Daniel Adongo was the talk of Indianapolis Colts camp last summer. He was the rarest of all potential NFL prospects: a former rugby star who changed sports in order to make it in American professional sports. Though he saw limited action in 2013, appearing in two games and failing to record a tackle, the Colts are still optimistic of his potential as a rush linebacker.
“I think back to his very first workout…from what we saw to right now, it’s night and day,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano told ESPN. “The guy is a smart guy, we know from a physical standpoint he’s very, very athletic. He can run, he’s big, he’s strong and he’s a tireless worker.”
Adongo is one of a long line of foreign athletes who have hoped to find a career in the United States. There are many success stories for international athletes, but for every Dirk Nowitzki there are a hundred cases like Darko Milicic, stories of international players who came to this country with hype but for one reason or another were never able to live up to it.
The most recently hyped international athlete is Masahiro Tanaka, a star Japanese pitcher who has instantly become one of the highest paid pitchers in the majors without throwing a single pitch in the league. The hyped Japanese superstar has been an archetype in American baseball since the mid 90’s when Hideo Nomo came over and won Rookie of the Year. However, with the exceptions of Yu Darvish and Ichiro Suzuki, the hype has very rarely translated to American stardom. Tanaka is viewed as a legitimate top of the rotation starter, but most scouts agree he is not on the same level as Darvish, who has become an all-star and a Cy Young candidate since he came into the league in 2012. Ichiro, of course, is a Hall of Fame outfielder who has recorded over 4000 hits between his time in Japan and the United States. Players like Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kazuo Matsui have found small amounts of success but ultimately never achieved star status and were out of the league earlier than was expected.
What these cases indicate is that in terms of international athletes, American sports franchise can have less patience, unless of course the players show an exceptional level of play. The so-called “American Dream” leads many to believe that finding one’s way to the states is the way to achieve success, and athletes will risk the potential for failure to achieve that dream.
Take, for example, the careers of several Cuban defectors in Major League Baseball. Recently, Yoenis Cespedes put his family through the ringer by defecting and establishing residence in the Dominican Republic before big league teams began vying for his services. He signed a $36 million dollar contract with the Athletics in 2012 and has become a highly-regarded star in his two years in the big leagues. Conversely, another Cuban defector named Jose Contreras signed with the Yankees in 2003 and had a productive couple of years when he was traded to the White Sox in 2004. However, his productivity soon fell off and he bounced around the league, never being a strong contributor after 2010.
Examples can be seen in other sports, as well. Chinese phenom Yi Jianlian. He entered the NBA draft in 2007 as a guaranteed top ten pick, a seven-footer who could shoot from anywhere. With a another Chinese player, Yao Ming, the toast of the NBA at the time, there was a lot of optimism about Yi’s ability to be a star in the league, as well. He was drafted sixth overall by Milwaukee, labeled by the Bucks front office as “the best player available.” However, his inability to play in the post and his general lack of typical seven-foot level contribution had him bounced from the Bucks after 2008. He became an unproductive journeyman over the next couple of years before he was out of the league and back in China in 2012.
What all of these examples still have in common is that they all essentially achieved the American dream. They made money to play American professional sports, even if their careers faded quickly. The average observer may look at the career of a Jose Contreras and see a bust, but Contreras no doubt views his time in the major leagues as a benefit. He escaped the oppressive Cuban regime and was paid millions to play a kid’s game. I would say he achieved the dream. In fact, any international athlete who played in the states would likely view their dream as fulfilled, regardless of level of success. The ones that you never hear about are the true busts.
In the next six months, two high profile international athletes are going to take their talents to the United States in order to achieve the dream. The aforementioned Tanaka will make his Major League debut with the Yankees in April and Australian basketball star Dante Exum will likely be take in the first five picks of the NBA draft. Chances are pretty good that Tanaka will be given a longer leash as he is already making a ludicrous amount of money. However, Exum, though he is considered by some to be the most promising prospect in this year’s draft, will need to prove quickly that he belongs in the NBA as rookie contracts are typically unimpressive for draft picks.
Money speaks volumes in professional sports. If high value is invested into a player, they are given more time to prove that they belong. Many foreign players are so willing to leave their situation in order to make it in American sports that they take relatively smaller amounts of money, hoping that if they prove themselves they will find the big contracts in a couple of years. However, with professional leagues of typically American sports, namely baseball and basketball, finding success around the world, some players are choosing to milk their success outside of the US. A prime example of this is Nikola Mirotić, a Spanish basketball star for Real Madrid. Last season, Mirotić’s squad won the Copa Del Rey, given to the champion of the Spanish league, and Mirotić was named league MVP. However, in 2011, Mirotić’s draft rights were acquired by the Chicago Bulls. As Mirotić’s stock as a potential NBA player has risen, the Bulls are having more difficulty convincing Mirotić to opt out of his deal in Spain to come overseas. It is likely that the Bulls will have to offer Mirotić far more money than they were originally willing. The reason is that the level of his play in Europe has given Mirotić leverage. He does not want to be a player who is cast aside after three seasons in the NBA, so he will need a significant contract in order to ensure that the Bulls will give him that longer leash that the Yankees are likely to give Tanaka. Money speaks volumes in professional sports.
The problem for Daniel Adongo is that he does not make a great deal of money, relatively speaking. He makes more than he did in South Africa, but not enough to give him that longer leash. The Colts General Manager Ryan Grigson believes that he has found a diamond in the rough, however, so Adongo will likely see more action in 2014, even if only on special teams. His staying power will depend on how much he can contribute on special teams, and eventually how much he contributes on defense. Production means everything to fans in this country, but to the players, it is about fulfilling a dream.
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