There Were More Latinos in American Sports in 2017, but Few Noticed

By Jorge Iber

Early in 2017, Gabe Salgado of NBC News posted an article entitled “The Top Ten Latino Sports Moments of 2016.” Among the significant instances noted were some truly remarkable athletes in sports not “normally” associated with Latinos/as by the public. For example, Salgado noted the arrival of Auston Matthews (whose mother is Mexican-born) on the ice of the Toronto’s Air Canada Centre in late December of that year. He has quickly emerged as a star in the NHL with the Maple Leafs. Additionally, the article also touted the impact of Laurie Hernandez, of Puerto Rican lineage, and her success as a gymnast at the Rio Olympics. Finally, the essay spotlighted the gold medal performance of Monica Puig in singles tennis at the same event. All the other endeavors, while significant, focused on sports that are more closely connected/associated to the Latino/a experience (such as soccer/futbol, track and field, and, of course, baseball). This is not to disparage the triumphs of individuals in these fields, such as David Ortiz, but it is to point out that a clear pattern exists among those who cover this aspect of Latino/a life in the United States. Both academics and writers in popular media tend to focus overwhelmingly on “traditional” pursuits, and often overlook important historical and current event stories of Spanish-surnamed athletes and coaches in other areas.

In 2017 there were several important events that are worth noting and which provide a sense of the broader landscape of Latino/a participation in American sports at all levels:

  • Cuban American Frank Martin guided the University of South Carolina Gamecocks to the Final Four for the first time in the school’s history. Among the notable achievements in this campaign were victories over Marquette in the first round, and a triumph over Duke to reach the Sweet 16.
  • Cuban American Mario Cristobal was named head coach of the Oregon Ducks football team after working for the likes of Willie Taggart, Nick Saban, and Larry Corker. Although the Ducks lost their first game under Cristobal’s guidance, it is certainly noteworthy to see a Latino at the helm of such an important program.
  • Puerto Rican and Mexican American Ron Rivera continues to guide the fortunes of the Carolina Panthers, after having lead the team to Super Bowl 50, becoming the second Latino head coach (after Tom Flores) to take his team to the title game.
  • Dominican Al Horford continues to play at the center/power forward position for the Boston Celtics in the NBA.
  • Mexican American Sierra Romero starred for the University of Michigan’s softball team, helping to lead the Lady Wolverines to the Final 8 in her senior year (2016) as well as being named Player of the Year. After graduation, she was drafted by the USSSA Pride of National Pro Fastpitch. Romero is just one of many Latinas playing at the highest levels of collegiate softball. Others include Aleshia Ocasio (University of Florida) and Romero’s sister, Sydney (University of Oklahoma).
  • Mexican American Tony Romo recently completed what will most likely be a Hall of Fame career with the Dallas Cowboys, and has now moved into the broadcast both with CBS Sports for NFL telecasts.

It would be possible to include many more such athletes, but the point should be clear. There are many Latino/a athletes who are bringing both athletic and academic pride and recognition to their colleges and high schools throughout the nation. If the stories of other minority athletes are significant to the overall arch of the history of American sport, why are these worthy young men and women being so overlooked?

A final two tales from 2017 focus on a topic that is near and dear to my research: collegiate football. Recently, the Texas A&M University-Commerce Lions defeated the West Florida Argonauts for the 2017 DII national title. At the controls for the Lions was Mexican American Luis Perez, who not only guided his squad to victory, but also won the Harlon Hill Trophy as the 2017 Division II Player of the Year. There are many stories such as that of Luis Perez, often at smaller schools such as Commerce and West Florida. The stories of how these individuals came to play at the collegiate level, and the significance of their achievements to their communities, needs to be explored more fully.

Finally, and I cannot pass this up given the Texas Tech connection, it is important to examine the stories of these young men and women as far as their academic achievements. To wit, see the story of Talor Nunez, a defensive lineman for the Red Raiders. Nunez contributed on the field, mostly on special teams, but he also earned a coveted award, the McAuley Distinguished Engineering Student Award, given through the Whitacre College of Engineering in May of 2017. What is the impact of such individuals’ success on the field and in the classroom to the Latino/a community (as well as the broader American society)? Only more research can shed light on this important topic.

Hopefully, 2018 will be the year when we begin to hear more about such stories of Spanish surnamed men and women; champions on both the field of athletic endeavor, as well as in the classroom.

Jorge Iber is a Professor of History and Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. His area of specialization is the study of Latino/a participation in the history of American sports. He is the author/co-author/editor of nine books. His most recent work, Mike Torrez: A Baseball Biography, is a biography of former Major Leaguer Mike Torrez (he of the pitch to Bucky “Bleeping” Dent in the 1978 playoff game between the Red Sox and Yankees) published by McFarland.

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