Asian Americans reach the pros — must begin with an acknowledgment that Asian Americans are anything but homogeneous. The barriers that Chou faced, as a second-generation Chinese American in Dallas’ suburbs, are different from those that Indian immigrants might have faced in California, which are different from what a Cambodian refugee might have faced in Atlanta.

But there are racial barriers that apply across subgroups, cross-population trends that stem from the multi-century history of Asian Americans.

 Natalie Chou of the UCLA Bruins shoots a three-pointer
Natalie Chou grew up playing basketball in Texas before going on to play at UCLA. (Katharine Lotze/Getty Images)

The root cause of underrepresentation

A century ago, with U.S. sports in their infancy, Asian Americans made up 0.2% of the American population. Restrictive immigration laws barred many. Those who did come faced virulent racism and discrimination. Xenophobic ideologies, such as the “Yellow Peril,” gave rise to massacres, hate crimes and exclusion from many aspects of American life — from schools, jobs and housing; and, yes, from sports.

So, as U.S. pro sports boomed into the behemoths they are today, they developed mostly without Asian American involvement — not because Asian Americans weren’t athletic or skilled enough, but rather because the white establishment withheld opportunities. And this is how the stereotypes crystalized. “Asian males in particular were feminized,” says Christina Chin, a sociology professor at Cal State Fullerton. “They weren't seen as masculine, and they're often seen as smaller and weaker” — in part because American society pushed them away from arenas in which they could prove otherwise.

There’s an unsubstantiated theory that genetics explain underrepresentation — that people of Asian descent are shorter, weaker and slower than people of other races. According to Stan Thangaraj, a City College of New York professor who has researched and written about Asian Americans in sports, that theory “is complete BS.” All elite athletes, he and others say, are outliers "in relation to the rest of the population, regardless of which nation you come from.” Population-wide averages are irrelevant.

Instead, experts say, the barriers are institutional and sociological, products not of racial differences but of human history.

Stereotypes and the 'model minority' myth

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 changed U.S. migration trends forever, overhauling an archaic quota system that had favored Western European countries. The bill gave priority to immigrants with desirable skills and education, and to those with family members already in the U.S.

In part as a result, migration from Latin American and Asian countries soared. And as the Asian American population multiplied — between 1960 and today, it has increased twentyfold — it also underwent a broad demographic shift. Although it became increasingly disparate — today, intra-racial economic inequality is most stark among Asian Americans — on average, median incomes and education rates rose.

Those unintended trends, however, perpetuated the “model minority” myth, a stereotype of Asian Americans as high-achievers. In reality, achievements had nothing to do with race, and the myth ignores the tremendous diversity within and between Asian American subgroups. Many Asian Americans toil in poverty, just as many Blacks, Latinos and whites do.

Nonetheless, “stereotypes started to emerge, Asian Americans being naturally good at math, genetically suited for brain stuff,” says Constancio Arnaldo, an Asian American studies professor at UNLV who is writing a book on Filipino Americans and sports. “And because these racial meanings were placed upon Asian Americans, people then assumed that they couldn't do anything other than be good at math.

“And those meanings then travel into sporting realms.”

The stereotype, Thangaraj says, led Asian American parents to “see our children's incredible excellence in the academic realm as the most important tool,” as the path to success.

“Because that's what they see,” says Bo Noung, a Cambodian American who dedicated countless hours to basketball against his parents’ wishes. They see thousands of people who look like them in STEM fields — today, people of Asian descent make up roughly 20% of U.S. physicians, and 21% of scientists and engineers — but, due to decades of exclusion, they've always seen very few people who look like them in major professional sports.

So the myth remains. Noung’s family didn’t come to the U.S. with privilege — they fled violence and extreme hardship, just as thousands of other Asian American families have. But still, he says, to his family and others, “It's the only way that is practical: education, education, education. Get a job, work hard, save your money. Don't take too many risks. Sports is a risk. Because the chances of you making a living off the game of basketball, or any sport, is very slim.”

(Michael Wagstaffe/Yaho Sports)
(Michael Wagstaffe/Yaho Sports)

Many Asian American sporting cultures are vibrant, especially at recreational levels. But relatively few families who came post-1965 prioritized athletics, historians say. “They didn't want their kids to grow up to be ballers,” Thangaraj says. “[Sport] was not seen as a vocational calling.” Noung’s family members would tell him that he was wasting his time. Chou had close relatives express similar disapproval. “It's just not something that people in my community value,” Chou says.

“It is academics first and foremost,” says Christy Thomaskutty, an Indian American basketball pioneer.

Some experts say the academics-over-athletics mantra is oversimplified, and itself a stereotype. Parents of other races, of course, urge their children to focus on school too. But in many cases, experts acknowledge, that focus is more intense in Asian American families. Every source interviewed for this story mentioned it as a factor in the underrepresentation of Asian Americans in sports.

