Latino athletes in American sports
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One of the up-and-coming fields of study across the nation is Latino studies; however this study of the Latino and Latina culture is lacking an approach to the ways in which sports have interacted with the Latino/a community in the United States. For the sake of this article, a Latino/a is anyone who can trace ancestry back to any country in Central or South America, as well as Caribbean Islands, however the majority of this article will be focusing on athletes who hail from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. Latinos have had a large impact on American sports in a variety of ways and in varying sports. In baseball, Latinos make up the largest minority group and many Latinos have become stars in the league. In 2008, twenty seven percent of MLB players were of Latino heritage. Other sports such as basketball, hockey, and football are seeing a rise in the participation of Latino/a athletes, although they still remain a minority within the leagues. Latino/as have also been able to make their mark on other sports such as golf, women's basketball, and soccer, showing that they are a force across many sports and have had a definite impact on their respective games.
- 1 Soccer
- 2 Baseball
- 3 The NBA
- 4 The NFL and other sports
- 5 Motorsports
- 6 Other sports
- 7 References
Soccer is  the most popular sport in the world, and is the most popular sport in the majority of Latino countries. The World Cup is arguably the most prolific tournament for a single sport in the world combining soccer players from around the globe to compete for the chance to call your home country champions. Since 1930, there has been a competition every four years to see which country is the best at soccer (excluding 1942 and 1946 due to World War II). The first world cup actually took place in a Latino country, Uruguay. This specific completion involved thirteen teams including eight countries from South and Central America, so more than half of the tournament involved Latin American Countries. Uruguay ended up winning the world cup that year and in 1950. The only other Latin American country to win the world cup is Argentina, who was victorious in 1978 and 1986. Having mentioned that, only seven countries in the world have actually won the world cup, so Latino countries have put for more than their fair share of representation. Latino countries that have hosted the event besides Uruguay are Chile in 1962 and Mexico in 1970 and 1986. It is evident that the world cup is the sport's greatest stage, and Latino Countries have had a great impact on its history and growth.
Latino impact in the MLS
In the United States, Latinos' impact on soccer is perhaps greater than in any sport. Unlike other sports that are learned in the U.S., fútbol (soccer) is often associated with Latino countries of origin, where in many cases it is considered the only national sport. Passion for the game is therefore brought to the United States directly or is acquired indirectly from parents. On the other hand, basketball, baseball and football were all developed in the United States, and these sports took time to spread throughout these Latino countries and are seen as foreign. Soccer, though invented in England, has a longer history throughout South American and the rest of the world whereas those sports that fight for the title of national pass time in the Unites States are homegrown. This is one possible explanation for why soccer is not quite as popular in the United States as it is in the majority of the world. One problem for soccer within the country is the fact that the MLS (Major League Soccer) has not been nearly as successful as other countries’ premier leagues. In this way, the United States does not have as many people immigrating to the country to play soccer, because the best players will want to ply their trade in better leagues, such as those of England, Spain, Germany, and Italy, and for more lucrative contracts. The fact that the MLS is not as prolific of a league is enlarged by the fact that the payrolls of other leagues are much greater. Most salaries in 2008 for those playing in the MLS were below $100,000 per year, a very low figure for a professional sport. These combined truths have made kids either dream about playing soccer abroad, or just play an entirely different sport. Few dream about having great careers in the MLS.
There is plenty of potential growth for soccer in the United States. The easiest route would be for the United States to get the Latino community more involved with the MLS. As Latinos are now the fastest growing minorities in the country, the initiative to get them more involved would show promise. There are currently nineteen MLS clubs, two of which - Montreal and Toronto - are located in Canada. Of these nineteen U.S. teams, seven of them are located in areas with a high Latino concentration. Los Angeles is home to two teams, while Chicago, New York, San Jose, Dallas and Houston also boast teams in the MLS.
Future Latino impact in the MLS
- MLS + FIFA Reaching Out
Some of these areas have already started to increase the involvement of surrounding Latinos. Take Houston for example. The Houston Dynamo has a fan support that is about 65 percent Latino. Of the areas local youth talent, about 82 percent are of Latino descent. Yet the team itself only has a few players that have any sort of Latino background. They insist that support from Latinos must go beyond the ticket sales as they try to create a Latino friendly atmosphere within the stadium. Houston is not the only team who is trying to accommodate their Latino fan base. The Columbus Crew, a team in an area that is not known for having a huge Latino population, has started broadcasting its games on Spanish Language Radio. Executives in the front office of the MLS are hoping that other teams follow such initiative. In the past there have been Hispanic Heritage Nights to help promote the league to new levels of popularity. FIFA has actually changed restrictions that make it easier to play in the U.S. but still play for your home country. Arturo Alvarez was born in America and plays for San Jose in the MLS. Yet in international play, he is allowed to represent El Salvador, where his parents are from. In this way, he is allowed to play for a country where he has never resided. Maybe, there will be more players like Alvarez, who will stay in the United States professionally, but will use his parents’ country for pride and glory in international play. He does not feel the need to try to play overseas and get the better recognition.
