Monday, February 02, 2009

Bonus Football Question -- Can Koreans Play in NFL?

Dear Korean,

I pay nearly zero attention to football, but judging from what I remember of the game in junior high, my hunch is that any East Asians who end up playing will either be half-breeds or scrubs unless there's a large contingent of kimchi-eating hulking ogres that I don't know about. Where, exactly, are teams anywhere going to find East Asian football players who aren't scrubs/diversity hires?

Nathan S.


Dear Nathan,

Common misconception about football is that it is game only played by giant men. But that cannot be farther from the truth. For a good athlete, there is always a place in the football field regardless of size.

Take, for example, Steve Smith of Carolina Panthers, currently one of the best receivers in NFL. He is at modest 5' 9", 185 pounds. But with his speed and elusiveness, he simply dominates the opposing corners. Similarly, Warrick Dunn -- a fine running back when he was younger -- is 5' 9", 187 pounds. Hines Ward, receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the finest Korean in NFL, is also not very big -- 6' 0", 205 pounds. Such physique is not difficult to find among East Asians. The Korean himself is 6' 1", 190 pounds.

Accordingly, Asian Americans have had some success in football in the past. Dat Nguyen, a Vietnamese American, played middle linebacker for Dallas Cowboys from 1999 to 2006 and played a Pro Bowl-caliber season at 2003. On college football level, Timmy Chang of University of Hawaii holds the NCAA Div. I-A record in total offensive yards and career passing yards.

The Korean believes that the challenge is not that East Asians lack the ideal physique for football. The challenge is getting the best East Asian athletes to be interested in football.

Here is an example. Last summer, the Korean attended a charity soccer game in New York featuring Thierry Henry and his good friend Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns. Henry is one of the best footballers in the world, and the other soccer pros were not too shabby either -- Robbie Fowler of the English national team, Claudio Reyna from the U.S. national team, Juan Pablo Angel of the New York Red Bulls, to name a few. But playing with them were a number of NBA players -- Nash, Leandro Barbosa and Raja Bell of Phoenix Suns, and Jason Kidd of Dallas Mavericks, and Baron Davis of Los Angeles Clippers.

Watching that game made the Korean realize that NBA was very lucky that Nash, Barbosa, Bell, and Kidd chose basketball and not soccer. (Baron Davis did not know much about soccer and essentially provided comic relief by goofing around in his baseball cap and glasses.) Boy, the four NBA players were GOOD. Clearly, Henry was a cut above everyone on the pitch, and was not trying very hard. But against the rest of pro soccer players, the NBA players were going toe-to-toe. Steve Nash in particular likes to speak about how soccer influenced his court vision as a point guard. If Nash had chosen to play soccer for his career, NBA would have missed out on a two-time MVP.

Similarly, East Asians are simply not exposed to football right now. The best East Asian athletes play baseball or soccer. But with enough exposure, that can change. Football is a game of specific, defined roles. And there is always a role for any good athlete, regardless of size. For all the grief that the Korean gives to Chan-Ho Park, he could have been a good quarterback if he was exposed to football in his youth. At 6' 2", Park is tall enough to look over the offensive line, and he does have a cannon of an arm.

But if it is East Asian hulking ogres you want, East Asian hulking ogres you got. Not necessarily kimchi-eating ones, but how about sushi-eating ones? Sumo wrestlers could make great NFL linemen. The Korean was once stuck in Narita Airport for about 5 hours, and he spent most of it staring at sumo matches showing on a big screen. After a few hours of sumo, the Korean realized that sumo techniques -- the footwork and the use of hands and arms -- were very similar to offensive linemen techniques.

The opportunities are there to expand the reach of football to the world. The Korean wishes to see the game attracting the world's best, not just America's best. The Korean will reiterate: a franchise in Los Angeles would be a huge step to that end. Bring an NFL franchise to Los Angeles NOW!!

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@hotmail.com.

17 comments:

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  3. To rephrase one of the most iconic statements of the 2oth century: YES WE CAN!

    There was a Korean NFL Linemen Eugene_Chung who played for the NE Patriots during their low days. He was selected 13th overall from Va Tech and went to play five seasons in the NFL.

    There are a several reason why American Football is not a desired sport among Koreans. First, Korean Americans parents view American Football as a violent sport; hence it is not encouraged by Korean American parents as an extra curricular activities. From my personal experience, American football is just too slow. In other words, there are too many infractions and rules. Most of all, there are just way too many commercials during the game. In doing so, it makes the game go too slow. On the other hand, soccer has a very few rules, infractions, and no commercials other than during the half time, which makes the game very fast paced, less distractions for the viewing public. Lastly, American Football is very popular in states that are geographically located in the Southern areas of the U.S. And those states lack Korean American population. With the combination parental discouragement, too many rules, and the distant geographical proximity of the powerful football culture in the southern states, it leads to producing a very few professional Korean American football players in America.

