Coaches who whip players into shapeSo kids, you want to be like Lee Seung-yeob, basking in the glory. You want to be like Ahn Jung-hwan, spending half of your time at photo shoots. You all want that. Hey, no problem.
But first, you have to sweat through the marines’ special boot camp for its reconaissance unit. Umm, that’s Hell Week. If you pass that hurdle ― and that’s a big if ― you may be prepared for Korea’s sports world.
Recently, when a TV show aired scenes of hazing among sports teams from the middle school to the college level, I was shell-shocked. Well, I was shocked in the sense that nothing has changed for so long.
You had kids on their knees getting slapped on their cheeks by people who call themselves coach. You had college athletes planting their heads on the ground with their arms behind their backs. Kids were slammed on their butts and thighs with baseball bats. One video clip showed a man practicing taekwondo kicks on his pupils.
One would expect these scoundrels to get some hard punishment. But knowing how these so-called coaches exercise so much power over these poor souls, I’d say that’s a long shot. Even so, I rang up the Seoul Metropolitan Police to confirm what I already knew.
“Unless the victim decides to take action by filing charges, we can’t do anything,” said one police officer in a monotone. Now, how many of these kids or their parents do you think will take action? Almost none, because the current system makes them defenseless unless they want to jeopardize their child’s future.
Coaches, especially those on the high school level, are the closest thing to God because they are the wheeler-dealers who can get a kid into a college or high school on a sports scholarship. You have some kid who is mediocre at best? He can get into college with some star player as part of a package deal worked out between the coach and the admissions people ―provided the kid does as he’s told.
The parents of these kids, who are often in low-income brackets and have pinned their hopes on junior’s athletic prowess, give the coach a free hand. Literally. After all, sending a kid to college is every Korean parent’s greatest desire.
Take away the uniforms, and you’d have thought the TV camera was filming Korea’s underworld. The inmates at Guantanamo Bay have it rough but at least they’re not getting slapped and beaten. Not once did a kid try to fight back. They just hung their heads and steeled themselves for the pain.
For newcomers, a little bit of hazing and some tough acting on the coach’s part fits well within the parameters called tradition. Lugging all of the heavy gear to a game, doing upperclassmen’s laundry, cleaning up after a game, that’s all standard fare. But for coaches’ abuse to reach this extent is absurd. What would happen in the United States if a coach hit a player?
I caught up with a sophomore at Yongin University, which runs one of the country’s best sports programs. He told me that his coach was a firm believer in physical punishment. “Every time he does it he says, ‘Joseon people have to have it.’ It’s the only way it works,’’ he said.
Some of these kids will become coaches one day, so it seems this vicious cycle will go on.
by Brian Lee