And it appears to show up in data. More than half of Asian Americans 25 years or older have bachelor’s degrees or better; only one-third of all Americans aged 25-plus do. On the other hand, according to a recent Aspen Institute analysis, “During COVID-19, white youth have spent 174% more time playing games than Asian youth.” In 2019, the last year of non-pandemic data, 37.5% of Asian American and Pacific Islander teens played sports regularly, less than the 42.3% of white teens and 42.4% of Black teens who did. (In 2018, the AAPI percentage was 34.4%.)

In California, Pranav Iyer saw this trend up close. Iyer grew up in the Bay Area, around hundreds of East and South Asians, before heading down to Chapman University to play football in college. He’d dedicated himself religiously to the game. But many peers at his majority-Asian American public high school hadn’t. The school barely had enough players for a varsity team.

Several friends, Iyer says, “had greater athletic potential and ability than I did. And maybe they had the same passion that I did. But, sometime in high school … whether it be through their own cultural and family obstacles, or just society telling them that, ‘this is not meant for you’ ... that's what, eventually, subconsciously or consciously, persuaded them to stop going down the sports route.”

Institutional knowledge gaps

There is one U.S. sport that South Asian Americans have dominated. They’ve won every Scripps National Spelling Bee since 2008. Why?

“It is not inherently rooted in any kind of biological connections to race,” Chin, the sociology professor, explains. “It's because, within the South Asian community, there is a vast network of training facilities, camps, coaches, tutors. There's a lot of family support. Families invest so much time and money, just as you would think about for any youth sport, to create that pipeline.”

It’s the type of pipeline that exists in football, in basketball, in soccer. The major architectural difference, though, is the identity of the architects. South Asian immigrants built the spelling pipeline. Relatively few people in white America know it exists. And the exact inverse of that dichotomy helps explain why so few Asian Americans have been able to break into other sports, the ones that white America popularized long ago.

Early Asian immigrants were segregated and actively excluded from some of those sports. Many 20th- and 21st-century immigrants also arrived without any institutional knowledge of American youth sports pipelines. Language barriers, in some cases, prevented them from gaining that knowledge. Even if they were intrigued by sports as an activity for their children, the points of entry were hidden or obscured.

Thangaraj, whose family immigrated from India, references AAU basketball. “For the early immigrants that came [post-1965], that was not part of their vocabulary,” he says. “That was not part of their skill set, that was not part of their social network.

“Like, my dad is a Harvard Ph.D. What the heck would he know about AAU ball?”

Noung’s parents weren’t aware either. Thomaskutty, who grew up in Alabama and went on to play and coach in college, vividly remembers her mom attending a fifth-grade game and celebrating a made basket with a loud “Touchdown!” But it’s less the foreignness of the sports themselves that present difficulties, more so the foreign nature of the systems that govern them. Thomaskutty also remembers the frightened look on her mom’s face when the college recruiting process began to heat up, and when coaches arrived for in-home visits. Other parents simply don’t know how to ensure their kid gets noticed.

“I wonder how many more opportunities I would've had if my mom and dad had grown up in the States, and been exposed to [the system],” Thomaskutty says. Her parents were incredibly supportive, she clarifies. But they "were learning on the fly how to be parents in the U.S., much less how to be parents of an athlete.”

Shruthika Padhy, 13, of Cherryhill, New Jersey, Erin Howard, 14, of Huntsville, Alabama, Rishik Gandhasri, 13, of San Jose, California, Christopher Serrao, 13, of Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, Saketh Sundar, 13, Clarksville, Maryland, Sohum Sukhatankar, 13, of Dallas, Texas, Rohan Raja, 13, of Irving, Texas and Abhijay Kodali, 12, of Flower Mound, Texas celebrate their eight-way tie in the final round of the 92nd annual Scripps National Spelling Bee at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, U.S., May 31, 2019.      REUTERS/Joshua Roberts     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
There is one U.S. sport that South Asian Americans have dominated. The Scripps National Spelling Bee. (REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

Says Chin: “Those pathways, and those institutional supports, have been there. But for Asian Americans, it's been really difficult for us to get our foot through the door.”

Instead, all across the country, many Asian immigrants built their own leagues. Thangaraj calls them “parallel structures.” Chin calls them “counterspaces.” The flourishing network of Japanese American basketball leagues in California is the most prominent example. Many have become social bedrock. Some Japanese Americans, Chin says, “used sports as another way to rebuild their community” after internment during World War II. The leagues have persisted, and been joined on the scene by circuits like Indo-Pak Basketball in Chicago, and Noung’s Asian Ballers Network, which originated in Atlanta. They’ve grown so prolifically and organically, Iyer says, “that basketball becomes a part of Asian American culture.”

But most of these leagues remain more recreational than intensive developmental. They’ve helped produce a handful of Division I college players, but don’t regularly feed into the AAU-elite high school pipeline. Scouts, many of whom are white or Black, largely stay away, opting to focus instead on traditional circuits with histories of developing top-tier talent.