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  4. Congratulations on your Super Bowl pick. It wasn't really that hard to pick the Steelers, but you still get bonus points for last year's pick. On the subject of Koreans and football, you forgot to mention the pacific islanders. Their presence in the NFL and college ranks is so dominant (in comparison to their population), that it makes any attempt to explain it as "more passion for the game" ridiculous. They are so successful because of body type: stocky, broad-shouldered, short legs. That's why almost all of them are on the offensive and defensive lines (Troy Polamalu and Lofa Tatupu being the most prominent exceptions). And guess what, Koreans tend to have stocky, short-legged, broad-shouldered body types (see Eugene Chung). If there were more interest in the NFL by Koreans, as AAK said, there would be even more Koreans in the NFL than there are Samoans now. On another note, you forgot to mention the Baltimore Ravens reserve safety, Haruki Nakamura--the first ever Japanese NFL player.

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  5. By the way, a fascinating post for the future would be about why Korean ladies dominate the LPGA. The attempts at answering that question I've heard are hilarious (good with their hands because of chopsticks, small chests make the swing easier, it's the ttaeng-jung, etc.) The real answer, of course, is that golf has become a national obsession after Se Ri Pak. Put ten million pre-adolescent girls into grueling golf camps and golf hagwans and force them to play the game 10 hours a day and its inevitable that you'll have a few dozen that get to LPGA quality. Golf is simply more popular among a broader section of the population (i.e. not just rich people) in South Korea than anywhere else in the world. Nevertheless, a posting about the hundreds of supposed reasons as to why Korean women are so good at golf would make a very entertaining post.

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  6. Let us not forget John Lee, the All-American place kicker for UCLA, who was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1986, though he quickly became a huge bust.

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  7. MC,

    Those are the common objections given to football versus soccer, but they are not something that can be overcome. Football has its own attractions that cannot be imitated by other sports. It is singularly violent; the strategies are complex and subtle; the event-by-event format (by downs) keeps the focus, and enables analyzing the game by discreet moments. And so on and so forth.

    The Korean has taught the Korean Father to watch football by focusing on the simple things: this game is about going forward, and teams can go forward either by running or passing. It only took a few games for the Korean Father to learn.

    Sam J.

    Thanks for the additional info. The Korean actually thinks the Samoans are a great example of the Korean's thesis. (The question was talking about East Asians, so the Pacific Islanders were left out.)

    Because of Samoans' natural physique, they began their NFL foray by becoming linemen. But once the interest in football took hold, even the non-stocky but athletic Samoans joined the fray. It is not yet apparent in the NFL, but in college there is a bumper crop of non-linemen Samoans everywhere. One of Pac-10's best quarterback is Willie Tuitama at Arizona, a Samoan. Arizona also has one of the better freshmen running back in Keola Antolin, also a Samoan. Currently the best college linebacker is Rey Maualuga at USC, also a Pacific Islander.

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  8. The fact that football and its cousin rugby require a big field means that it's not particularly accessible. There simply aren't a lot of big fields in Korea, and it's only since the World Cup fever of 2002 that soccer itself has been taken seriously by amateurs, but even then it's nowhere near the level of amateur soccer in the United States, a country where soccer is popular and unpopular at the same time.

    What few fields that exist in Korea are usually dominated by soccer players, so unless there were some catalyst, like a well-publicized NFL exhibition tournament in Korea (maybe shared with Japan), it's unlikely to take off in the ROK. But...

    Lastly, American Football is very popular in states that are geographically located in the Southern areas of the U.S. And those states lack Korean American population.

    That may be changing. Hyundai and Kia are becoming a growing presence in southern states like Georgia and Alabama. Just as Korean BBQ is being adopted by the locals there, Koreans who will gravitate to Atlanta and Montgomery (as well as Austin an Dallas) in greater and greater numbers may end up adopting the football culture that exists.

    And it doesn't hurt that Hines Ward is Korean. That alone has probably caused at least a handful of Koreans to pick up a pigskin.

    And, damn, 6-foot-1? You could kick my ass, The Korean. I've got a tennis player's height and build. I was made for soccer.

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  9. It's catching on in Korea a little already. I went to three KFL games this past season and even attended the Kimchi Bowl. It'll take awhile, but it was nice to see.

