University of Arizona freshman Lauri Markkanen, a native of Finland, was named to the top-20 list for the Wooden Award, which recognizes the best player in men’s college basketball. (Photo from Sports Illustrated)

The NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s National Basketball Tournaments tip off this week, bringing together players and spectators from around the world. Commonly known as “March Madness”, these annual tournaments have come to be seen as one of the biggest performance platforms for young basketball players from both the United States and, increasingly, across the planet. Generating more than $1 billion in advertising revenue alone, the NCAA basketball tournament has drawn more attention globally thanks to international broadcasting, digital technology, and the rise of international (non-U.S.) “student-athletes” at U.S. colleges and universities. In this article, I’ll discuss some noteworthy international players in this year’s tournament in light of the debate set off on college campuses nationwide by President Donald Trump’s policies surrounding immigration.

University of Louisville players Deng Adel and Mangok Mathiang were both born in Sudan and hold Australian citizenship. (Photo from Bleacher Report)

In sporting leagues across the world, there has been an increasing movement of athletic labor between countries, navigating issues of ethnicity, politics, economics and culture. This international movement has become increasingly prevalent in U.S. collegiate athletics. According to NCAA records, close to 7% of all active, Division I basketball players are international (non-U.S. national), representing an overall increase of nearly 133% since the association began keeping track of the measure in 2000. Exemplifying this growing internationalization, the University of South Florida women’s team has players from eight different countries on its roster, with head coach Jose Fernandez stating: “There really is so much talent all over the world that it’s great to have a broader recruiting pool to choose from.” At Florida State University, the women’s team boasts a trio of players from Spain (Maria Conde, Iho Lopez, and Leticia Romero), plus Ama Degbeon from Germany, while the men’s team has two Canadians and one player each from Chad, Nigeria, and Colombia. More notable international players include Przemek Karnowski (Poland) of the highly-ranked Gonzaga men’s team and freshman Lauri Markkanen (Finland) of Arizona, who was recently named to the Late Season Top-20 list for the John R. Wooden Award. The Louisville men’s team is another example of a multicultural locker room, with Anas Mahmoud (Egypt), Deng Adel and Mangok Mathiang (Sudan), and Matz Stockman (Norway). Adel and Mathiang were both born in Sudan and hold full citizenship in Australia. Sudan, one of the seven countries included in President Trump’s executive order, has been a continual supplier of talent in college and professional sports in the U.S. that stretches back to Manute Bol in the 1980s. Such an example highlights the impact of geo-politics and cross-border (transnational) movements and processes athlete migrants must navigate under their respective sporting leagues or organizations.

The Florida State University women’s roster features three players from Spain and one from Germany. (Image from FSU Center for Global Engagement)

Historically, U.S. colleges and universities have long been hubs for hosting and educating international scholars and students while benefitting from their presence in return. Only more recently has the steady growth of international student-athletes in college athletics also expanded. In NCAA Division I, college basketball coaches have fueled this migration through the steady recruitment of players from an assortment of countries. With international recruitment in college basketball becoming so standard in today’s game, the summer recruiting period for college coaches has transformed into the “overseas travel” period in order to attend FIBA world championships and other international basketball events. Under extreme pressure to recruit top talent and win championships, some coaches are even given expanded budgets to seek international stars beyond the U.S. border. Potential international players are recruited through a network of coaches, scouts and other basketball personnel.

As foreign affairs debates have escalated in the United States in recent months, immigrant hostility and xenophobic rhetoric have left college administrators feeling anxious about the future of international student communities. Reflecting concerns by both sport practitioners and sport sociology researchers (see Christorpher Faulker’s recent posting on Engaging Sports), understanding migrant athletes’ day-to-day experiences abroad are fundamental to preserving and fostering internationally diverse sporting leagues and organizations while also protecting the rights of the players themselves. For my dissertation, I am examining push-pull migration factors and cross-cultural experiences of basketball migrants in the NCAA. In exemplifying a unique case, Cal-Berkeley’s Chen Yue is China’s first female NCAA Division I basketball player and has proven to be an important figure on campus for both the international community and Cal student-athletes. Chen Yue’s relationship with her teammates was described in The Daily Cal as:

“The more time they spent with her, the more they learned about her upbringing in China and the cultural differences between her old and new homes. Talking about topics — from China’s one-child policy to differing gender norms — opened up a whole new perspective on life for everyone around Chen.”

Such athletes have the ability to enliven both classroom and locker room discussions. To date, sport and migration research has originated from scholars in different countries and sporting contexts. Comparative studies such as Norwegian players who chose to attend university in the U.S. and those who did not or an analysis of migratory motivations of American professional basketball players highlight the importance of understanding athlete migrant motivations and experiences. Future studies of this kind can better inform policies of sport organizations, educational institutions, and countries alike. International student-athletes will again enhance March Madness as elite performers and, more importantly, as students on their respective college campuses by bringing global perspectives to their American peers and serving as liaisons between the college athletics and international community populations. As underdog upsets and last second buzzer beating shots dominate the headlines in the coming weeks, we should also take note of the cultural exchanges happening between players of all nationalities and recognize the important place that international communities have on college campuses across the United States.

Ryan Turcott is a Ph.D. Candidate and instructor at the University of Georgia. His research centers on sport labor migration, qualitative research methods in sport, and sport for development. His dissertation focuses on the migration influences and lived experiences of international (Non-U.S.) players in NCAA Division I basketball.