American Sports, Global Faces, Universal Celebration
If you had to name the faces of major U.S. sports just five years ago, you would likely recall American names. Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Cam Newton are a few that immediately come to mind. It was easy to relate to one, or all, as each represented individual dominance from uniquely American backgrounds. Fast forward to 2021 and those faces have begun to fade, giving way to a new generation of superstars from around the globe. Perhaps it is appropriate after a year that saw the world forced to join in a collective fight against COVID-19. It also felt inevitable. Worldwide talents have long permeated in the professional ranks and now, in some cases, have overtaken their American counterparts. This shift in athletic appearances might strike some as foreign but is in fact fitting and commendable. Players from culturally diverse backgrounds bring different skills and mindsets, which have led to greater understanding, knowledge, and innovation in our once domestically dominated sports.
One of the first symbolic faces of American sports, Jackie Robinson, once said, “a life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” That impact can be felt through words but is often more poignant via action. Currently, Major League Baseball offers the best example of that theory as 28.3% of its players — on Opening Day rosters — were born outside of the United States. That is how MLB’s most recognizable names have become Fernando Tatis Jr., Juan Soto, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Ronald Acuña Jr., and Shohei Ohtani. Of those five, only Tatis Jr. and Soto do not use translators. But all share the universally translatable ability to mesmerize audiences. Whether it be stirring home runs, sizzling throws, splendid glovework, superb base-running, or (in the case of Ohtani) 100 mile-per-hour fastballs, their astonishing ability is can’t-miss. Different faces mean more inclusion, greater inclusion creates more opportunities, and additional opportunities translate to more equality.
Two weeks ago, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith argued that Ohtani could not be considered the face of MLB because of his inability to overcome the language barrier. Smith quickly and judiciously apologized but started a necessary conversation. It is one that U.S. sports fans have avoided until recently, blinded by the volume of top American-born athletes. Now, the global influence on America’s pastime is inescapable. While MLB players remain predominantly American, its most current paragons hail from outside of the country. In addition to increasing the level of competition, more international inclusion boosts overall revenue — in 2019, MLB generated around 150 million U.S. dollars from overseas rights. The global influence has been good for professional baseball’s business and its competition.
The National Basketball Association has also seen its global reach cultivate international stars that are now household names. The Milwaukee Bucks just won their first NBA Championship in 50 years, led by Greek-Nigerian Giannis Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo has earned every accolade — Most Valuable Player, Defensive Player of the Year, Most Improved, Finals MVP, etc. — the NBA has to offer, at age 26. Many expect him to become the face of U.S. basketball, even if he had never had an American smoothie before 2014. Another international sensation has been Slovenian luminary Luka Dončić, who, at age 20, led the NBA in triple-doubles and set the record for most points in a playoff debut (42). Serbian star Nikola Jokić was named this year’s MVP and the runner-up, Joel Embiid is originally from Cameroon.
At the start of the 2020–21 NBA season, 107 international players from 41 countries were on opening rosters, marking the seventh consecutive season that the NBA featured at least 100 international players. It is no coincidence that the streak began soon after the foundation of the NBA Global Games in 2013, which unified overseas preseason tours. We have also seen the rising level of international basketball talent at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. A record 121 NBA and WNBA players are featured on national team rosters. Eleven of the 12 teams competing in the men’s tournament have at least one current NBA player, and eight of the 12 teams in the women’s tournament have at least one current WNBA player. Though American basketball is made up considerably more by U.S.-born athletes, the gap between the top domestic and overseas talent is not nearly wide as it was even five years ago.
The final frontier in the quest to broaden the reach of U.S. sports is American football. There is no other sport that comes close in its domestic representation [JG6] and the National Football League’s demography reflects that. In 2017, about 3% of active players were born outside the U.S. Since then, 40 more players with non-American nationality have entered the NFL, but only punter Michael Dickson (Australian) has been named an All-Pro. That said, its popularity has seen improvements with efforts from the International Federation of American Football. In 2020, the IFAF revealed that 80 countries, including Germany, China, and South Africa, have founded organizations dedicated to American football. History has shown that the emergence of international stars will take longer than the other major U.S. sports. But there is also evidence that the sport will be better for it. Other leagues have thrived as a result. Hopefully, American football fans can embrace that moment, and the individuals, whenever it comes.
The U.S. has always benefitted from cultural integration. The country has made scientific, economic, and educational advancements. Why should professional sports be any different? Traditionally American-dominated games are as global as ever with no sign of slowing. The top-heavy talents in baseball and basketball have made it impossible to ignore. Optimistically, football will not be far behind for much longer. Every four years the world gathers to watch its best go head-to-head, often in thrilling fashion. Until recently, only the Olympics offered a glimpse into what competition could look like if the Haut Monde of athletes collided. Now, American pro sports afford that luxury to its viewers on a year-round basis. We are spoiled by these riches; language barriers be damned. The Giannises and Ohtanis of the world have made sports more competitive, entertaining, and lucrative. These athletic titans speak universally to their audience. Fans are fortunate to listen.