And thus, the cycle of underrepresentation continues.

Battling biases

The relative lack of Asian American sporting success keeps it churning. One notable exception, of course, is Jeremy Lin. But Lin’s story, in a way, explains why stories like it are so rare. In high school, he won a California state title and player of the year awards; still, no Pac-12 school offered a scholarship. In college, Lin starred at Harvard; still, no NBA team drafted him. Over the years, and especially post-Linsanity, he’s been asked why that was. "I think the obvious thing in my mind is that I was Asian American," Lin said in 2013. "I think that was a barrier."

"It's a sport for white and Black people," he said in 2008. "You don't get respect for being an Asian American basketball player in the U.S."

Biases plague countless avenues of human life, and sports are full of them. Many Asian American athletes say they’ve been affected. Racial prejudice “is both institutional and individual,” Thangaraj says. “Both conscious and unconscious.” Overt racism creeps into many sporting arenas. In college, Lin heard slurs, and shouts that targeted his Asianness, such as: “Hey, can you even see the scoreboard with those eyes?!” More recently, a G League opponent called him “coronavirus.”

Eugene Chung, a Korean American former NFL player and assistant coach, heard similar insults in football.

The explicit, unconcealed attacks are damaging. “We have to think about how these forms of racism can discourage and also create barriers for Asian American athletes,” Chin says. Some, like Lin, can internalize and push past them. Not everybody can. They create a hostile, unwelcoming environment that, Chin says, “could discourage young folks to continue pursuing sports.”

Toronto Raptors guard Jeremy Lin (17) addresses the media during media day for the 2019 NBA Finals at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
One notable exception to the relative lack of Asian American sporting success is Jeremy Lin. (Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

Implicit biases can have similar effects. “That's where a lot of the athletes I've talked to have experienced discrimination,” says Iyer, the founder of AMAZN HQ, a media outlet dedicated to covering Asian Americans in sports. “And it's really a simple phenomenon,” he explains. Some scouts, whether they can explicate it or not, perceive less upside and more risk when evaluating athletes of Asian descent, solely because they look unlike the vast majority of athletes who achieve high-level success in their sports.

“Some of these sports value strength, aggressiveness, hyper-masculinity,” Chin says. “Those are not the characteristics that we often think about when we envision or talk about Asian bodies.”

Those perceptions suppress opportunity. Chou says she’ll come across Asian American girls in Texas who, in her opinion, are plenty good enough to make a middle school team.

“And then they don't,” she says. “And that really deters them from pursuing basketball.”

The power of representation

Chou, nowadays, is a senior starter at UCLA, a veteran sharpshooter and master’s student still in love with the game. Once upon a time, she too was just a middle schooler with dreams. That she chased them speaks to the power of representation. Chou remembers Linsanity. “That was everything to me,” she says. “It meant so much to me to see someone at such a high level making such a splash. I was like, ‘OK, if he can do it, I can do it.’”

More importantly, day after day, she saw her mom, a former professional basketball player in China, a mentor who pushed her and supported her, tangible proof that dreams were realistic.

Her mom was, she later realized, what so many other young Asian American athletes don’t have. “Over time, I realized that there may not have been a WNBA player on the court that looked like me,” Chou said last year.

“And once I realized that these specific role models weren’t really out there, I realized I wanted to be that role model for little Asian girls who loved basketball.”

That’s why she speaks about her experiences in the context of her race. That’s why she responds to parents who DM her, and to awestruck Asian American girls who write her letters. She knows she can be a reason that all of this changes. That stereotypes dissolve and barriers crumble. That representation improves.

 UCLA Bruins guard Natalie Chou (23) during an NCAA basketball game against the Arizona State Sun Devils on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Kyusung Gong/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
UCLA guard Natalie Chou is a senior starter for the Bruins. (Kyusung Gong/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Many experts expect it to, gradually. Asian Americans are the fastest-growing minority group in the United States, and as migration accelerates, generations will come of age. Currently, the median U.S.-born Asian American is a mere 19 years old. That second generation, whose mothers and fathers had never heard of AAU ball, will mature and raise third-generation children with the institutional knowledge that their parents never had.

“So what you see now,” Thangaraj says, “is a much greater level of engagement with sport through the children of the children of the first immigrants.”

Says Noung, who’s now in his 40s: “That's why a lot of people my age have kids and they put ‘em in sports.” Noung’s are in basketball — and, he says, are excelling.

As more and more of those kids break through, like Lin did; as the inspired become the inspirers, like Chou did; the cycle begins to spin in the opposite direction. Representation begets participation, which leads to greater representation, and greater participation, and success stories that change historical narratives.

“In the next generation,” Noung says confidently, “there's gonna be another Jeremy Lin that's gonna be better.”

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