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(Yonhap Feature) S. Korean college football divided over new academic requirements

2017/08/16 09:02

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By Joo Kyung-don

SEOUL/PAJU, Aug. 16 (Yonhap) -- Yonsei University in Seoul is a two-time champion in the U League, a competition organized by the Korea Football Association (KFA) for university football clubs. But this year the school is not even in the tournament.

That's because half of Yonsei's 28 players were not eligible to compete under toughened academic requirements put forward by the Korea University Sport Federation (KUSF), a university sports governing body that has 93 schools as its members. Better known as the "C grade rule," the new academic qualification system bans students who earn an average grade of C or below for two consecutive semesters from competing in sporting events organized or approved by the KUSF.

The C grade rule, which went into effect this year, applies to football, baseball, basketball and handball competitions. According to KUSF data, 102 college athletes were banned for the first half of this year for their poor grades, and 89 of them were footballers.

The KUSF explained that football had the highest number of athletes who failed to earn Cs because it has more tournaments during the season compared to other sports.

More college footballers, however, will face academic challenges as the KFA recently announced that the C grade rule will be applied to all participants of the U League from next year. In the 2017 U League, 33 universities are non-KUSF members and are thus not subject to the C grade rule.

This photo provided by the Korea Football Association shows the U League match between Korea University and Hanyang University in Seoul on April 14, 2017. (Yonhap) This photo provided by the Korea Football Association shows the U League match between Korea University and Hanyang University in Seoul on April 14, 2017. (Yonhap)

"There was an issue of fairness with other schools and the vision of the U League was to raise 'studying athletes,' so that's why the KFA has accepted our proposal," said KUSF Secretary-General Jin Jae-soo, former director of sports policy at the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism. "Only a small number of college athletes become professional players, and the C grade rule is designed to help college athletes broaden their future options even if they quit playing sports."

   Football coaches said they agree on the purpose of the C grade rule, but it's still debatable whether the reinforced academic requirements would actually help the development of college football.

"You have to know these players came to college to play football," said Yonsei University football team head coach Shin Jae-heum. "While normal students can only focus on studying, these college athletes now have to concentrate on both academic and sporting performances at school. I don't know about in other schools, but it's difficult for student athletes to earn good grades against normal students."

   Usually, college athletes are rarely seen in classes because they participate in practice and compete at tournaments during the semester. And even if they're absent from classes, engaging in such training and competition counts as attendance, though the specific requirements vary by school.

College football coaches said the C grade rule has now forced student athletes to actually attend classes. They claimed that this is affecting their team training.

"We recommend our athletes attend classes in mornings so that we can train in afternoons with a full squad, but each player has his own class schedule," said a football coach at a university in North Gyeongsang Province, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue. "The players' concentration level in training isn't the same when some teammates are missing."

  

This photo provided by the Korea Football Association shows the champions trophy for the U League. (Yonhap) This photo provided by the Korea Football Association shows the champions trophy for the U League. (Yonhap)

College football players are split on the C grade rule. While some players welcomed the grade system, others said it's unfair to have their academics affect their playing opportunities.

"I think earning a C grade isn't that difficult when you work hard as a student," said a sophomore footballer at Seoul's Kyung Hee University, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "At least on my team, the players aren't having great difficulty with the system."

   But for some players, actually studying what they're learning in classes is the difficult part.

"I'm not used to sitting in a chair and studying, because I've been playing football most of my life," said a sophomore footballer at Seoul's Dankook University, who also asked for anonymity. "I do have some worries about not getting good grades compared to other students, but I have to try."

   Han Jong-woo, who leads the KUSF Academics Committee, said he knows that it is difficult for college athletes to study like other students on a typical day, but universities and their sports divisions should have prepared measures to support them before the C grade rule went into effect.

"We and the universities have discussed toughening academic requirements since 2012, and originally adopted the C grade rule in 2015. But we allowed for two years of probation, so that schools could prepare for such a system," he said. "I think some universities were too naive about this."

   Han said the college sports community still focuses too much on winning competitions, instead of "raising athletes." He added the C grade rule will be a start for South Korea to have a system like the United States' National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

"Universities need to guarantee study rights for athletes, and this will actually lead to the efficient training of athletes and healthy operation of schools' sports divisions," he said. "We need a system that can foster students who are both good at studying and playing sports. If athletes were accustomed to studying from their high school days, the C grade wouldn't be a big deal to them."

  

This photo provided by Konkuk University shows students playing football at the university's football field in Seoul on March 24, 2017. (Yonhap)  This photo provided by Konkuk University shows students playing football at the university's football field in Seoul on March 24, 2017. (Yonhap)

But Chung Jong-seon, chief of the Korea High School Football Association, said it's not easy to create a "studying atmosphere" for high school footballers because most of them think about playing football as professionals.

"I would say almost all high school footballers think of becoming successful professional players in their future," said Chung, who represented South Korea at the 1994 FIFA World Cup. "We need to think about what students really want for their future. People say that the C grade rule will help athletes who fail to become pros, but why not create more professional clubs and give more opportunities to young footballers, so that more college footballers can get the job they want?"

   Chung claimed that more promising high school footballers will try to go to professional clubs directly because they know going to universities will give them tough academic challenges, which in turn could block them from playing football.

"In the past, top prospects went to universities because they wanted to gain more experience," he said. "But in this kind of situation, it's too risky for them to go to universities. Now, you can't play if you don't get C grades, meaning you don't have a chance to show yourself to scouts or others even if you have really good football skills."

   Experts said the KUSF should come up with measures that can support athletes' academic work, so that promising athletes can be "rescued" from the rule.

"It looks like officials made the rule without a backup plan," said Kim Tae-ryung, a football commentator for local broadcaster SPOTV who previously served as assistant coach at Korea University. "When I was in France, young footballers studied with a private tutor after their training to catch up on their school work. Of course, these players didn't study like other students, but I believe this kind of system could help local student athletes."

  

This photo provided by the Korea Football Association shows the players of Seoul National University and Yongin University enter the pitch for their U League match in Seoul on May 12, 2017. (Yonhap) This photo provided by the Korea Football Association shows the players of Seoul National University and Yongin University enter the pitch for their U League match in Seoul on May 12, 2017. (Yonhap)

The KUSF said it is working with universities to prepare measures to support student athletes' academic performances. It added, however, that the C grade rule will not be abolished.

"We are discussing various measures such as making a private tutoring system, utilizing online classes and allowing curriculum that includes special classes for athletes," said Han, the KUSF Academics Committee chief. "The KUSF rewards college athletes who make great achievements both in sports and academics. We tend to expand these kinds of awards to students in team sports like football."

   Han said getting a C grade isn't as easy as it was in the past because universities have toughened academic evaluation systems for athletes following the scandal involving Chung Yoo-ra, the daughter of former South Korean President Park Geun-hye's friend Choi Soon-sil.

Chung, formerly an equestrian, received undue favors from Ewha Womans University officials because of her mother's ties with Park. She received good grades even though she never submitted papers or took exams at the school.

KUSF Secretary-General Jin said additional measures will be completed no later than this year. He emphasized that the KUSF pursues a "soft landing" of the C grade rule.

"We are listening to universities and their athletes, and we plan to adopt a general academics consulting system for athletes," he said. "We believe the system will make college sports sustainable and competitive."

   kdon@yna.co.kr

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