Paul Wright has no problem stirring a lively conversation.
Not only is NIU’s EC Lane and MN Zimmerman Endowed Professor in Kinesiology and Physical Education a deft moderator, but the students in his KNPE 399: Sport and Diplomacy course are Honors Program students.
They’re opinionated, they’re smart and they want to talk.
Beyond that, the topic of the day on Monday, Feb. 12, is a hot one: South Korea, North Korea and the Olympics.
During that class meeting, just a few days after the torch roared to life to start the winter games, the discussion of possible reunification crackles with different opinions.
Alexandra Zdunek deems the Olympic-borne olive branches between the Koreas nothing but a publicity stunt perpetrated by the North. As the TV cameras gradually disappear, she says, so will the sudden show of cordiality that stunned the world.
“I don’t think reunification would be possible under this regime,” says the senior political science major from Crystal Lake, who plans to become a lawyer. “As soon as North Korea gets what it wants, they will pull out.”
Others in the NIU Honors course, having just watched the Korean athletes march together under a unified flag in the opening ceremonies, aren’t so sure.
Fundamental pride of nation, one classmate says, will begin “to win out” thanks to athletes from both Koreas competing together as teammates. Inspired by that solidarity, the student says, they will “drop the small stuff and go for it.”
Gestures of unity “really match the ideals of the Olympics,” another offers, talking of countries building bridges of cultural exchange in celebration of human potential and human performance.
Maybe the recreational aspects of sports and the “safe space of competition” would give Korean athletes from both sides of the demilitarized zone a good excuse not to talk policy or politics, another suggests.
Standing aside to let the conversation flow, Wright loves it all.
“What I really like about working with this group of students is that because they are confident about putting their thoughts out there, we are getting a range of opinions,” he says. “The rightness or wrongness of their answers is inconsequential. We’re having a good, rich discussion.”
January’s out-of-nowhere goodwill between the Koreas came as “a welcome surprise,” he says. He had developed the curriculum months earlier.
“That was serendipitous. We had no idea what was about to start brewing,” Wright says, “but this course is a natural extension of what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years. It’s sort of a progression in my scholarship. I have a solid grounding in, and a long history of, using sport for positive youth development.”
Students in Wright’s class come from several majors – none in the College of Education – that includes accountancy, electrical engineering, history, marketing and political science.
Their textbook, the newly published “Case Studies in Sport Diplomacy,” includes a chapter Wright wrote on his three-year (2013-16) project in Belize. It also examines similar work in Brazil, Central America, China, Haiti, Iran, New Zealand, Russia, South Sudan and, appropriately, Korea.
Class sessions are filled with history lessons.
Laying the groundwork to make sense of the current Korean situation began with a look 5,000 years in the past, tracing through the “Three Kingdoms” period of Korean history and centuries of interference or rule from China and Japan. The time of Japanese Colonial Rule, from 1910 to 1945, ended with World War II.
Wright then outlines the events that precipitated the Korean War and the various stages of its aftermath, including the three-decade struggle over communism and democracy and the decade of “co-existence” following the 1987 end of the Cold War.
Engagement began to improve in 1998, stopping in 2008 as North Korea found its footing and started to grow in power as it no longer found itself desperate for cooperation or help.
A decade later, the North is driven to acquire, keep and assert power – military, economic and political – while the South adheres to democracy and positive relations with other countries.
The Olympics have made ripples in the past, Wright says, but none like 2018, which “seems on track to be a vastly different story.”
Unification was planned for the 1960 games in Rome, for example, but the North abandoned those talks when the International Olympic Committee recognized both countries. When Seoul hosted the games in 1988, North Korea boycotted.
Despite those misses, he adds, a certain set of statistics reveals an interesting picture.
Eighty-five percent of the 55 socio-cultural exchanges between the Koreas between 1971 and 2017 involved sports. This includes unified teams for the 1990 Beijing Asian Games and the 1991 FIFA World Cup in Portugal.
“I am a lover of history, and I feel comfortable talking about those issues and my own curiosities and interests,” Wright says. “In much of the work I do with education, curriculum and schooling – that is my field – there are many things you can’t understand without first understanding the historical context: What shaped our school system? What was going on at the time?”
Building on the Olympics, he asked provocative questions during the games.
Do you think North Korean athletes will try to defect? If so, how do you think North Korea will go after them? What kind of “welcome home” will North Korean athletes receive if they fail to medal? How does the presence U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s sister play into all of this?
He’s also assigned students to watch sport-related movies, report to the class on what they saw and give the films a rating of “gold thumb, silver thumb or bronze thumb.”
“I try to mix things up a bit, have some fun,” Wright says. “We’re lucky to have several more weeks in this class to follow up on the Olympics: After all the bluster and all the drama is done regarding North and South Korea, what do we see sticking? Does the momentum fade and die? Does it take on new life?”
Students are gaining ideas of how the notion of diplomacy through sports can empower their future careers.
Maria Fracassi, a senior marketing major, calls Wright’s course “interesting.”
Although she considers herself a “mediocre sports fan – I watch when it’s exciting,” she knows that capitalizing on the universal affinity for sports can help to build the business relationships that she will depend on as a marketer.
“I never thought much about how sports can unify people,” Fracassi says. “I enjoy the conversations.”
Zakyrah Harris, a junior studying political science and philosophy, enrolled in Wright’s class because of her interest in the Colin Kaepernick-led NFL protests.
Before Kaepernick and his followers began kneeling during the national anthem, Harris says, she believed that sports always brought fans together. Now she’s surprised to learn that sports can cause military conflicts, such as the “Hundred Hour War” between Honduras and El Salvador “over something as small as a soccer game.”
“Dr. Wright is an amazing professor. He makes each class interesting,” she says. “He shows you how sports can bridge gaps and how different countries are able to come together politically or completely destroy each other.”
“He is really good at getting us engaged, especially when we’re all different majors,” she says. “He is very knowledgeable, and he wants to understand how we can use sport to better each other’s lives. That is such a big care for him.”
Wright is enjoying the class as much as his students.
“They’re really bringing in their different disciplines, and it’s fun to see what they’re being trained in. They’re talking about social issues around race, such as Brown v. Board of Education. They’re seeing connections to other courses they’re in that aren’t normally in our conversation about sport,” he says.
“I’m really pushing them to see behind every one of these stories and case studies we look at, to understand the motivation of the people we’re talking about, to connect the dots, to see what’s driving them,” he adds. “If you understand those things in the background, you can practice critical thinking and look behind the obvious. I’m sure they can apply that in every one of their different disciplines going forward.”