Polynesian athletes face stresses and strains in order to give back to families

Giving back can be a burden and blessing in Pacific Island culture.

Fa'alavelave is the Samoan tradition where family and friends contribute money or gifts to major events – pulling together to support those closest to you.

Far from a Samoan concept alone, many of the Pacific Islands adopt this communal culture based on everyone chipping in. 

At the basic level it means when you have good fortune, you look after others. When you hit hard times, the community is there to meet your needs.    

"We can say it's the culture but it's all about love and caring for the family," Reverend Goll Manukia of the Lotofale'ia Methodist Church in Mangere, said. "Young Pacific Island people are brought up through the Christian values to love and care for each other, and give to everyone."

For the 630 registered professional rugby players of Pacific Island descent around the world, giving back is a way of life. They play to secure their futures – and those of their extended families.

This can place immense pressure on young athletes. Tensions build when giving all seems one way – when the hand is outstretched too often and too early.

At the absolute tragic worst, these situations have led to suicides. While not all Polynesian, six NRL-contracted players – all under the age of 21 – have died in the past two-and-a-half years in Australian rugby league. 

Mosese Fotuaika was one who found the pressure too much and took his own life. After toiling away in reserve grade, he was given his shot at the NRL with the Wests Tigers. But during pre-season training, the 20-year-old tore a pectoral muscle. His pregnant girlfriend found his body.

For many of these teenagers, sport is much tougher mentally than physically. Living away from home in a year-by-year existence is difficult enough without being weighed down by providing for their families.

In many instances it works like this. Professional sportsmen and women earn excessively more than those at home in New Zealand and the Islands. Not immediately, though. Like any career, they start from the bottom and earn their keep. Even then there are no guarantees.

Often as soon as a young family member obtains a sporting contract, even one at the lower-level of New Zealand provincial rugby – starting from $18,000 – or a modest tier-two international salary, there are immediate expectations that those funds will filter into the village and family.

The financial burden only heightens anxiety, weighing heavily on the shoulders of young Polynesian athletes, many of whom are too shy to voice their concerns and feelings. Many struggle to adjust to all-consuming professional environments.

With traditionally large families to provide for and parents retiring young – sometimes as soon as they feel their child has made it – athletes can bow to this additional pressure by playing through injury to gain contracts.

Some of New Zealand's highest-profile sportspeople, the likes of Warriors and Kiwis star Manu Vatuvei, All Blacks flanker Jerome Kaino and heavyweight boxing title contender Joseph Parker, accept these traditional responsibilities.  

Vatuvei is now in a position where he can handle the expectation of providing. But he's seen too often how it affects his young team-mates.

"It puts pressure on the boys because they know once they make the Warriors and play one or two games, the family tends to expect a lot of things out of them," he said. "That's normal, you know.

"They think you own this amount of money because of all the media but you don't really. It does put a lot of pressure on you. You've got to look after yourself first and make sure you're in the right headspace. I try to talk to some of the young boys and make sure they're fine mentally and not putting too much pressure on themselves."

Pacific Island cultures are inherently competitive. This stretches into the church, which plays a large role in traditional life.

In some churches, donations are regularly read out during service, and if a family of a sports player isn't giving generously, questions are asked, and shame heaped on them.  

Tana Umaga, the first New Zealander of Samoan heritage to captain the All Blacks, conveyed his frustrations with traditional custom in his biography Up Close. 

Umaga ventured back to Samoa for the first time since he was four with the New Zealand A team in 1998. After the match he visited his father's family, whom he had never met. He had saved up some money and, after spending the morning with them, handed it over.

When Umaga returned home his father told him his uncle was "very disappointed" with the amount of money given – because he wanted a new truck. Umaga told his father to give his brother a message: that if he wanted a new truck, he and his kids should earn the money themselves.

"I also vowed that my uncle wouldn't get another cent from me and I've stayed true to that to this day," Umaga wrote. "It left a sour taste in my mouth and I've never seen those relatives again.