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  10. Korean,

    I beg to differ with MC but I also think that American football is an ideal sport for Koreans, despite what Korean parents may think. First, as alreadly noted, it's methodical nature is best learned through observation, memorization of complex plays and short, controlled practice. Hardly things that the average Korean school boy is unprepared for.

    While football is violent, violence is not a thing that Koreans abhor. A short stint in a Korean middle school or observing two ajusshis posturing after a traffic accident will quickly demonstrate what I mean. Violence just needs a proper and constructive outlet; like torturing unpopular students, browbeating the younger driver who you crashed into, or smashing the quarterback's ribs with your shoulder pads.

    As well, slow, methodical sports are hardly unpopular here. Soccer and baseball are two sports that are so boring that most of the action (beer drinking and hooliganism) takes place in the stands, not on the pitch. If you really want fast, exciting action, basketball and hockey are the games to watch. Unfortunately, the former barely registers in the Korean sports fan consciousness and the latter not at all.

    If there is a truly inhibiting factor for Korean-Americans to play the game in the US, it might be the general disinterest in sports that I've observed in Korean culture. Koreans tend to be sports nationalists, not sports fans. So there is not a broad based love of games in and of themselves, only an opportunity to compete and measure up against foreign countries. This can be seen in the empty stands of Korean soccer league games, but the jammed to the rafters action every time the national squad plays a friendly against a non-entity. If competition against the barbarians are the prime reason for playing games, then once out of the hermit kingdom a far different mindset must be developed and this takes time and a willingness to jettison certain aspects of the home culture.

    Lastly, I agree, L.A. should get an NFL franchise as soon as possible for all the usual reasons plus one. There is a group of deluded Toronto investors that want to jack the Bills out of Buffalo and implant them in Toronto, thus damaging a far smaller but more entertaining game and league; the CFL. Send the Bills to L.A. or cough up a billion and create a new team.

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  12. Douglas,

    While I agree with you on the notion that Koreans can learn the basics American football, but Ameircan football isn't touted amongst Korean American families and communities in the U.S. Although Koreans Americans attitudes towards football is changing, I simply dont think its up to par with Americans. For example, my parents view on education was without a doubt the most important things in my life -- I am sure they are very disappointed. Not extra curricular activities. ;-) In doing so, I really missed out a lot of extra-curricular activities that majority of my white friends were involved in high school.


    I think you hit the nail with the hammer on the lack of interest of the K-League amongst Koreans. However, I dont believe its completely due to Koreans being sports nationalists. It more or less has to do with the quality of the league. If you are an avid follower of the Korean national team as I am, majority of the super stars are sold off to top Europeans flight leagues. Hence, with the lack of quality and exportation of super starts, it makes the league not attractive and less entertaining. If, however, the likes of Ji-Sung Park, Rooney, Ronaldo, Kaka, and Beckham played in the K-League, I am certainthat there would be a huge interest in the league. Furthermore, the head of the KFA is a complete moron. Having followed the Korean National Team for more than a decade, the head of the KFA treats his job as a "toy" to gain political base then a serious national governing football organization.

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  13. Douglas,

    The Korean agrees with everything, except this part: "the general disinterest in sports that I've observed in Korean culture ... there is not a broad based love of games in and of themselves[.]"

    While what you spoke of about sports nationalism is 100% true, Korean people certainly have love for sports in and of themselves. To be sure, it is not as much as the U.S., where sports is such a huge element of being a part of the community. But Korean people's love for baseball games -- the oldest organized sports in Korea -- certainly qualifies as a love for sports in and of themselves. Similarly, it is not very difficult to find, especially among the younger generation, Koreans who are totally enthralled by sports at their highest form and follow the EPL or NBA.

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  14. MC,

    You’re right that the focus on academics to the exclusion of all else certainly does effect Korean attitudes towards sports. The Korean education system does not view sport as an integral part of the curriculum as Anglo-American models do (used to?), and this has a knock on effect for the rest of a student’s life. If I hadn’t played half a dozen sports as a kid, chances are I wouldn’t have developed an interest in them later in life. This, I think, is the main reason why the stands are empty at K-league games. Their fan base is wafer thin and they are doing the game a serious disservice by not developing more grassroots, amateur leagues, which develop young players and eventually hardcore fans as they age past their playing years. I know they butt their heads up against the hagwon culture, land use issues and parental attitudes, but if they want this game to succeed they have to get more 8 year olds in uniform and provide places for them to boot the ball around. Yes, the K-league is not as good as it could be if the Park, Ji-sung’s of the land stayed home, but this just supports my argument that local fans are only interested in international competition or star appeal, not in the game itself. Chances are they never had the opportunity to play the game, develop an innate love of it and simply enjoy, understand and appreciate it. I really do think it is essential to have hundreds of thousands of people who know what it feels like to drive in a run, block a shot from the point, or drain a three pointer to develop sports beyond the level of “Dae-Han Min-gook” rah-rah stuff. Simply put, more kids in cleats, less kids in “English” class.

