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Priorities Gone Awry in Collegiate SportsCauses and solutions for an absence of education
Kim Hye-ran  |  hyeran.k@yonsei.ac.kr
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승인 2010.10.01  17:34:24
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BEHIND THE September craze over the Yon-Ko Athletic meet reveals an educational scandal that has been around for too long. The focus on fostering elite athletes amid an obsession with winning has left many young athletes in a blind spot, unaware of how else to shape their lives. This dead end of broken dreams becomes very apparent at the college level, as players begin to question their futures without sports. Lacking the support of proper education, many athletes who had their hopes pinned on becoming professionals and building a lucrative career face unbreakable barriers once they hit reality. Given what we have, against what we need, the demand for change is all the more urgent.

The perils of college admission

   There is a fine line between collegiate and professional sports - but that is not the case in Korea. In the field of college sports, otherwise respectable institutions of higher learning have turned into bases for funneling elite players, overlooking the long-run consequences students will have to bear. “Even if a student manages to stretch out his athletic career after college, the lifespan of an average professional is fairly short. Education, in every sense, is essential for an athlete’s future after retirement,” says the captain of Yonsei’s basketball team, Kim Hyun-ho (Sr., Dept. of Physical Education). Prodigious sports talents forgo education altogether for a one-way path, taking sports as a full-time commitment and closing doors for employment when sports careers come to an end. This is not how collegiate sports should be, yet progress has been slow in every dimension.
   The origins of today’s problems in college sports go way back. During the mid 1970s, in Korea, the promotion of big-time sports in universities began. This growth reached its peak in the 1980s while sports divisions at Yonsei University took pride in popularity and ability that stretched beyond Korea’s business and professional teams. However, in the 1990s, serious defects in the college admission standards for athletes flared up at colleges where recruiters focused on athletic prowess over academic achievements. Since 1997, when colleges were permitted freely to create their admission criteria, most schools have been looking mainly for game performance in recruiting student athletes. “Just as a typical student studies to get into college, I had to work just as hard, practicing for hours a day to produce good results and get into topnotch universities,” says Lee Sang-youp (Sr, Dept. of Physical Education). 
   In 2008, the National Human Rights Commission reported that middle and high school athletes spent a daily average of only two to four hours in class. In another study by the Korea Institute of Sports Science, the mean grade of first year high school athletes was 46.1 out of 100. Student athletes are forcibly yet tacitly made to choose between sport and academics, and what follows their choice is almost a complete containment of education. Blinded by the pressure to win, Korea’s youth sports have forgotten the reality that there is more to life than sports.

   
 
   
 

Sports facilities and leagues

   What really ails Korea’s college sports is a grievous shortage of sports facilities. Yonsei’s worn out basketball stadium leaks in rain during downpours, making it unsafe for students to participate fully in their practice. The situation for Yonsei’s baseball and ice hockey team is worse. The campus does not have an ice rink, and its baseball field is too small and poorly maintained even for training purposes. Inevitably, extra hours are wasted on the road, as Yonsei’s ice hockey and baseball teams drive to Mokdong and Ilsan for practice. This lack of necessary facilities to support home and away games is partly why university leagues have not been introduced in college sports other than basketball and soccer.
   The consequence of teams in Korea without university leagues is a costly one: Students of these teams are obligated to miss class to participate in competitions that last at least a week while class absences are taken for granted and supplementary lessons are not held. Moreover, “with today’s college sports system, a single student or a college team cannot decide to miss out on a tournament because they will end up being ostracized from the field. Yonsei’s teams support only the minimum number of students necessary to participate in games, hence if a single member decides to miss out, he is socially isolated from the team,” says Cho Kwang-min (Prof., Dept. of Sports and Leisure Studies). With such problems to the fore, setting up proper environments to hold university leagues for all collegiate sports is no longer an option but a practical necessity for progress.   

   
 
   
 

Curricular problems and academic motivation 

   The student athletes arrive in university in need of extensive remedial work, but due to a lack of systematic support on the university’s part to aid their catching up in academics, many players find it difficult to generate basic drives to learn. In his master’s thesis on college athletes’ class participation, Hong Jung-min, a graduate of Kyunggi University, found out that among 394 college players, 34% did not attend class, while 35% only went to class in the morning of no-game-days. Even if the athletes somehow made it to class, only 27.9% managed to participate to their fullest. “Because the student athletes have left education aside in their prior years, athletes can only find it difficult to adjust to higher level education at universities,” says Kim Ji-hee (Deputy Director, Dept. of Sports Policy, Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism). The athletes that enter Yonsei University are obviously not on an academic par with the general population of the school. “The current curricular fallacy has resulted in the athletes’ loss of academic interest and motivation. The university must build a system that would progressively push the students’ educational levels to a higher stage,” says Lee Jei-hyun (Coach, Ice Hockey Team). 


