Life, liberty, and the pursuit of a black belt.
A lot of people in martial arts seem to think these are the unalienable rights that are bestowed upon all of us from the moment of our birth. Mention taking away someone’s “right” to train or compete in BJJ or MMA, and there are a lot of folks that will suddenly become a lot more vocal than they’ve ever been about domestic violence or sexual abuse. “What, so he messed up once and now his life is ruined?” “He served his time — he deserves to be able to train again.”
In many instances, I agree with statements like the above. I think people can learn from their mistakes, I think reform is more valuable to society than punishment, and I think that ex-convicts should be allowed to reenter society and earn a living. And, yes, I think that non-violent offenders should generally be allowed to train in combat sports.
But I can’t, for the life of me, understand why so many people insist on letting criminally violent people into their academies to learn more violence.
To be clear, what we practice in the gym is violence, even if we just do it to let off some steam by grappling with our friends a few times a week. Even when you remove striking from the equation, jiu-jitsu alone teaches you how to cause damage that can cause severe limb damage or even end a life. The only thing making it legal is mutual consent — the spoken and unspoken agreement between practitioners that says if one taps out, the other lets go. If you break that agreement when putting someone in a rear naked choke, you can kill them.
The basis of physical abuse is that the violence is not consensual. The abuser, by definition, touches another person without their consent. Or, perhaps, the initial touch is consensual, but then the other person tells them to stop, and they keep going. The damage done may be physical, psychological, or both.
Why would you want someone like that in your gym? Why would you want them around your students, some of whom are likely vulnerable themselves? Why is the risk of having them in your academy worth the cost of their monthly membership?
Why do we treat the education of violence as though it’s a basic necessity instead of a privilege that must never be taken for granted?
To me, it seems like basic logic that, when someone is charged with domestic violence or is credibly accused of sexual assault, they should have a very, very hard time finding a gym that will let them train in grappling or striking. Morality aside, the liability seems like it would be too risky to be worth it, even if the abuse didn’t involve the skills they learned on the mats.
And yet, this isn’t what’s happening. There are, relatively speaking, a lot of people with domestic violence charges competing in MMA and BJJ. There are many more who have been allowed to train at martial arts academies. I’ve heard a horrifying number of stories from women who’ve told their instructors that they’ve been abused, threatened, or harassed by a male student, resulting in the woman being told that they have to leave the gym.
“But what happened to ‘innocent until proven guilty?'” Well, nothing, if we’re referring to a court of law. But a martial arts gym is a private business. Owners and coaches can kick students out for any reason they please, as is their right. So if your student alerted you to the fact that a teammate or an assistant coach was arrested for punching their significant other in the face, I don’t understand why you’d want to keep the subject of that complaint in your gym. And yet, I’ve unknowingly trained with multiple men who have put their wives in the hospital because, even though the gym owners knew about it, they didn’t consider it to be a big deal to help those abusers continue to get better at violence. They didn’t even consider it prudent to let me or my teammates know so that we could choose for ourselves whether or not we wanted to roll with someone who’d done such a thing.
To be clear, I don’t care that those men would never hurt me, or that they were supervised at the gym. I don’t care that it was “a few years ago now” or that “they really regret it.” When I’m rolling with someone, when I am trusting them with my safety in a close-contact environment, I don’t want to have to even wonder if that person has violated that trust with someone else. If “they’ve changed,” great — they can display those changes outside of a combat sports academy.
I also don’t care about how jiu-jitsu could “help” these people “improve themselves.” A martial arts gym is not a rehabilitation center for violent individuals. Your coach is (probably) not a licensed therapist or psychologist, and if they are, they should know that the mats are not the place to be practicing that particular craft. Students are not guinea pigs to prove whether or not a person has truly changed. You are not “ruining” a person’s life for saying that they can’t train in your gym or compete at your event because they’ve done something terrible in their past. You’re not even preventing them from ever training again — you’re just keeping them away from your other students. Plenty of jiu-jitsu practitioners with nothing but a traffic ticket to their name have created training pods in their garage. Abusers, too, can learn jiu-jitsu with the help of a few friends and Professor YouTube.
If the safety and comfort of your students isn’t enough to convince you, though, think about your reputation as a coach as well as your entire academy’s reputation. Sometimes, these incidents genuinely come out of nowhere from people we’d never expect. But what happens if that person reoffends sometime later, and it gets out that you were still letting them train at your gym despite having evidence that they’d already done something terrible? How does that reflect on your academy? How does it reflect on you?
Jiu-jitsu is not soccer. MMA is not tennis. Boxing is not basketball. The things we learn in class are practical techniques that make us better at hand-to-hand combat. They make us better at controlling people and escaping danger ourselves. There are countless people in the world who can use (and have used) these skills to protect themselves from people who would do them harm, and many others who are just doing this for fun and have simply done the bare minimum of never assaulting someone.
Don’t teach violent people how to get better at violence. Keep abusers out of our sport.