- Improving marketability
The MLS is missing something key elements that it must get before it is among the world's elite. Most of those missing components would be helped if there was increased popularity of the sport within the United States itself, and the country can look to its Latino citizens to help the process. Sports figures such as LeBron James and Tiger Woods, are highly marketable players in their respective sports basketball and golf. Along with their impeccable talent, their name brings in plenty of recognition with sponsors and such. Many kids wear Air Jordan Basketball shoes, after the famous Michael Jordan. Even the National Hockey League, the least popular of the four major U.S. sports (soccer is not one of the four major professional sports in the United States), has had mild success by choosing such a poster child. The popularity of Sidney Crosby, who was tabbed as the next great one, and a very successful video game in NHL 2009, have helped increase interest in the sport of hockey in the United States. MLS thought it was onto something when David Beckham signed a deal with the L.A. Galaxy. Unfortunately, things have not panned out as hoped with Beckham and the MLS is still looking for its "Tiger Woods". A player with potential to become an icon for the MLS is Mexican Cuauhtemoc Blanco. As a striker for the Chicago Fire, he earned over 2.8 million dollars last year and led the league in many statistical categories. As for marketing in video games, FIFA 09 was very successful as well. Compared to the NHL 09, their focuses within the U.S. are very different. MLS is below many leagues in skill level on the video game as well, so kids are more likely to choose teams in Spanish or English leagues, or just countries themselves. It would be better to market a specific MLS video game to increase this popularity, and with Cuauhtemoc Blanco on the cover, it would stand a fighting chance to become successful.
There have been plenty of other Latino influences in the present, and potentially in the future for the sport in the United States. One team in the MLS recently changed its name to Chivas USA, which is comparable to Chivas Guadalajara in the Mexican National League. It is also important that this team was the second team to reside in Los Angeles, a city with a high concentration of Latinos. The MLS has recognized what it needs to do in the future to succeed, and are hoping to do so, with the help from the Latino population.
In the United States, baseball is America's undisputed past time. As of recently, people worldwide have seen Latinos not only excel in Major League Baseball (MLB), but Latinos have been steadily taking it over. With larger numbers of Latino participants in the MLB and as the numbers continue to increase, just how did the Latino communities out side of the US begin to play and love this sport?
First of all, one must understand a bit of history. Baseball began after the colonies in America decided to have independence from England. Yet many years after severing its ties with England the United States still played the English game of cricket. Many Americans saw this game as slow and tedious. So the thirst for a faster game was quenched when baseball was created. By the end of the Civil War, baseball had won over the hearts of almost every American thus becoming the nation's pastime.
Shortly after its creation, Baseball became known to many other countries as well. For Latin America and the Caribbean, the love for baseball began when two students from Cuba, who enrolled in the United States educational system, returned home with a bat and a ball. Cuba then began to spread this sport throughout other Latino countries. Two Cuban brothers brought the game to the Dominican Republic. Cubans with the help of Venezuelans that migrated to the United States brought the game to Venezuela. As for Mexico and Puerto Rico, baseball was spread by both Cubans and people from the United States. For Mexico, it was a combination of Cubans who fled from the island during its struggles for independence, along with U.S. merchant marines and railroad workers. Puerto Rico was most probably introduced to baseball when the United States gained power over it.
Baseball became one of the main ways for Latinos to fit into American culture. For many young Latino/as who come to the United States as immigrants, baseball is one way to connect with people of all ages and races. Baseball became a way for Latinos to express their identities without being alienated.
Little League Baseball
Through baseball, Latinos found a new love that they could share with the United States. From the time they are very young, children in Latin America begin to play baseball. Many countries have set up leagues in which children can learn the game and compete against each other. With the help of an organization called Little League Baseball, children from both Mexico and Venezuela can play in leagues that are similar to the ones that children in the United States play in. Every year the best Little League team from Mexico and Venezuela compete for the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. In this tournament, countries, other than the United States, that participate send their best Little League team to compete in the international bracket in hopes to face an American team in the finals. Since 2009, Mexico and Venezuela combined to win 5 Little League World Series.
Minor League Baseball
All over Latin America there have been creations of baseball leagues that allow those kids to continue to play as they get older. For example, Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic all have summer leagues. All of these summer leagues have connections with the U.S. Minor League Baseball governing body. The Mexican summer league is the only one out of the four that has been given Triple A status. Triple A Minor League Baseball is the level of baseball that is directly underneath Major League Baseball. Usually Major League players who are not fully ready to play at the Major League level are sent to play in Triple A. These leagues are the gates in which Latino players can make a name for themselves in their quest to become Major League Baseball players in the United States.
