Imagine getting to take a private tennis lesson from Serena Williams. Or taking a basketball seminar from Lebron James.
In many sports, the athletes who are at the top are “unreachable” to casual fans or hobbyist practitioners. Most people see them from behind a screen, or perhaps in person at a game. At most, if they’re lucky, they might get an autograph or a photo.
In jiu-jitsu, the fence that separates “royalty” from the “peasants” isn’t so tall. The competitors at the very top level, the ones often perceived as the “heroes” of the sport, will respond to you on Instagram. They’ll host seminars that you can afford to attend. They’ll open the doors of their academies to day-one beginners and aspiring world champions alike — you can train under them.
This proximity to the athletes at the top level of our sport is a large part of what makes jiu-jitsu enjoyable for so many practitioners. It emphasizes the “community” vibe that so many of us love about BJJ — that even the most famous athletes in our sport might grace us with their kindness and attention. It’s inspiring to see these people as being “just like us” at their core, making us think that one day, we, too, could be standing where they are now.
However, this is also part of what makes hero-worship so prevalent — and toxic — in jiu-jitsu.
You see it all the time whenever anyone in BJJ is accused of anything unsavory, whether it’s assault, abuse, or casual bigotry. Regardless of whatever evidence is out there, regardless of how many people speak up to share their own experiences to support the original claim, you’ll always get a few folks whose counterargument is something along the lines of, “I think this is all just a misunderstanding. When I met him, he was nice to me.”
These interactions are often fleeting and/or paid for — a former ADCC champion has a brief conversation with you at an IBJJF tournament, a multiple-time world champion encourages you when you fix a mistake in your technique at their seminar (that you paid them to attend). Sometimes, the access to the athlete is more long-term, such as if you’re a student under them or a media figure who has interviewed them a few times.
The interactions we have with major jiu-jitsu athletes are often just enough for us to put a few toes over the “parasocial relationship” line that exists between most people and their favorite sports stars. Fans may worship Lebron James or Serena Williams from afar, they may feel like they know who they are as people, but in reality, what they know about them is limited to their athletic performance and whatever they choose to put out into the world through interviews and social media. In jiu-jitsu, though, fans (who are usually practitioners themselves) get just a little bit extra from the stars of our sport. The athletes we admire are far more likely to acknowledge our existence at some point, and that can feel incredibly validating.
For what it’s worth, I get it. I’ve fallen prey to it, too, in the past. There’s a lot of conditioning from society, the media, and jiu-jitsu culture as a whole that goes into putting black belts on a pedestal, and when we get to interact with a famous black belt? A black belt we’ve seen winning gold at the biggest competitions in the world? Of course it’s natural to want to cling to the hope that this person is fundamentally good. We love jiu-jitsu, and we want to believe that this inner-sport celebrity that we got to meet is just as decent to everyone else as they were to us.
It’s important to remember, though, that this blind defense of people we barely know plays right into the hero-worship that plagues the jiu-jitsu community. It’s what turns fleeting social media interactions between athletes and followers into online mobs that bully and threaten people who criticize the athletes in question. It’s what distorts a display of basic human decency into a display of “kindness” and “niceness,” and it’s what prompts people to use that distortion as a shield against criticism for an athlete who forgot about their existence a long time ago. It’s what makes people cling to these interactions so much that they themselves feel attacked when a beloved athlete is accused of something awful.
Even when the black belts in question do have a closer relationship with us, such as by fulfilling the role of coach, teammate, friend, or acquaintance, we can’t fall into the trap of believing that niceness is synonymous with innocence. Indeed, a charming personality is often how cult leaders and predators attract their victims in the first place. It’s also how bad people can build an army of supporters to stand up for their supposed “moral character” when others call them out for poor behavior.
None of this is to say that you should immediately unfollow your favorite athlete the moment you hear a whisper of an unhappy rumor about them. By all means, make informed choices about the athletes you celebrate, especially if you witnessed the incident yourself or have seen evidence contrary to the accusations. It’s just a reminder to keep yourself in check. A black belt only means that someone is very good at their chosen martial art, and a long list of competitive achievements only means that someone is very, very good at their chosen martial art.
It’s okay and natural to feel upset and conflicted when you learn that the person who taught the best seminar you’ve ever attended might not be a great person. Just be cautious and considerate of how you respond to those feelings, and ask if that person would put forth the same effort for you if the situation were reversed.