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Son and DiMaggio

Dec 11,2018
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Tottenham’s Son Heung-min, right, celebrates with his teammate Harry Kane after scoring his team’s third goal during an English Premier League soccer match between Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton at Wembley Stadium in London, Dec. 5. [AP/YONHAP]
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Chung Jeh-won
The author is head of sports team at the JoongAng Ilbo.

Joe DiMaggio laid down his baseball bat to join the army when his country needed him. He was a star player with the New York Yankees, but at the beginning of 1943, DiMaggio traded his $43,750 salary for $50 a month as an enlisted soldier. He did not fight in the battlefield, but flew to Army bases to play for the military teams. His presence was a huge boost to the battle-scarred soldiers. A superstar at the height of his athletic power at 28, he chose to devote himself to military service. He remained a favorite U.S. baseball player, not just because of his marriage to Marilyn Monroe, but because of his willing sacrifice to his nation.

Before joining the service, he was an MVP with a 56-game hitting streak, a record that has yet to be broken in the Major League. It is as if Son Heung-min, captain of the South Korean national football team that won gold in this year’s Asian Games, said he would leave his professional career at Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur to serve in the military.

DiMaggio sacrificed a lot to serve in the military. He was discharged from the service at age 30 and returned to the Yankees in 1946, when he batted .290 after having been a 0.300-plus hitter before he left for the military. In the following year, however, his batting average recovered to 0.315. He helped his team win the World Series for four years, from 1947 until his retirement in 1951.

Our gold medalists in the Asian Games have brought the country great joy and pride this year, but also renewed the debate on military exemptions for professional athletes who win medals in Olympics or Asiad. Questions also arose over whether it is really fair for authorities to not grant military service exemptions for young entertainers of pop music at their height of fame and career when classical performers can earn exemptions if they win international competitions. Fans asked why the same privileges did not go to BTS, who became the first Korean group to top the U.S. Billboard charts.

DiMaggio joined the military even when he did not need to. Since Korea is not in wartime, sports stars do not have to fulfill their service. Ki Sung-yueng, who plays for Newcastle United, said he would fight for the nation if it is at war: he is not bluffing. Many athletes would not hesitate to go to battle for their nation if they are called up.

The time has come to fix the rigid conscription system so that talents in sports, arts and entertainment fields can choose to serve their duties at their own time.

As DiMaggio was able to play at the military baseball team, our talents in arts and sports field should be able to contribute their talents to the military and country more productively. Conscription will be shortened to 18 months starting in 2020. When more flexibility is allowed, athletes playing overseas and idol stars will also be willing to fulfill their military duties. Why not allow them to break down their service to two, three or six months over periods of nine, six, or three years?

Why do all able-bodied men have to serve uniformly for 18 straight months? It is nonsense to expect Son to give up his million-dollar contract for 18 months of service.

His play on the soccer field would serve the country better than his presence in the military. If they were allowed to pull themselves away for three months a year, for instance, to devote to military service in the span of six years, Son or Jimin of BTS would gladly fulfill their duties. Society has changed: the system must keep up.

JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 10, Page 31