Criminality and the BJJ Practitioner

Tex Johnson. BJ Penn. Ralph Gracie. These are just three of the more recent grapplers and fighters to be caught up in a scandal of some sort. Of course everyone who has been in the BJJ community for a time knows about the accusations against Lloyd Irvin. The accusations vary, and depending on who you ask or talk to about the various circumstances, they either did or did not commit the crimes of which they’re accused.

But seriously, whats the deal lately?

I mean Matt Hughes, Tony Ferguson, Conor McGregor, and BJ Penn all have been in the news for accusations of domestic or public violence. But the martial arts are humbling, the martial arts make us better people, don’t they? When you train seriously you learn to be calmer and more in control of yourself, right? 

It seems on an almost weekly basis there is something in the news about a figure in the martial arts world being embroiled in some kind of affair usually involving, but not limited to, the physical assault of a spouse, some kind of sexual assault, an altercation at a club or bar where someone is severely beaten, or a student being sexually exploited.

Indeed, the world we are living in currently is the same in general with horrific stories of sexual, physical, emotional, and verbal abuses by parents against children, authority figures against those in their charge or any number of other situations. The variables and cases are too numerous to elaborate on. But if the martial arts are based on respect, honor and loyalty, then why as of late do these stories seem to be proliferating? Why, if jujitsu is so humbling, and every student of the art who gets an interview talks about how jujitsu has made their life better, are so many being arrested and charged with rape or assault? When I say “so many”, this is not an exaggeration. A quick internet search brings up a disturbing amount of results. 

The idea of martial arts making us better people has always been a mainstay on the list of “reasons we train”. But it is, in fact, a lie.

Martial arts do not make you a better person. They bring out who you really are.

There is a line in a samurai movie I’ve seen a number of times, “…evil mind, evil sword…”. If you’re a bad person, when you learn martial arts this merely makes you worse. If you’re a good person, then no problem. You’ll learn and get better and make the world a better place or whatever.

But what is a teacher to do? What would you do as an instructor? 

The current popular explosion of full contact martial arts has created something unique in western European and American culture. Never before on this scale (the post World War II era) have academies been open solely for the dissemination of martial arts teaching. In the US, there have always been boxing and wrestling schools and clubs at colleges, but there hasn’t ever been so many professional teachers of these arts with their own schools.

These instructors livelihoods are based on membership. More students  = more money. It would follow, then, that an instructor would want the most students they could get.

Herein lies the problem.

The teacher or senior students of these schools have a heavy responsibility; not only are they to pass along the techniques and knowledge of their art, they are also a safeguard against mistreatment by students against newer and weaker students. Is an instructor to vet each student before they join? Is he to perform a thorough background check on each prospective student? What if a student has a prior conviction for burglary, but it was 15 years ago and the student REALLY is trying to get his life on track? Is that a sign this is a person who deserves a second chance? What if the charge is sexual in nature, and its older than 15 years, and the person is equally or more (seemingly) sincere in their desire to change their life? Do they get a pass too? Each person, case, teacher and argument is different and we cannot solve all these problems in an article.

Perhaps some historical reference would be helpful. 

Keppan

In the feudal age of Japan, the martial academies were worlds of their own. You did not just walk up and ask how much lessons were. Teachers did not have any new student deals where they threw in a gi and the first lesson for free. In order to join, a person typically had to be of the warrior class (samurai). If the teacher was not an acquaintance of the prospective student, the student would first send a letter inquiring what the prerequisites to joining would be. Usually, a letter of recommendation from a known associate was good enough, but this was not always the case.

Regardless of what was needed to join, once a student was accepted, a blood oath was taken: a Keppan. This was usually done by making a small incision on one of the fingers, dripping one or two small droplets of blood onto the application, which the student would then sign his name next to. The oaths varied. Some were quite elaborate, some were brief. But all contained the same general rules. For instance; the student was not to go to “bars, whorehouses, or gambling houses or any other den of ill repute”, they weren’t to engage in fights or duels without the teacher’s permission. One school ordered its adherents that “they were not to be rude to the elderly or infirm”. Perhaps most related to this article was the direct order given by a sword school to its students; “I will not misuse the art against others”. Rather succinct and self explanatory.

Overall, the idea is clear, “don’t be an asshole, be cool.” We can be sure there were plenty of bad men in these schools, and feudal Japan was not a peaceful place. But even then, it was clear to the masters of the various arts that an effort had to be made to steer people in an honorable direction.

Solutions?

It is not realistic today to make each student at every school sign a pledge. Bad people don’t abide by them and there’s no real way to enforce it. There’s also no way to vet every single student and make sure they are a “good person.” “Good” is a relative term and each school will enforce something completely different.

There’s no easy solution to what teachers should do if their students are charged with some kind of crime. Expulsion seems to be the most likely and common sense option. Ultimately, it is up to each student to protect themselves.

Observe a class before joining. Avoid students and teachers who are too rough. Avoid those students who give you that “weird vibe” you cant quite explain but get whenever they’re around you. If the school is too militant, chauvinistic, or cult-like and you’re bothered, leave immediately.  You are paying them, and barring social norms of friendship and debts, you are free to leave whenever you see fit.

The world is full of good things and good people. But it is also full of bad people who do bad things. Be careful, be smart, and be confident.  

Giles Alexander

Giles Alexander is a purple belt residing in Seattle and representing Kindred Jiu-Jitsu.