Some dominant Latino MLB players
Roberto Clemente, born in Puerto Rico, is arguably the best right fielder and possibly one of the game's best players. He had 12 All-Star selections and 12 Gold Glove Awards. He was also 2 time World Series Champion, National League MVP in 1966, and World Series MVP in 1971. The Pittsburgh eventually retired his number, #21. Not only was he a great player on field, but off of the field he was a National hero. He died in a plane crash while on a relief mission to Nicaragua.
Alex Rodriguez, born in the United States, is of Dominican descent. He is one of the highest paid Latinos in the MLB. He has 12 All-Star selections, 10 Silver Hugger Awards, 2 Gold Glove Awards, and 4 AL Hank Aaron Awards. He is a 3 time AL MVP and a World Series Champion.
Manny Ramirez, born in the Dominican Republic, is one of the best players in the MLB today. He has 12 All-Star selections, 9 Silver Slugger Awards, and 2 AL Hank Aaron Awards. He is a World Series MVP, a 2 time World Series Champion. He has also led the AL in batting average, home runs, and runs batted (each in different years).
For Latinos, playing in the MLB is for many things. It is for the fame, the money, the love of the game, but above all it is a way to fit in and find an identity.
The NBA (National Basketball Association) is the premier basketball league in America. For a long time it was a sport dominated by white Americans and it wasn't very popular amongst Latin American countries. That all changed with the arrival of the Nuyoricans. They were Puerto Ricans who had immigrated to New York in search of a better life and while there discovered the sport of basketball. They brought the sport back with them to the island and it became immensely popular. For many young Latino/as who come to the United States as immigrants, sports is one way to connect with people their own age, both of their race and of other races. Sports is also a universal unifier, even if two people speak different languages, they can both speak the language of basketball when they are on the court. Sports became a way for many Latinos to immerse themselves in American culture and not feel so alienated. It helped Americans realize that Latinos enjoy the same sports that American's do, and sports even made it possible for many of the role models of young Americans be Latinos. Names such as David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, and Manu Ginobili are easily recognizable by a large portion of America's youth, regardless of ethnicity. Today, programs like La Liga del Barrio, a youth basketball league in Philadelphia are created to encourage Latino/a youth to participate in sports, and to teach them the importance of discipline and education. 
- Basketball in Latin America
One of the countries hit hardest by basketball fever is the tiny nation of Belize. Even though it is one of the smaller countries in Central America, it has one of the strongest basketball followings. The sport is so popular that NBA TV is offered as part of basic cable packages in Belize, whereas in America NBA TV is a premium channel that must be specially ordered.
Argentina has quickly emerged as one of the premier Latin American basketball playing countries. With NBA stars like Manu Ginobli and Andrés Nocioni, the Argentinean National team was able to capture gold medals at the 2004 Olympics. The dominance of the Argentinean team showed the world that the sport was no longer just dominated by Americans, and it opened the door for other Latin American countries to increase interest in basketball. Worldwide recognition of basketball began in 1992 when the American "Dream Team", the name of the Olympic basketball team, swept the Olympic Games blowing out every country they played. The team was made up of the best players America had to offer and because they won the gold medal so handily, the rest of the world took notice and the sport of basketball was spread to more cultures than ever before. Since then, the NBA has taken steps to build on and increase the Latino fan base.
Future of Latinos in the NBA
Due to the increase in Latino participation and interest in the sport of basketball, the NBA has begun new marketing programs to capitalize on the opportunity.
- Noche Latina
This is a Latino/a themed event put on by the NBA in the highest Latino markets around the country. In 2008 Noche Latina visited Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Miami, Phoenix, Chicago, and New York. Each of the teams from these cities wore special jerseys to commemorate the night in which the team names were translated into Spanish. Aside from the uniform changes, the night includes Latino themed NBA events that incorporate music food and other aspects of Latino culture. This is a large step for the NBA which was once a predominantly white league, although with the large increase in Latino participation and cities such as San Antonio having large Latino populations the NBA has decided to capitalize on the market.
The éne•bé•a is the Spanish translation of "NBA", and is a multimedia marketing campaign targeted specifically at Latino/a NBA fans. By taking the time and money to create an entirely separate marketing campaign, the NBA is showing the Latino community that it values it as a fan and supporter. On the website for Ene-Be-A, fans can buy jerseys of their favorite Latino NBA stars such as Manu Ginobli and Francisco Garcia.