"My father's view is that this is how we live, but he knows how I feel and has been very understanding."

When Umaga became a professional rugby player, he told his parents they'd never have anything to worry about but that his own kids weren't going to miss out because money had been passed on to the church or someone else.

"As an All Black I was often telling the young guys even though they were now earning good money, they had to learn to say 'no' because they couldn't keep shelling out for members of the church and extended family."

Another story involves a Blues and New Zealand under-20s player checking his bank balance and finding $50,000 – intended for a house deposit – had been taken by his father.  

This Polynesian concept of giving back extends to many careers – from lawyers and school teachers to factory workers. But because of their public profile and perceived salaries, those in the sporting sphere are relied on more.

All Blacks and Samoan legend Michael Jones says there's no doubt it puts extra pressure on young players.  

"They are looked to because of their higher earning capability to contribute the lion's share when it comes to family, church or extended village obligations," Jones said.

"A professional rugby or league career is a way out of the hood for a lot of these guys. It's their ticket out of some mean streets in South Auckland, West Auckland, Mt Roskill, Porirua, Aranui, Linwood. That is the reality we see.

"But it does put on extra burden and pressure because these guys love their parents; they love their family and they want to succeed and do well for them.

"There is an expectation when you have an earning capacity that it's fair to support your parents, sisters, brothers, cousins, aunties and uncles. That's how we do life. We're village people. It's something uniquely ours.

"Your average non-Pacific person doesn't have that same degree of pressure, expectation and demand, especially financially."

As portrayed in the aftermath of Jonah Lomu's death, superstardom doesn't always give you a sustainable financial blanket. It's difficult to secure your own future while paying for others.

"Individually we are all different," Rev Goll said. "It's about how they are brought up and the values that are installed in them. That's what makes them want to give or not. If the parents are asking all the time, that would be a burden. If they are doing it out of their own will, they count it as a blessing."

Buying family members cars, clothes, holidays and houses is common practice. But as Umaga said, it does not sit well with everyone.

Born in Fiji, Taranaki and Chiefs centre Seta Tamanivalu has been supporting his parents for the past three years after both retired around the age of 50. Although Tamanivalu was called up to provide cover for the All Blacks in Apia this year, the 23-year-old shouldered the responsibility of providing for this parents when he was earning much less.

"It's like payback time because they brought us up when we were young," Tamanivalu said. "Sometimes it's tough to do that, especially when you're trying to train and they ring from home for help."

Heading into his 13th year with the Warriors, Vatuvei is one of the most recognisable figures in rugby league. His dream was always to look after his parents, who moved from Tonga to Otara before he was born.

Vatuvei's father, Siosifa, worked two factory jobs to provide for their five children. Vatuvei felt a responsibility to give back, eventually buying his parents a house in Papatoetoe. 

"I wanted to tell my Dad to stop, I knew how hard he was working. He was getting older every time.

"He didn't want to stop because he felt he had to provide for the family. I wanted to take that stress off him. He would go and get a loan just to help us survive the week or month. I try and take that away from them.

"Even though I struggle, I try and do those things for them so they can live a life where they can relax and not stress about anything else.

Vatuvei says for any Polynesian boy, their No 1 priority is to look after their family.

"My parents sacrificed a lot for me and this is just a little way of saying thanks for all the hard work they've put into me.

"I know it's not easy being a parent and disciplining your kids, especially when they're not listening. I was one of those kids.

"Looking back, all the things my parents taught me – to be humble, work hard and concentrate at school – now as a parent myself, I realise why they do it."

There is, of course, great satisfaction derived from caring for your parents. Many of these athletes emerge from humble upbringings and understand the struggle of working long hours for minimum pay. They want to release the pressure at home.

For the most part exchanges are authentic; done out of love. But there needs to be a better understanding of the strains that relationship can cause, particularly at the early stages of a professional career, when wages aren't what they seem. 

Recently retired All Blacks centurion Keven Mealamu, who was born in Auckland to Samoan parents, grew up without expectations.   

