Many martial arts enthusiasts (including me) like to spout off about all the amazing things that training in something like jiu-jitsu can do for a person. Sure, there are the obvious benefits, such as weight loss and an increased sense of confidence, but many of us have also seen our personalities change as a result of our training. Perhaps our oversized egos got trimmed down, or maybe having an outlet in the form of a combat sport made us less prone to angry outbursts, but what we don’t really talk about are the arrogant, angry, or even violent people who come train and don’t change. And we need to.
The fact is that there are a lot of bad people who train in martial arts. A few of those bad people might get put in their place and change their ways, but it’s not a stretch to say that many or even the majority of them don’t stop being bad people — they just become bad people who know how to hurt you. While they obviously become more dangerous as they move up the ranks, we recently saw that even a white-belt-level education in jiu-jitsu can be enough to control and hurt someone who’s weaker and doesn’t know how to defend themselves.
Some of the more high-profile examples of this, such as MMA fighter War Machine’s abuse of Christy Mack and the sexual assault allegations against members of team Lloyd Irvin, will obviously attract more attention. But we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking these are rare, isolated cases. Many people have been threatened with or experienced physical and/or sexual abuse at the hands of people who never should have been taught how to use their body as a weapon.
It’s not just people who’ve never been trained in martial arts who become victims of these power-hungry abusers, either. Many times, as bad people move their way up the ranks and make a name for themselves in the martial arts community, they manipulate their own students through threats of physical or sexual violence, or with attempts to sabotage their success by talking to all the “right” people.
Less experienced students — especially women, who are often smaller, weaker, and the minority in a martial arts gym — are particularly vulnerable to this kind of manipulation. Thanks to the media and martial arts culture, we’re taught from day one to respect our professors and coaches, and some academies take it a step further to the point of reverence. When you’re new to this environment and see that the purple and brown belts around you seem to be accepting of your professor’s behavior, it’s unlikely that you’re going to get the courage to question or challenge it… especially since you now know first-hand the physical damage that a high-level martial artist can inflict upon you.
Those who have spent a significant amount of time in any kind of martial art have likely seen or heard about some instance of this kind of abuse of power. The question then becomes what we can do to stop scumbags from becoming scumbags who know how to break your limbs and strangle you to death.
Unfortunately, the answer is “not much” — skilled manipulators know how to hide their abusive tendencies until it’s too late for their victim, and given the wide variety of people who train, it’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to point out a dangerous person just by looking at them.
However, there are steps that both professors and students can take to reduce the risk of inadvertently helping to train a rapist or abuser.
First, academy owners can do a basic check to make sure that new students don’t have a violent background to begin with. There are plenty of free sites that will allow you to see if someone you know has been convicted of a violent crime or if they’re a registered sex offender. Just as you probably (hopefully) wouldn’t allow someone to train at your school if they said to your face that they’d gone to jail for beating up their spouse, having proof right in front of your face that this person has a violent past should be all you need to tell them that if they’re going to learn how to fight or grapple, it won’t be at your academy. Serious crimes like this are made publicly available, so digging this stuff up isn’t illegal or immoral — it’s keeping your students and the public safer.
If you’re a student, take the initiative to speak up if you get a hunch that a teammate has bad intentions. Even if you don’t have any hard evidence, bringing it up to your instructor can put them on the lookout for any unusual behavior. If you suspect that a teammate may be a victim of another student, offer your support, whether it’s something as easy as providing a listening ear or something as difficult as reporting your training partner to the police.
If you yourself feel as though you’re training in a toxic or dangerous environment, get out. Now! If you can convince your teammates to do the same, bring them with you. There are plenty of other gyms out there, and if your instructor isn’t taking you seriously when you tell them that one of your teammates is threatening or stalking you, you’re putting your safety in jeopardy by sticking around.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we as a community need to stop making athletes untouchable just because they’re good at sports. We need to stop the rhetoric that puts black belts on pedestals, and we need to admit to ourselves that although we really do have an amazing global family, there are a lot of scummy people in this sport. To sweep the crimes of celebrity fighters and grapplers under the rug and still celebrate them as they compete and win titles is to send a clear message: The martial arts community values your ability to use violence over how you use violence.
In any community, there will always be a few bad apples. No matter how many precautions we take, it’s inevitable that some slime is going to slip through the cracks. But if we can use our own positions in the martial arts world to do something, anything to take out the trash in our sport, we should make the effort to do so.