Yesterday, it was revealed that Roberto “Cyborg” Abreu black belt Marcel Goncalves had admitted to sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl. The story was the latest in an ever-growing list of martial artists — and specifically, jiu-jitsu practitioners — who have used their position of power to take advantage of students or domestic partners, and like every single one of the subjects of these stories, Goncalves has had his fair share of defenders on social media.
“It’s not our place to judge,” said one.
“All sin is the same according to my bible,” said another.
“Marcel is a family man. Let’s not make this harder on him than it already is,” said another.
Then, of course, you get the people who brush the whole thing off because it was “just” statutory rape, as though statutory rape laws don’t exist for a reason and there’s nothing morally reprehensible about a man having a sexual relationship with a minor nearly half his age.
I’m past the point of shock or outrage with these stories anymore, and although I don’t think that the increasing number of predators in the jiu-jitsu community is indicative of the direction our sport is taking, I’m disappointed in the way so many people jump to defend creeps and abusers just because they’re good at sports.
We’ve seen this at different levels throughout the years, and it’s certainly not exclusive to jiu-jitsu. The most famous case in recent memory was that of convicted rapist and former swimmer Brock Turner, who was given a universally criticized light jail sentence after sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, with the judge worrying more about Turner’s future than that of his victim. A somehow lesser known celebrity abuser is Floyd Mayweather, who has pleaded guilty multiple times to domestic violence charges and still makes millions upon millions of dollars to hit people professionally.
And yes, even in jiu-jitsu, many athletes experience continued success despite their abusive or shady pasts. The most well-known example is that of Team Lloyd Irvin, which has seen multiple members (including Irvin himself) defending themselves against sexual assault charges throughout the years. Despite a well-documented “mass exodus” of some of Irvin’s most successful students after reports of a “cult-like” environment at the academy surfaced, Irvin still runs a very successful business. In 2008, grappling standout and TLI member DJ Jackson pleaded down from a third-degree sexual abuse charge to “assault causing bodily harm” — a misdemeanor — and remains popular among fans and promoters alike in the grappling world.
More recently, Rickson Gracie himself was condemned for his prolonged silence when he appeared in an Instagram post with one of his black belts, David Arnebeck. Arnebeck had been convicted in 2013 of fondling a fifteen-year-old girl over her clothes as she slept, and Rickson’s apparent support of him drew ire from many people in the jiu-jitsu community. Although Rickson eventually released a statement detailing the Jiu-Jitsu Global Federation’s “zero-tolerance policy” towards sexual misconduct, it was later revealed that two other black belt members of the JJGF had sexual assault charges on their records.
Unfortunately, there are predators everywhere, and as much as the phrase “Jiu-jitsu saved my life” gets thrown around, the truth is that martial arts provide an easy way for bad people to become physically dangerous and graduate to positions of power, making it easier for them to manipulate their students… and apparently, the public.
There’s a weird amount of hero-worship that goes on in sports, and jiu-jitsu isn’t an exception. If anything, the access we have to the “celebrities” of our sport makes it that much harder to reconcile the fact that someone we looked up to and possibly even trained with could assault someone or simply stay silent on the topic of assault. We want the people we look up to on the mats to also be good people off the mats, and when we discover that they might not be upstanding citizens, it hurts.
The thing is, though, we need to put aside that hurt and see past the medals and the belts. In the same way that we eventually grow out of our innocent childhood perception that all adults are wise and should be given unquestioned authority, we need to grow out of the perception that the color of someone’s belt is any indication of who they are as a person. It’s okay to admire someone’s jiu-jitsu and better your own technique by watching their old matches, but if you find yourself defending them on social media, giving them superfights, or attending their seminars, ask yourself:
Would you give them the same support if they were your Average Joe neighbor?
Would you give them the same support if their victim was you or someone you loved?
Are there truly no other athletes out there who could provide the same service or entertainment you’re looking for?
Do you genuinely believe what you’re saying when you defend your choice to support this person?
Do you actually feel good about making an effort to diminish the consequences this person will experience for their actions?
If your answers are “yes,” then hey, those are your priorities, and while we probably won’t be friends, at least you know where you stand. If not, maybe it’s time to do some self-reflection and ask yourself why you’re prioritizing someone’s athletic ability over their inability to do the right thing as a human being.
If you want to argue about the differences between illegality and immorality or charges and convictions, that’s your choice — the law will ultimately decide which one fits the situation. But we need to, at the very least, speak up and denounce predatory behavior, just as Cyborg spoke out against his own black belt student. While it’s not our job as private citizens to act as judge, jury, and executioner, we should be doing our best to make our small community safer.