The Koreas | Society | East Asia

Korean Volleyball Players’ Abuse Case Triggers National Reckoning on Toxic Sports Culture 

Following reports alleging physical and verbal abuse by two female national volleyball team players, more and more professional athletes have been accused of bullying.  

Korean Volleyball Players’ Abuse Case Triggers National Reckoning on Toxic Sports Culture 
Credit: Pixabay

Lee Jae-young and Lee Da-young, twin sisters and players on South Korea’s national volleyball team, have left their team, the Heungkuk Life Insurance Pink Spiders Volleyball Team, indefinitely due to allegations that they physically and verbally abused their teammates in middle school.

According to an article posted by a group of four victims on February 10, the Lee sisters threatened teammates with knives when they did not follow demands to run errands for the sisters. They also took money and punched fellow students while whispering insults, and showed a sketchbook containing abusive words about the victims’ families.

The Lee sisters posted an apology letter on Instagram but it was not enough to satisfy either the victims of their abuse or society at large.

The posts revealing the Lee sisters’ history of cruel behavior toward their teammates opened the floodgates. Since then, more and more anonymous posts by former student athletes have been posted online alleging past abuse by other professional athletes.

Three days after the disclosures of the Lee sisters’ wrongdoings, Song Myung-geun and Shim Kyung-seop, players for the OK Financial Group Okman Volleyball Club, were also banned from playing the rest of the games in this season due to a post that accused them of physical abuse in high school. They both admitted to the accusations and left the team.

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Park Sang-ha, a player with the Samsung Fire Bluefangs, announced his sudden and unexpected retirement on February 22 due to disclosures of his history of physical abuse. At first he denied his accusations, but then admitted to them and decided to retire even though there are few games left before the end of the season. Park insisted that some of the accusations are not true and said he will take legal actions to reveal the truth, triggering public anger and suspicion over the background of his decision.

While more volleyball players are being accused of physical abuse, insults, and violence, the Korean Volleyball Federation announced last week that it will permanently ban student players who have physically abused teammates or others from participating in the draft for the professional volleyball league. Also, it added that it will not allow such players to be national team players and coaches in the future.

Despite moves by both the Korean Volleyball Federation and individual teams to discipline players, Koreans and victims alike worry that the Lee sisters and other players could come back in the future, after the public attention has faded.

Lee Sang-yeol, head coach of the KB Insurance Stars Volleyball Club, is one such cautionary tale. Lee physically abused a player when he was a coach for the men’s national volleyball team in 2009. At that time, he used violence against Park Cheol-woo, which was revealed in a dramatic press conference where Park showed injuries and bruises on his face and stomach.

After the press conference, the Korean Volleyball Association suspended Lee indefinitely, but the punishment was lifted two years later to give one more chance to Lee, who had been a high-profile member of the national team in the past. After this decision, Lee worked as a commentator, university coach, and committee member of the Korean Volleyball Federation for about ten years. Finally, he was appointed the head coach of the KB Insurance Stars Volleyball Club last year.

As Lee’s history has come into the public eye once again, his team announced last week that he will not coach for the rest of the season. Park publicly criticized both Lee and his team last week over the team’s decision to hire him given his irresponsible behavior. “It was really hard to face Lee in arenas and I felt pressure when he offered his hand before the game,” Park said in an interview with a local news outlet. He also mentioned that Lee has never apologized to him directly and claimed there are more players whom Lee physically abused before. Lee said he had not had an opportunity to apologize to Park directly but added that he would apologize if and when Park is willing to have a meeting with Lee in person.

Last week, South Korean President Moon Jae-in asked the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism and related organizations to make special efforts to eradicate violence in sports, from school athletics to the national team. However, experts say that the deep-seated sports elitism that creates a hierarchical system among student players is unlikely to be removed by new measures or policies.

“The young student victims cannot report it even if they experience physical or verbal because of the fear of counterattack by perpetrators,” Kwak Keum-joo, a professor of psychology at Seoul National University, told The Diplomat. Kwak also mentioned that young student athletes are not in a position to report freely on what they experience from their teammates given the Korean education system. “I think such cases will happen again in the future.”

Even though victims have decided to raise their voices, legal experts say it would be challenging for them to seek justice at this point. As the statute of limitations for assault and verbal abuse is five years in Korean law, it is challenging for victims to hold the perpetrators legally accountable. Added to that, the victims may not have clear evidence to back up their claims, as the incidents happened more than a decade ago. For this reason, some victims are afraid of being counterattacked by perpetrators or others in a legal battle, and chose to hide their dark experience forever.

In response to the public outcry, as of writing, over 137,000 people have signed a petition to permanently expel volleyball players who used violence on the presidential Blue House’s platform. If more than 200,000 people sign the petition by March 14, a government or Blue House official will have to publicly give a response.

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Major sports leagues have asked teams to have a meeting with each player to find out cases that have not been disclosed yet, as more and more professional players in other sports like baseball, hockey, and archery continue to be accused of physical and verbal abuse in anonymous posts online.

“Ask anyone who was a student athlete in school. I guarantee that every student athlete has experienced such cases because of the strict hierarchical system,” Park In-hyuk, who was an elite soccer player in high school, told The Diplomat. “When you are older than other teammates, you are allowed to do anything you want and it is a fundamental cause of this old and wrong custom.”