Immigrants in Select U.S. Professional Sports

Shohei Ohtani, an immigrant from Japan, was the 2021 American League MVP.
Shohei Ohtani, an immigrant from Japan, was the 2021 American League MVP.

Today, approximately 14% of the U.S. population is foreign-born, but the share of immigrants in professional sports is far higher.

In 2019, more than one-quarter of Major League Baseball (MLB) players and Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) players, 21 percent of National Basketball Association (NBA) players, and more than half of Major League Soccer (MLS) players were born outside the United States.*

Many of these immigrant athletes arrived in the United States in the same way that millions of immigrants have.

We tend to focus on athletes who came to the US to compete in college or with a contract from a professional team. Many of these athletes live in the United States for a period of time, but may represent their home countries in international events, such as the Olympics.  Others came later in life after having competed for their home country and then they got offers to coach and compete in the US. For example, equestrian Phillip Dutton represented Australia in the 1996, 2000, and 2004 Olympics before coming to the United States and becoming a naturalized US citizen and joined TeamUSA.

But many of our immigrant athletes arrived in the United States with their families when they were children. Olympic silver medalist Jay Litherland who was born in Japan to a Kiwi father and a Japanese mother, came to this country with their parents when they were children. Olympic diver Jordan Windle, was adopted from Cambodia and adopted by his US family. Other athletes arrived as adults for reasons that were not related to sports. For example, tennis player Martina Navratilova became a US citizen after fleeing from her native Czech Republic.

Regardless of their path to the United States, immigrant athletes had to navigate the complex U.S. immigration system

and adapt to a new life in a new country, often speaking a new language. Their stories illustrate that immigration is a complex issue, and the immigration process is complicated. These immigrant athletes represent the complexities of immigration as well as representing the US’s ability to attract the best and brightest from around the world.

* Source: International Players are defined as “players born outside the United States”