Today in Tedium: I have a sort of weird relationship with borders because I’m kind of a weird dude. As a self-anointed geography geek, I like borders because there’s not a whole lot of geography without them. And while the history behind any given border is often fascinating, I find them as a whole slightly vexing. That any imaginary line can restrict the movement of people, and often nature, is annoying if practically understandable. With borders comes customs and immigration protocols that hamper, delay, or outright deny people the opportunity to pursue their dreams and ambitions. For those with a limited window to take advantage of their skills, like professional athletes, these restrictions can be more than frustrating. They are often downright devastating. Today’s Tedium is looking at the immigration issues facing professional athletes and what this reveals about immigration in the 21st century. — Andrew @ Tedium
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The percentage of players in the National Hockey League that are foreign born, i.e. not born in the United States. While the NHL has the highest percentage of foreign born players of the major American sports leagues, this figure is actually lower than in 1970 when 98 percent of the league were Canadians.
American sports feature more international players than ever before
With one very notable exception, sports in America now have a significant number of foreign-born players. Three of the four major American sports leagues have seen double digit increases in international athletes in recent decades, according to a July 2020 report from the National Foundation for American Policy.
- 23 percent of the NBA’s current makeup
- 29 percent of the MLB’s current makeup
- 72 percent of the NHL’s current makeup
The report notes that just two percent of MLB players were foreign-born in 1940. The number of foreign-born athletes in the NBA has increased 500 percent since 1992. And these players are also noteworthy for the significant impact they have on their leagues. Giannis Antetokounmpo grew up in Greece without legal status to parents that had immigrated from Nigeria. He has since become one of the most dominant players in the NBA and led the Milwaukee Bucks to their first ever championship.
These numbers are in stark contrast with the NFL, unquestionably the most popular sports league in the US. Of the 1,760 roster spots, the NFL says there are 31 total international players or about 1.7 percent of the league. Reasons for this are pretty obvious to anyone following global sports as American football is really only popular among Americans. That said, the NFL has made some inroads with international audiences in recent years by hosting games in Mexico City and London.
But the most international American sports league is not mentioned in the NFAP report: Major League Soccer (MLS). As soccer (football to everyone else) is the world’s most popular sport, players from some 130 countries have come to the US to play in the MLS. (Also noticeably absent from the NFAP report was the WNBA but a 538 write up on the 2021 WNBA draft found that seven international players were taken, the most since 2001.)
It makes sense why international athletes want to come to play in the U.S. With the exception of MLS (sorry American soccer fans), American sports leagues represent the top tier of competition in their respective sports. So if an aspiring American soccer player wants to compete on the biggest stage for the world’s most popular sport they need to head across the pond and join the English Premier League (EPL). Ohio-born goalkeeper Brad Friedel tried to do just that in the 1990s. In fact, he had to try a few times.
The number of consecutive appearances made by Brad Friedel in the EPL, which is currently the record for consecutive appearances by any player in league history.
A highlight reel of some of Brad Friedel’s best work.
Superstar athletes have immigration issues too
Brad Friedel is a now-retired American goalkeeper that played some 20 seasons in the EPL, an amazing accomplishment few achieve. He was one of the first Americans to crack the top tier of global football and to date has been the most successful by far. And he probably should have gotten to play a few more seasons in his earlier career. Four separate EPL clubs attempted to secure Friedel’s services in goal but were denied by the English Office of Employment. After the fourth rejection, Liverpool filed a successful appeal.
To understand the immigration issues Friedel was facing, we need to talk about the historically sorry state of American soccer. Now, to be clear, there has been soccer in America as long as the game has been played. But by the 1980s, American soccer was practically non-existent with the U.S. men’s national team playing inconsistently until almost miraculously qualifying for the 1990 World Cup in Italy. But they lost all three of its games. The U.S. was selected to host the 1994 World Cup and received an automatic bid as a result. They did poorly then too, but did infamously defeat Colombia with the little help of a goal the Colombians scored against themselves.
Going into the 1994 World Cup, Friedel had already established himself as one of the best goalkeepers in America but lost out on the starting position. And this became a big problem for Friedel’s professional career, which is distinct from international play. Friedel left UCLA early to pursue his professional career and quickly drew interest from English clubs. However, the English Office of Employment had a rule in place requiring that foreign-born players start in at least 75 percent of their national teams games over the previous two years in order to qualify for a work permit. Friedel didn’t meet this criteria and so his first attempt to join the EPL with Nottingham Forest failed. As did his second to join Newcastle United in 1995.
