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‘Bullying’ by coaches, teammates blamed for young footballer’s suicide

The bereaved family of an 18-year-old football player who took his own life recently claimed that the victim had been target of monthslong bullying by teammates and coaches.

A person claiming to be a parent of Jeong Woo-rim -- formerly a member of the Gimpo Football Club of South Korea’s second division K League 2 -- posted an online petition on the Cheong Wa Dae homepage on Monday about how the supposed bullying led to Jeong’s suicide on April 27. The person claimed that after going through Jeong’s mobile messenger KakaoTalk, he or she learned of this fact.

“The environment of the high school team (of Gimpo FC) was great, as was the manager and trainer who were like big brothers to him. But there was verbal abuse from the coaches, who showed favoritism, made threats and gave insults. … (His peers’) bullying apparently went on for four months,” the petitioner wrote, adding that Jeong wrote on his suicide note that he wanted to “curse the bullies even after death.”
Gimpo FC’s message of condolence on its homepage (Gimpo FC)
Gimpo FC’s message of condolence on its homepage (Gimpo FC)
The names of the alleged bullies were erased by the operators of the presidential office’s homepage Tuesday morning. Around 20,000 people signed the online petition as of Tuesday afternoon.

Gimpo FC posted a message of condolence on its homepage, but denied that bullying took place based on its internal investigation.

“The team on Saturday gathered the coaches, players and their parents for their testimonies and requested that they write down anything related to Jeong. But no evidence pointing to bullying had been found,” the team told local media.

The team stressed that the petition reflected the one-sided views of the bereaved family, and nothing was certain yet.

Gimpo FC plans to commemorate Jeong at their home game against Gwangju FC on Wednesday at Gimpo Solteo Football Stadium.

The exact details and validity of the claims made by Jeong’s family remains unclear as of now. But the incident has already garnered nationwide attention, being the latest in a long line of accusations over violence involving student athletes.

Last year, a string of accusations of violence committed against teammates by star athletes while in school had taken the country by storm. The accusations encompassed players in football, baseball, basketball, archery, boxing and most prominently, volleyball. Twin volleyball stars Lee Jae-young and Lee Da-young -- who admitted to bullying accusations -- were suspended indefinitely from the national team and its pro league.

What shocked the public even more was evidence that pointed to the bullying persisting even during the players’ professional years. The mother of the late Ko Yu-min, a volleyball player who took her own life in 2020, claimed that her daughter was a victim of bullying by her teammates and the coaching staff.

Research has shown that many athletes are exposed to violence well into adulthood. A 2019 survey by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea on 7,031 college athletes showed that 33 percent of them experienced physical abuse. The figures for verbal and sexual abuse were at 31 percent and 9.6 percent, respectively.

Another survey during the same year by the NHRC on 1,251 semi-professional athletes in the country showed that 33.9 percent experienced verbal abuse, 15.3 percent physical abuse and 11.4 percent sexual abuse, exposing a substantial blind spot for student and adult athletes’ human rights.

There are those who attribute the rampant violence within sports circles to their hierarchical structures. Last year, the NHRC released a report saying that restricting players from going out, using their cellphones, dying their hair or even dating is based on the hierarchy within their teams, and can be categorized as “abusive control.” Players are also demanded to run errands for those above them in this hierarchical structure.

“Such abusive control happens usually because of the ‘traditions’ of sports teams and their hierarchies being forced on lowerclassmen, and most frequently happen in the players’ living quarters. Upperclassmen tend to become insensitive to such treatment, which can lead to more serious forms of violence,” the report said. The report recommended preventive measures and regulations to the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the Korean Sport & Olympic Committee and other state-run bodies related to operation of student athlete programs.

By Yoon Min-sik (minsikyoon@heraldcorp.com)
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