Courtside Punishment

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It's the first game of the Women's Korea Basketball League championship, and the Hyundai Hyperion are leading the Shinsegae Cool Cat. Coach Jin Song Ho stands behind the bench, shouting encouragement to his girls. But there's something strange: Jin is a full 5 m away from the bench. It's punishment for bad behavior. Over the past two years, Jin was responsible for lifting the Hyperion, owned by Hyundai Construction Co., out of the league's cellar. But he crossed the line. In June, after his second string squandered a huge lead in a game, he lined up the team in the changing area and smacked three players. Two of them got away with swollen faces. Less lucky was Jin Shin Hae, a 20-year-old center who suffered a ruptured eardrum.That incident brought a dirty little secret out of the locker room: in South Korea, coaches are prone to punish their players' poor performances with violence. Such practice is noticed only when a player is badly injured, as was Jin Shin Hae. Cover-ups are common. If I'm a coach and you're a player not doing well and we're in a closed room, I'm going to let you have it, says Kim Joo Han, a Sports Chosun reporter who covers women's professional basketball. This violence goes on because nobody knows about it. Nobody outside the league, perhaps. Within the Korean sports world, it is common knowledge. When the six-team women's basketball league recruited 13 Chinese players in spring, they were given contracts guaranteeing that the Korean coaches would refrain from using corporal punishment. Jin, a former basketball player himself, was signed by the Hyperion in 1998, and he was generally regarded as the right man for the job, although his methods were never known to be gentle. Last year he kicked forward Im Soon Jong, cracking one of her ribs. The emotional scar left Im ineffective for the rest of the season (though she returned this year in top form).After the incident in June, player Jin was rushed to Dongguk University Medical Center to have her eardrum treated. The injury was supposed to be kept mum. But the next morning, three anonymous messages appeared on the league's official website. In the evening, the messages were deleted. The team's hard-core fans, however, refused to let the story die. They bombarded the website with complaints and alerted Lee Seong Hun, a reporter for state-run television station kbs, which subsequently aired a story. The following day both Jins, coach and player, publicly denied the report. But word spread that the players were ordered to keep quiet, and, at a press conference, an executive of Hyundai Construction finally admitted the incident did occur. The coach has since downplayed the level of force he used against Jin. There really was no violence, he told Time, but just a light slap on the cheek to motivate the team. That's some serious motivation. According to Dr. Yoo Jun Sun who examined Jin after the incident, the coach's strike punctured a small hole in the player's eardrum. If Jin's ear gets worse, says Dr. Park Hyun Soo, who runs an ear, nose and throat clinic in Seoul, some permanent hearing loss could ensue.The team devised a peculiar form of penalty for the coach. For several games, he managed the team from a distance: he stood near one of the entrance tunnels and gave instructions by cell phone. But every week he moved closer to the bench. At the last game of the recently concluded championship, Jin was back in his usual coach's seat. At season's end, however, the league lowered the boom. Jin's coaching license was revoked, leaving him with the only option of trying his luck in the men's league. Coaches know that hitting players is the fastest and easiest way to improve their skills, maintains Cho Seung Youn, executive director of the wkbl. However, Jin has tarnished the reputation of the league and we can't accept his harsh actions.That Jin's behavior became a public scandal might signal a change in Korean society, according to Chang Pil Wha, professor of women's studies at Seoul's Ewha Womans University. It has been dominated by men and the military, she says, but is now more flexible. The star center of the Shinsegae Cool Cat, Chung Son Min, openly calls for an end to the battering of athletes. Look, we're professionals, she says. This situation has got to change. But old attitudes die hard. Of course our coaches hit us, admits Kim Ju Yeun, 16, a guard for Myong Shin Girls High School in Seoul. Hitting is O.K., as long as the coach stays in control. Still, Jin's fate may be a lesson to heavy-handed coaches around Korea: beating your players is more shameful than losing.