By 1996, Friedel had managed to join a Danish club but was still looking for a way into the EPL. Sunderland was the third to try and bring him in and this too was denied. Friedel had two unique and unfortunate issues working against him. First, the American men’s team wasn’t particularly active so Friedel didn’t get many chances to start following the 1994 World Cup. Second, he couldn’t really afford to play in too many national games as the men’s team wasn’t in a position to pay especially well. By 1996, he was in Turkey playing on a $1.1 million contract for one year. He skipped trying for most of 1997 in order to play in the MLS but Liverpool gave it another shot at the end of the year. They too were denied. However, Liverpool appealed this decision on the grounds that, by this point, Friedel was only fractionally shy of the requirement while having been Team USA’s named starter in the previous six international matches. For whatever reason this worked and Friedel went on to have a fantastic career in the EPL. Though he quit his international career in 2005, following a shocking run to the quarter finals for the American team in the 2002 World Cup.
Of course, immigration to western Europe has long been a challenge but to understand the obstacles athletes seeking to come to America are asked to navigate, we should take a closer look at the country’s immigration law.
The number of Preference Category 1, which includes “‘Persons of extraordinary ability’ in the arts, science, education, business, or athletics; outstanding professors and researchers, multinational executives and managers”, that are allowed into the US annually. To qualify as an athlete for an O-1A visa, an individual must provide extensive documentation of “a level of expertise indicating that the person is one of the small percentage who have risen to the very top of the field of endeavor.” Even with sponsors and a high salary, there is no guarantee any one applicant will be successful in securing a visa to live and work in the US.
Immigration law is confusing as all hell
Very broadly, in regard to athletes, there are four basic types of visas that an athlete can utilize to come to the US: the B-1, P-1, O-1A, and O-1B.
B-1 is generally reserved for amateur athletes that won’t be receiving payment from a US source other than prize money or incidental compensation.
P-1 is for individual athletes and whole teams that will be visiting for a short period and might receive money from a US source. Think a foreign boxer competing in Las Vegas.
O-1A is for recognized superstars in their field. For example, David Beckham had this visa when he played for the LA Galaxy in the MLS.
O-1B is generally meant for artists but some athletes can use this visa category if they don’t easily fit into one of the other categories, especially if they are early in their career or compete in a sport that doesn’t award traditional monetary prizes.
But just because you fit neatly into one of the above categories doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed a trip to the US. Issues with visas are a common occurrence for athletes seeking to compete in America. Two Indian snowshoers were denied entry to compete at the 2017 World Snowshoe Championships that were held in New York. More frustrating for the duo, they were simply told their visas were denied due to “current (US) policy” with no additional reasoning. In 2019, nine members of the under 15 Guatemala boys soccer team were denied travel visas, forcing the team to compete with alternates.
You might have noticed that the years between 2016 and 2020 were particularly difficult years for foreign athletes to travel to the US. While the Biden administration has eased issues for many athletes, difficulties still remain, especially if they have the misfortune of being Russian. And this issue has only exacerbated for Russian athletes since the invasion of Ukraine.
If you’ve gotten this far, well thank you, but also I don’t want to give the impression this is a diatribe against the ills athletes face. On the road to a successful sports career, visa and immigration issues are fairly minor obstacles. But the issues foreign athletes face are representative of what common people endure as they seek to move or even just visit another country.
The pipeline for top-level athletic talent is far more streamlined nowadays. It wasn’t always that way. In the process, many amateur athletes were left behind. Without significant funding or access to anyone with the ability to navigate a complicated immigration system, you don’t really stand a chance. The crazy thing is that many international athletes do have that funding and access. And they’re still denied.
So, almost in passing, this brings me to the “visa issue” in baseball. Not just the one that complicated MLB’s collective bargaining agreement in March. I’ll let immigration lawyer and baseball fan Cory Caouette explain from an article on a Minnesota Twins fan blog:
For baseball players, while the skids are usually greased far more than they would be for you and I applying to work abroad, challenges can still present themselves on frequent occasions … That even in the best of times, clubs, agents, and immigration attorneys are often forced to wait in line to get their athlete into the building to have his visa issued … Do athletes have less of this than the stories you hear about your coworker’s cousin? Undoubtedly—but they still are quite common and frequent.
If those with means, employment, and official sponsorship still find themselves on the outside looking in, what does that say about your ability to change your circumstances via immigration?
Unfortunately, I think the answer has been made quite clear. You probably can’t.
Thanks again to Andrew for another great piece. Find the one an interesting read? Share it with a pal! And thanks again for reading!