    Korean,
    The interest in sports may be growing among the young and I have met students at my uni who spend most of their free time on the basketball court or baseball diamond. However these guys are the exception, not the rule. Interest in sports at the highest level all too often seems to be centered, for example, on one or two players in the English premiership or MLB. I can’t count how many students wearing Manchester United gear admitted that they don’t care or know anything about soccer outside of Park, Ji-sung. The same was true about Park, Chan-ho in his prime (a flood of LA Dodger ball caps) or Kim, Byung-hyun (Red Sox caps) and not much else. This is hero worship of successful athletes who measure up in foreign competition, not actual interest in sports. It may well develop some day into a true following but until playing sports becomes a common place activity, it will remain as such little more than a fashion accessory. Perhaps if Korean mothers realize that sports scholarships are a realistic route to American universities we’ll see more kids strapping on skates and cleats.

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  15. "Hines Ward, receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the finest Korean in NFL, is also not very big -- 6' 0", 205 pounds. Such physique is not difficult to find among East Asians. The Korean himself is 6' 1", 190 pounds."

    It's a tad bit misleading to call Ward "Korean" without other hyphens.

    More importantly, while I do not want to get into this potentially un-PC discussion for many reasons, size isn't the only--or even the main--issue. You are ignoring things like fast twitch fiber muscles and speed, etc.

    "Similarly, East Asians are simply not exposed to football right now. The best East Asian athletes play baseball or soccer."

    The baseball argument is less useful here in regard to football, because baseball depends more on in-game skills than pure athletic prowess. As for soccer, how many world class Korean or even Asian soccer players are there, in spite of the popularity of the sport among Asians?

    "At 6' 2", Park is tall enough to look over the offensive line, and he does have a cannon of an arm."

    No, the proto-type NFL quarterback is 6-5, 6-6ish. Given that the majority of tackles are about that tall as well, your claim is highly dubious.

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  16. Choe BHSN,

    You were right -- the Korean cares more about football than baseball. So here is a response.

    [S]ize isn't the only--or even the main--issue. You are ignoring things like fast twitch fiber muscles and speed, etc.That's exactly the Korean's point -- that size does not matter in football. Plenty of Korean/Asian athletes are very fast with an amazing sense of reflex, e.g. Ichiro.

    The baseball argument is less useful here in regard to football, because baseball depends more on in-game skills than pure athletic prowess.The Korean would argue that elite baseball players became elite because their natural athleticism -- power, speed, agility, reflex, etc. -- contirbuted to their in-game skills.

    As for soccer, how many world class Korean or even Asian soccer players are there, in spite of the popularity of the sport among Asians?At least within Korea, the process through which athletes are raised has been -- and is currently -- unbelievably primitive. For example, during his college career, Park Ji-Sung did not even realize he had a hairline fracture on his tibia for a whole year when he played out the season. The team medical staff (if it can even be called that) never caught it, and the coach just yelled at him to play through the pain. Only in the last 7 years or so did the training of athletes became much more professional and scientific. Give it about 10 years, and allow Asian athletes to reach their maximum potential.

    [T]he proto-type NFL quarterback is 6-5, 6-6ish. Given that the majority of tackles are about that tall as well, your claim is highly dubious.That's a popular belief that does not hold up to scrutiny. Here are some actual measurements:

    [Hall of Famers]
    Joe Montana - 6'2"
    Steve Young - 6'2"
    John Elway - 6'3"
    Johnny Unitas - 6'1"
    Brett Favre - 6'2"

    [Current NFL Starters]
    Tony Romo - 6'2"
    Drew Brees - 6'0"
    Donovan McNabb - 6'2"
    Marc Bulger - 6'3"
    Jay Cutler - 6'3"
    Jon Kitna - 6'2"
    Kurt Warner - 6'2"
    Jake Delhomme - 6'2"
    Jeff Garcia - 6'1"
    Aaron Rodgers - 6'2"

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  17. Ummm.... I'm Korean and I play football. I am not a scrub or a kimchi eating ogre. LOL.

    Check oout my highlights please :)

    http://youtu.be/WvFhmnnYrIs

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