How Sports Helped Shape Italian America

An in-depth look courtesy of professor and author Gerald R. Gems.

This interview, conducted by Umberto Mucci, appears on We the Italians.

Sport is a very important topic in our trip around the US looking for how, when and where Italians have left positive contributions to the growth of the American society. Sport champions are often true heroes, especially in the US: and some of those heroes have been Italian Americans, inspiring a strong and justified sense of pride in those fellow Italians who didn’t get the same positive consideration in everyday life.

Prof. Gerald R. Gems has written a very interesting book about this topic: “Sport and the shaping of the Italian American Identity.” He is the perfect guest to talk about this, and we welcome him on We the Italians.

Prof. Gems, in your book you analyze the role of sport in the formation of the Italian American identity and then through the decades. Please tell us something more about this. 

When Italian immigrants came to the USA, (mostly between 1880-1920) they had no sense of an identity. Italy had only been liberated from foreign powers after 1860 and although the country was nominally united under Victor Emmanuel II, the king of Piedmont, most people, especially in the Mezzogiorno and Sicily, did not see themselves as Italians. Their loyalty was not to the new government, who they perceived to be just another occupier and tax collector; but to their families and paesani in their villages.

When they migrated to America, they did not yet see themselves as American, and the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant Americans (WASPs) who were the vast majority of the American populace did not accept them as Americans.

The WASPs, in fact, saw the southern Italians and Sicilians as an inferior people, unworthy of becoming American citizens. Such Social Darwinian racial stereotyping would continue for decades, and even today, the perception of Italians as gangsters lingers in American movies and television shows. Read the full interview at We the Italians.

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