A system that’s guaranteed to betray young athletesThere are two ways to send a high school kid to college in Korea. One way is to make sure he or she gets an average of four hours of sleep per day and has memorized the exact page number that tells when King Sejong invented the Korean alphabet.
The other way, less sleep-depriving but still enormously painful, is through sports ―sending the kid to a specialized sports school, or putting him on one of the few sports teams that every school operates for reasons of school pride.
Both ways cost lots of money. The academic route requires years of pouring money into private tutoring; the other requires money for bribery, paid to the coach so he, in turn, can pay some college coach for a ticket in.
Truly great players get scouted. But how do you send a mediocre ball player to a Korean college? You make sure he has the full attention of the coach. Because Mr. Coach can spring a deal anytime with a college recruiter in a “package deal.” If the high school coach has a star player everyone wants, getting a package deal is fairly easy: The high school coach asks the college to take a couple other players along with the star.
“It has been like this forever. And it’s not only the coaches’ fault,” says a baseball coach at the high school that has produced the most major leaguers. “Parents actively seek this way. They come and ask how much it would cost. Then you have those coaches who step beyond the line and try to make a living out of this.”
Recently, the police have been investigating bribery allegations against Korea University’s soccer coach. Few, if any, are shocked. Most people familiar with the case hope it blows over so business can be conducted as usual. “How are you gonna change this practice under the current system? You simply can’t,” says another high school baseball coach.
South Korea placed 10th overall at the 2004 Athens Olympics. It’s a great achievement. It truly is. But the elite system under which the country’s athletes are groomed isn’t the answer in the long term.
Many athletes spend their entire youths in the gym. None of them really has an option for making a living other than clinching a medal or winning something at the domestic level. If you are cut out to win, then that’s fine. But there are so many others who fail to leave a mark. And then what? Any serious employer knows that an athlete, even from a respected university, does not have the same academic qualifications as a regular student. For less competitive athletes, it’s hard to get a job. The current system is aimed at breeding medal-winning ma-chines. There is no regard for those who fail.
Athletes should spend almost as much time studying as their peers do, if not just as much. Practice should come when classes are over. Right now, athletes in this country practice around the clock with little regard to academics. The chance to maybe do something else with their lives is taken away from the very beginning. Thus, parents are desperate to get them into college no matter what, because there is no turning back. And that’s when you have someone taking advantage. The only way to break this vicious cycle now is intervention by the government. But does anyone care?
by Brian Lee