NFL teams up with MLB and NBA to provide valuable perspectives at AAPI Sports and Culture Symposium

Joon Lee, Caprice Dydasco and Pranav Iyer (left to right) discussed their backgrounds -- and what led each of them to a career in sports -- at the 2022 AAPI Sports and Culture Symposium in New York.

The Asian American and Pacific Islander Sports and Culture Symposium continues to offer new perspectives in its fifth year.

Jointly run by Asian employee resource groups at the MLB, NBA and NFL, in association with the Asian Professional Exchange (APEX), the symposium's mission is to recognize and mobilize the Asian American and Pacific Islander community within the sports world. The 2022 event was held live in New York on Thursday, May 19, and had virtual attendees from every time zone across the United States.

"It was incredible to see the NFL, NBA and MLB all come together in a big way to share experiences and celebrate different ways that the AAPI community is making waves in the sports industry," said Caroline Davis, a Korean American who attended the event as an NFL senior coordinator of global brand and consumer marketing. "My favorite part of the symposium was meeting so many fellow AAPI colleagues in sports and discovering together the impact that we can make for the future generation of sports through representation and bringing others with us as we rise. My hope is that this event continues to garner participation from additional sports leagues and also attendance from people outside of the AAPI community as representation continues to expand in the sports industry and others want to learn more about our community."

This year's participants on the panel featured ESPN's Joon Lee, NJ/NY Gotham FC star defender Caprice Dydasco and AMAZN HQ founder Pranav Iyer -- three young Asian Americans in sports who shared common experiences under their own unique circumstances.

Lee, a South Korean-born immigrant raised in Brookline, Massachusetts, grew up as the minority in a predominantly white neighborhood, and his upbringing exemplified the importance of representation.

"I think the first sports publication that I ever bought was an issue of Sports Illustrated for Kids with Hideki Matsui on the cover," Lee said. "I remember that kind of being my gateway into really diving my way into the sports industry and just following teams and what it meant to be Asian and watch baseball or football or basketball."

Now working as an MLB staff writer and regular panelist on ESPN's Around The Horn program, Lee pointed out that the importance of being represented in sports isn't exclusive to the athletes. He also offered perspective on the internal struggle that still poses an obstacle within the Asian community when it comes to working in sports.

"I remember telling people that I wanted to pursue a career in sports media, and a lot of the reaction -- from not even people outside of the Korean/Asian community but people internally -- was like, 'Why would you do that? Why is that a job you would want to pursue?' You could be a doctor or a lawyer, you know, all the kind of stereotypical things," Lee said. "I think, for me, a big turning point was Jeremy Lin, and seeing that there was a story that only Asian people can kind of tell in a truly authentic way and understand the nuances and the cultural factors that kind of made his rise so important. But also seeing people on television, people like Michael Kim, who was on SportsCenter for such a long time. Seeing people like Pablo Torre, for me, on Around The Horn was a really big deal, and just kind of pointing to him and being like, that's a guy who looks vaguely like me doing something vaguely representative of what I want to do at some point.

"All of that was really important to look at my parents and be like, 'Hey, this is something that we can do.' "

Dydasco, the reigning Defender of the Year in the National Women's Soccer League, grew up in Hawaii. On the symposium panel, Dydasco discussed the "culture shock" she experienced in coming to the continental U.S., despite being an American citizen.

"I never saw myself as a minority in Hawaii," said Dydasco, who is of Guamanian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Hawaiian descent. "Until I went to college -- I realized I was the only Asian on my team. And then when I went to professional soccer, I'm still the only Asian on my team."

A member of UCLA's 2013 national championship team, Dydasco said she elected to follow the Japanese national soccer team growing up because she didn't see herself within Team USA's squad. After only recently discovering the inner workings within the AAPI community, Dydasco allowed herself to reflect inwardly and made it a point to get involved.

"It took me back to my childhood and made me reflect on my upbringing, and how I was so fortunate to be surrounded by people that looked like me," Dydasco said. "I think now I just feel like it's my duty to be a trailblazer for people who look like me, so little girls who want to play professional soccer have someone to look up to."

For Iyer, who is an Indian American sports journalist, growing up in California's San Francisco Bay Area offered a well-established Indian community, but that all changed once he began chasing his dream of becoming an NFL quarterback.

"Being Asian American, being Indian American, there's not many of us out there," said Iyer, who played defensive back at Chapman University. "For a lot of my teammates, I was the first Indian American they ever met."

Iyer went on to create AMAZN HQ, a sports media company that magnifies Asian Americans within professional sports with the goal of breaking Asian stereotypes and providing the stories that often go overlooked.

"You kind of saw the sense that you have the responsibility to represent the community," Iyer said. "Like, you are basically how they perceive the entire community because that's all they know about it.

"So there's a lot of power to kind of obviously like, you know, change the narrative there, but you have to portray yourself in the correct way."

Among various other topics and experiences discussed ahead of a Q&A session, the panel reinforced an unwarranted burden among Asian Americans that highlights an overlooked ignorance that still exists today. It's a topic that particularly struck a chord with an NFL employee who attended the event virtually.

"Celebrating Asian heritage is, in itself, a very complex and, in a way, ironical task, since it is trying to celebrate groups that are very diverse culturally, socially, historically and economically," said Akshay Pulipaka, a senior video systems engineer for the NFL who migrated from India to the U.S. in 2007. "At the same time, there are subjects that bring them close together, a lot of them which actually fall under the topic of 'issues.' It was reassuring of sorts, to hear them talk about their personal experiences which brought the whole Asian community together, them talking about similar stereotypes, and experiences where they are looked down upon or neglected because of their cultural background, etc. I am sure other people of Asian heritage would have stories or experiences such as this to enrich this same point."

Pulipaka has personally played a part in the NFL's celebration of Asian Pacific Heritage Month. The league kicked off May with the unveiling of an NFL shield representing the AAPI community, while NFL Network broadcast a roundtable discussion with Hall of Fame safety Troy Polamalu and two-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman Jesse Sapolu. And at the NFL Media offices in Inglewood, California, television screenings have spotlighted many Asian American NFL employees, including Pulipaka.

The in-house exposure is all part of the NFL's concerted effort of promoting diversity and inclusion from the inside out. Though it may seem small on the surface, it provides that sometimes necessary nudge that leads to bigger things.

"I have enjoyed getting to know others this way, and figured it was my chance to contribute to that, as well," Pulipaka said. "I have had a few people come and talk to me about some of the things that showed up on the monitor next to my profile, which is exactly what it serves -- start a dialogue."

Follow Michael Baca on Twitter.

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