- Fiesta Lakers
The Los Angeles Lakers play in one of the most heavily populated Latino cities in the country and as such have devoted a yearly festival to celebrate the Latino community. It is a city wide party that incorporates the Lakers' organization along with the culture of the Latino community. The event began in 2001 when former Laker Mark Madsen was addressing the predominantly Latino crowd following the Lakers' 2001 Championship Parade. Madsen decided to address the crowd in Spanish, a skill he picked up as a missionary, and the response was tremendous. Since that day the Lakers have decided to celebrate the Latino community that supports them every year with a specifically Latino celebration. By conducting an event specifically targeted towards the Latino fan base, the Lakers show that they value Latinos as individuals and don't just see them as part of the Los Angeles population.
The Lakers aren't the only team showing their appreciation to the Latino community, The Minnesota Timberwolves have unveiled a plan to partner with a Spanish-language radio and television broadcasting company to broadcast select Timberwolves games entirely in Spanish. Actions like this allow the Latino community, all of which might not speak English, to better connect with the sport.
Current Latinos in the NBA
Carlos Arroyo is from Puerto Rico and was the leader of the 2004 Puerto Rican national team which defeated the United States team in Olympic play, becoming the first country to defeat the U.S. in Olympic play since 1992. This is symbolic because the sport of basketball was brought to Puerto Rico by migrants from the mainland.
Eduardo Najera is from Mexico and initially intended to play professional basketball in his home country. However at the age of 17 he signed a contract with a Mexican League at only $3,000 month, not nearly the amount of money he could make in The United States. So at age 19 he moved to Texas and enrolled at The University of Oklahoma. There he starred in basketball and wound up being drafted. In 2003 he signed a contract worth 24 million dollars, something he couldn't have achieved playing basketball in Mexico.
The accomplishments of these Latino basketball players show that not only is sports a good way for Latinos to make a living in a new country but it is also a way to build a positive self-identity and be identified across the country as Latino, not Latino-American. These athletes accomplishments have put their ancestry and home countries in the public eye increasing awareness of Latinos in America.
The NBA also has several Brazilian players: Leandro Barbosa, Nené, Anderson Varejão, Tiago Splitter, Fab Melo, and Scott Machado.
The NFL and other sports
National Football League-The predominant football league in the United States. American football is very popular in the United States, but not nearly as popular worldwide. There is a low percentage of Latinos in the NFL, only twenty four players total in the league currently. Interestingly, the first Latino quarterback to win a Super Bowl, Jim Plunkett, did so seven years before Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl. The first Latino coach to win a Super Bowl, Tom Flores, also did so before the first black coach, Tony Dungy, won a Super Bowl. And the first Latino player in the league, Joe Aguirre, entered the league before Kenny Washington and Woody Strode became the first black players to play in the league. However, there is hope that in the future Latinos will become a more represented minority in the league because of players like Tony Gonzalez, one of the premier tight ends in the game and widely considered to be the best player at his position, regardless of race and Mark Sanchez, widely known in the U.S. but has much more to achieve with only 1 playoff appearance in his career. Mexican kicker Raul Allegre became color analyst on Spanish-language ESPN broadcasts.
In the 1980s, Brazilian drivers began to compete in IndyCar, with Emerson Fittipaldi, Hélio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Gil de Ferran and Cristiano da Matta winning multiple races and championships. Mexicans like Adrián Fernández, Memo Rojas and Luis Díaz have also been successful in formula racing and sports car racing, while Daniel Suárez was the 2016 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion.
A few Colombian drivers also enjoyed success in North American motorsport: Roberto Guerrero claimed two wins and ten podiums in CART; Juan Pablo Montoya won the CART title in 1999 and later claimed wins in NASCAR and sports car racing; and Carlos Muñoz was runnerup twice in the Indianapolis 500. Also, Argentine racer Juan Manuel Fangio II won two IMSA GTP championships.
Nancy Lopez is a women's professional golfer who was raised in Roswell, New Mexico to parents of Mexican heritage. Growing up, she loved the game of golf but wasn't allowed to play at her local golf club because of her ethnicity. She eventually moved out of Roswell and went on to earn many accolades as a golfer. She is currently the youngest golfer ever to be inducted into the LPGA Hall of Fame.
Mexican golfer Lorena Ochoa moved to the United States to attend the University of Arizona and further her golf career. Her parents saw golf as an opportunity for her to make money and achieve success in America. She became so good at golf that in 2004 she became the first ever Mexican born player to win a LPGA event. That same year, then Mexican president Vicente Fox awarded her the "Premio Nacional de Deporte", the National Sports Award.
- Ian Friedman (2007): A to Z of Latino Americans: Latino Athletes. Facts on File Inc.
- David Porter (2004): Latino and African American Athletes Today: A Biographical Dictionary. Greenwood Press
- Mario Longoria (1970): Athletes Remembered: Mexicano/Latino Professional Football Players 1929–1970. Bilingual Press.