Will Korea ever have ‘Linsanity’?

By Yoon Min-sik

Student-athletes struggle in narrow career options, missing out on many chances they deserve

  • Published : Jul 10, 2014 - 20:57
  • Updated : Jul 11, 2014 - 11:52
A 16-year-old boy, towering over his classmates at 188 centimeters, walks into the classroom. He bows to his teacher, goes to the back of the class and slumps over his desk, falling asleep as the class continues.

According to one college student who played basketball in high school for two years, this was how he and just about every high school athlete he knew “attended classes.”

He said they would get up 6 a.m. to go hiking on the nearby mountain, have a quick nap and start training around 9 a.m., take another nap around noon and start an afternoon workout that lasted until late in the day.

“The same process repeated throughout the year except Sundays. We usually only had morning practices on Saturdays but when the coach was pissed off, we would get afternoon practices then as well,” he said. “Actually the players have no choice but to sleep, being dead tired after all that training.”

In many Korean schools, student-athletes are usually exempt from classes and regular school activities including field trips. As a result, their academic performances are sidelined, leaving few career options other than sports. 
Student-athletes compete in a basketball tournament during the 43rd National Junior Sports Festival in Incheon on May 25. (This photo is not directly related to the story.) (Korean Olympic Committee)

In 2012, Jeremy Lin ― then a little-known player for the New York Knicks ― took the NBA by storm with standout performance. His improbable success, dubbed “Linsanity” by mainstream media, stood out in many ways. One particular aspect that caught the eyes of Koreans was that he was a Harvard graduate.

Linsanity’s startling success is a puzzle for Korean student-athletes and their parents, who believe it’s impossible to balance sports activities and academic scores. As far as Korea is concerned, there has been no Linsanity-like success story. 

Athletes, not students?

Student-athletes practice crossover dribbles and other sports skills, but they hardly get any real chance to learn something useful in school. They are also forced to miss out on chances to form friendships with their classmates.

“You know what they say, ‘birds of a feather flock together.’ I used to hang out with other guys on the basketball team, the rugby team, or the soccer team, but not really with other regular students,” said a 29-year-old former student-athlete.

“Guys who were marginally interested in studying used to hang out with regular students, but it wasn’t like they were popular. They just had few non-athlete friends.”

Korean student-athletes often receive “special treatment,” which means teacher, coaches and other students see them as dedicated athletes that play for the school rather than ordinary students.

“For me, the worst was when the teacher acted like I wasn’t even supposed to be in the classroom. I called him to say I wouldn’t be able to attend because of a game, and he was like ‘why even bother,’” said Im Yong-seok, a lecturer in the department of physical education at Korea University. The former basketball prospect, who even played for the junior national team, was forced to quit playing in his senior year in college due to injury.

“Coaches, teachers and even students themselves tend to think the only way they can succeed is through sports, which pushes them further away from the classroom,” he said. “If the schools considered the children’s future, they would let students interact with teachers, fellow students and learn so much more outside the books. Instead, students are cut off from all sorts of opportunities.”

Not only are student-athletes outside of regular school activities and human relationships with other classmates, they are often subject to violence inflicted by coaches and senior players on the team. According to a recent survey by the National Human Rights Commission, 78.8 percent of the athletes in middle or high school said they had experienced some type of verbal or physical abuse.

For all the hardships, student-athletes often find themselves stranded in their pursuit of a sports career. Research by Korea University showed that only 2.5 percent of student-athletes in middle and high schools make it as far as their junior year of college. 

Narrow path to success

Even if one successfully maintains an athletic career throughout college, the path to becoming the next Park Ji-sung or Kim Yu-na remains a long shot. According to the Korean Olympic Committee, up to 2,500 players attempt to make it onto a professional soccer team, but only 100 of them succeed.

Worse, about a third of athletes last only one year in the pro leagues. According to Huh Haeng-ryang, a professor of social science at Sejong University, the average career spans of professional soccer and baseball players in Korea are 3.29 years and 3.87 years, respectively.

When student-athletes hit such an abrupt end of their careers, the shock can be overwhelming.

“For 11, 12 years I dreamed of becoming a professional basketball player, I was sure of it. And then, it all disappeared,” said Im of Korea University, describing the experience as “being left alone on the streets naked.”

The toughest challenge was returning to the classroom, Im said.

“I was a college graduate, yet I could not comprehend the classes being taught in Korean. Just sitting there caused me pain, as I never really sat down and focused for more than an hour.”

He went on to get a Ph.D. in physical education and then took a lecturer position at a leading university, but this is an exceptionally rare success case. 

Authorities keen to revamp the system

“Under the current system, very few student-athletes make it to the pros while the rest are tossed aside. For some, their time spent playing sports can have negative effects, such as the example of former student-athletes joining gangs,” said Huh Jung-hoon, a professor of sports science at Chung-Ang University and a member of the Civic Network for Justice of Sport.

Since its foundation in 2002, the group has worked to help student-athletes to participate in regular classes.

In 2010, the Education Ministry introduced a new policy barring student-athletes who fail to achieve a certain level of academic accomplishment from competing in state tournaments.

The percentage of middle school students in Seoul who failed to make the cut dropped from 42.6 percent in 2010 to 7.8 percent in 2012, according to the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education.

As of now, only middle and elementary school students are subject to the new policy, but it will be expanded to include high school student as well in 2015.

Policymakers’ efforts to balance sports and education are raising concerns that the new rules will increase the workload on students-athletes already struggling with hectic training schedules.

“The moment we tell these kids to study as well, it becomes another burden,” said Im of Korea University. “We must change how student-athletes are perceived. We must realize that there are a lot of things being sacrificed in their lives, things that they should be enjoying as a student, and as a human being.”

By Yoon Min-sik (