   Curricular problems, however, are not the only obstacles for higher education among athletes. “There are basically two cases on the personal level: First, students essentially do not have enough time to recover, and cannot make it to class the next morning. The second case arises when students become lazy and find it okay just to miss class,” says Lee Han-joo (Prof., Dept of Physical Education). While practicing for an average of four to five hours a day, even the most persistent students have trouble keeping up academically. “It’s difficult to sit in front of a desk and concentrate on my books when I have practiced for over four hours in the afternoon,” says Lee Sang-youp, a student athlete of Yonsei’s ice hockey team notable for an almost perfect grade point average. The long training hours can be a problem, but the student disinterest in academics poses greater threats in improving their education. “Very often, students linger around their dorms in lecture hours because they don’t feel attached to class,” says Lee Sang-youp. A curricular fix could patch up the historic fiasco of amateur college sports and keep athletes in classrooms at times they should be.

Plan of action

   It is not only the students’ duty to offset the failures of collegiate sports. From next year, the government plans to set a minimum core grade point average as a requirement for fourth to sixth year elementary kids to play in juvenile sports leagues. The policy will extend to cover all grade levels up to high school seniors in the year 2017. The years delayed before taking proper action deserves much criticism, but on the brighter side, the new rule will renew the youth sports system in favor of academically dedicated athletes: Young players with mere talent and no education are not to be welcomed on the field. This glimpse into a possible future promises change in the primary level that will eventually bring a halt to top-performance-based sports at the college stage.
   What is next in line? First and foremost, the government must watch for leaks in delivering the minimum grade policy and elbow into specific schools to impose the plan correctly. The next agenda arises in collegiate sports. “Thus far, the government has not touched upon matters concerning college sports. The establishment of the Korea University Sports Federation (KUSF) will surely be a turning point,” says Kim Ji-hee. The KUSF, which started just two months ago, receives government aid and sets up a membership of colleges under rules designed to promote the education of student athletes. “There were no organizations that led college sports in the right direction. The KUSF will move to overhaul the current norm of putting education aside and channeling games in black and white under pressure to win,” says Aum Hyun-hee (Director, KUSF). The solid establishment of KUSF, through the support of all colleges with sports teams, is a top priority to launch a more organized and education-based college sports system.   

Towards a road for progress

   The education of student athletes is hampered by excessive practice hours and only a minimum hour rule will set basic grounds for academics. The school board should trace the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and adopt positive strategies, such as tutoring programs and services for counseling and lifting learning abilities.  
University leagues come into practice in all college sports. “Home and away matches provide time for athletes to enroll in classes, as all games will be placed in the afternoon and thus planting league systems is an urgent need,” says Cho. Taking a step further, season-off methods may be a way out of the current mess. “Making students participate in games for only one semester, and allowing them to concentrate on their studies in the second, can be a solution for students to reach equilibrium between study and sports,” says Lee Han-joo. 
   Professors moreover must take a fair share of responsibility when it comes to education; they must be alarmed and become vocal supporters of student athletes. “Professors of certain majors, such as Physical Education and Sports and Leisure Studies, tend to be more considerate of our circumstances and at times hand out separate tasks that better fit our academic aptitude. Professors of the common curriculum, however, are less sympathetic,” says Kim Hyun-ho. As integral parts of secondary education, professors must take roles at the micro level to develop policies, devise curricula, and adopt considerate attitudes towards the athletes.
   But of course athletes will need far more than a few programs and reforms to straighten up their priorities - the sphere of collegiate sports that only respond to winning results must change. “Universities are not only grounds for sports and education but are places where students define their character by mingling with new people. Reducing the pressure of the game is the only way to grant athletes chances to experience the goods of a typical college life,” says Coach Lee. Colleges, professors, and students alike must work to unleash the true spirit of college sports, toppling the elite-based system and waking up to the importance of college learning in and out of class.

*   *   *

   He was once a mainstay of a winning college team. Basketball was his main concern, and education was not of his interest. Today, he finds himself in a breakdown, struggling to make his way into society - this is the harsh reality. Placing education aside to prioritize sports success in pursuit of an uncertain future is the current trap of collegiate sports. By putting together the broken pieces of education and saving athletes that dwell on sports failures, the school must show that there is always another option besides sports.

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