"Without being disrespectful to other people, my parents have always been very independent," Mealamu said. "They've always been good not to put pressure on me.

"It's always nice when you can give what you can give. It gets hard when there's a number put on it.

"If you ask any of those boys if they could give something, they'd always try. That should always be the way."

Jones explains giving back through two sayings: "to whom much is given much is expected" and "the road to true leadership is through service".

It is also built around being a positive role model in the community. If you are gifted and benefit from those talents, with that comes a responsibility to serve your family. And unless you know how to serve your people, you aren't recognised as a leader.

"Yes it's a burden, but it's a burden of leadership," Jones said. "It comes with you being a chief or matai in your family. Because of that, you are accorded a lot of benefits. You're looked up to and have the mana.

"It's about saying what are you doing with what you are given? How are you a good steward of that?

"We don't see it as a one-way thing. If you want to put your hand on your heart and say you are Samoan, you've got to live with that."

Kaino's father works in a factory and his mother has been in and out of jobs after undergoing knee reconstructions. As the leading earner of four siblings, Kaino took it upon himself to buy his parents a house in Manurewa worth more than $400,000 to show his gratitude for running around after him as a youngster.

"That was my little gift to them," Kaino said. "Mum was pretty stoked. Dad didn't expect it.

"It was just one way for me to say thank you. It was the least I could do to help them out. They were very thankful.

"I've got three other brothers who help look after Mum and Dad but I put it on myself to make it professionally, and I'm lucky that it panned out that way.

"Polynesian families, they're not as well off as other more set-up families. Jobs aren't as stable.

"That's why for younger players coming up through the rugby system, helping out their families is a huge motivation and push to become professional to make money."

Like Vatuvei, Kaino has seen first-hand the damage being a provider can do.

"A lot of younger guys, they put too much pressure on themselves to try and make it. I think that pressure of looking after the family gets too much.

"I don't know whether their motivations are wrong, but their performances can suffer. I see it in some Polynesian players.

"It's part of the Samoan culture – everyone shares whatever they have and everyone helps each other out."

Joseph Parker and Tongan-born Chiefs prop Pauliasi Manu are others who have carved out successful professional careers while giving back to their families. And with his $150,000 Rugby World Cup win bonus, All Blacks midfielder Malakai Fekitoa recently sent a container of goods, including an oven, back to his family in Tonga.

With the profile and purses Parker has banked over his 17-0 unbeaten career, he took pleasure from contributing to his parents' house in South Auckland.

"They've done what they could to get me to where I am. I help pay the mortgage and right now I'm looking for a car for my mum," he said. "After that I'll get myself a house and try to get them a nice one, too.

"It's a goal that I have set ever since I was young. I want to try my best to achieve all those things I set out to. That's what keeps us motivated.

"It's not forced. If we can, we will, and if we can't, we won't.

"I'm happy to help with a few things they need. It's about love. They've looked after me my whole life and now it's my turn to try and give back. It's humbling to see them happy and smile and the pressure being off."

Manu, one of nine children, moved from Tonga to Auckland with his family in 2004 as a teenager. Throughout his seven-year professional rugby career, he's sacrificed and set aside significant sums for his family as a sign of appreciation.

His belief echoes others – that it was appropriate to pay back his parents after they relocated to seek a better life for him.

"My achievements come from them. I'm happy doing it. I'd feel selfish if I didn't," he said.

"Most boys from the islands, they all understand the guilt. You feel guilty. They've done a lot of great things to get us here.

"In Tonga you can run around and rely on neighbours but here it's just family. You try and bring the island here."

Manu says it is not something parents expect.

"We see struggle and we understand. My parents, now, they don't work and it's obvious to me they need money to survive.

"Because I play professionally and probably the highest paid in the family, they always look to me.

"I love it when they ask.

"If it was gambling I wouldn't support it, but it's normally for rent, to eat or for church stuff. It's easy to give and I feel appreciated seeing them be happy.

"When you see them cry when you give them money; their tears of joy make you keep giving."


Sunday Star Times