Morality and The Gentle Art

by Katie Taylor


In the midst of these unprecedented times/uncharted waters/insert your favorite cliche used to describe a global pandemic; I’ve constantly been asking myself ‘what’s the right thing to do?’ The moral dilemma of training in a combat sport goes far beyond navigating social distancing requirements and keeping our academies from going under during a stay-at-home order. But now, the idea of core values guiding the martial arts is further called into question.


The Gentle Art  


From the moment you started your BJJ trial class, you knew one thing for sure: there’s nothing ‘gentle’ about studying the gentle art of jiu jitsu. Diverging from its self-defense roots into an intense, competitive sport has transformed the ruleset, study, and culture of BJJ.


I’d be interested to see the difference among BJJ academies as far as gym etiquette is concerned--from my experience in just the schools where I’ve personally trained and dropped in on while traveling or for open mats; it’s immediately clear that the formality commonly associated with arts such as Judo or Taekwondo are far more relaxed in a BJJ academy. I’m talking bowing into the mat, referring to instructors as senseis or professors--many academies will have some element of mat discipline, but I find in general, we all just go with the flow.


With that relaxed culture, is it a benefit or a detriment to the gym experience? I myself appreciate being able to wear what color gi I feel like, joking around with teammates, feeling like I’m in a club with my best friends rather than a cult member. But the ‘family’ rhetoric gets old after some time. When you pay dues each month, you’re more than just a part of a team, you’re a customer paying for service. That service includes a martial arts education, training partners, coaching to correct mistakes, and a safe and enriching environment to grow within.


I’m afraid that the culture of BJJ contributes to this expectation of blind loyalty to a team to the point of students staying in places that aren’t building them up as a martial artist. How many students felt pressured to keep paying membership dues to schools that were closed due to COVID restrictions, despite going through their own financial hardships? Or better yet, how many keep going to a school that isn’t fulfilling their needs as an athlete, all because they’ve made that commitment? When you have enough gis with the school patch emblazoned on the back, you really feel like your membership contract is more than a piece of paper. I don’t exactly see people proudly walking around with Planet Fitness jackets.


It Takes a Team


How often are the phrases ‘family’ or ‘team’ thrown around as a means to keep generating income when the actions of coaches or owners aren’t following through on that promise? I have been really fortunate to have coaches and teammates genuinely looking out for my personal development, but I’ve unfortunately had the rose-tinted glasses shattered when I realized I idolized phenomenal BJJ athletes with disappointing moral character. When someone is cultivating the new generation of jiu jitsu, sharing their knowledge, and building a sport that you love--does that mean we turn a blind eye to how they conduct themselves off the mat? 


The impact of COVID-19 on martial arts schools has been twisted into a political debate--anyone on the side of taking extra precautions and limiting contact is framed as a left-wing radical trying to put small gym owners out of business; while athletes and coaches eager to get back to the mats as soon as possible are positioned as reckless outlaws trying to kill grandma. I seriously wish I could delete tweets and stupid comments that the top athletes of this sport are posting--the cognitive dissonance of my self-image as a person who is kind, conscientious… who happens to study technique breakdowns from guys who spew hate speech online is seriously unsettling to me. And this goes beyond political parties--I’m talking misogyny, racism, the type of commentary I’d expect from a radical news station instead of guys who play sports for a living.


The Hand That Feeds


I can’t ignore the widespread toxicity perpetuated by the athletes that have served as pioneers for BJJ--but I have to credit what they’ve done for me, even if by proxy. How does it feel to be a female training in a sport where numerous instructors at the highest level have been accused of sexual misconduct? It’s demoralizing. Yet how many jiu jitsu players are out there begging every woman to learn jiu jitsu for her own personal safety? Homophobia and transphobia is rampant, and even if coaches are publicly making statements in support of their marginalized students, the fact is that the culture of a gym’s membership base is what ultimately dictates the experience for each student. I believe that some of the people that are the most vulnerable in our society, those who could benefit the most from a BJJ education… are ostracized by the martial arts community.


What I personally see more often than not, is athletes taking a personal stand to uphold high moral character: ‘no egos’, preaching humility, respect, that jiu jitsu is for everyone--but when it comes to seeing problematic behavior in the culture, they conveniently look away. I can understand why--would I have the courage to call a teammate out for being inappropriate? And what right do I have to bring drama into an environment that serves a meaningful purpose? Keeping others accountable risks fragmenting that ‘team’ or ‘family’ that we all dedicate so much time to cultivating. And let’s say you don’t have a wealth of training options nearby... would the possibility of alienating yourself keep you from demanding higher standards?


I advocate loudly and firmly for the communities I’m in to be led with dignity; to be inclusive of others… but when I speak in platitudes about society as a whole, it’s a far cry from individual confrontations. In those circumstances I’m much more quiet, reserved, and guarded when I see the consequences right in front of me. So do I just shut up and train? What can I do that’s going to impact BJJ for the better?