Be The Change You Want To See In Jiu-Jitsu

Phew. What a week.

I’ll get straight to the point: some people have been very surprised to learn that Renzo Gracie tweeted out a quote from infamous Nazi figurehead Heinrich Himmler back in 2012. The tweet has resurfaced, Gracie has claimed that he didn’t know who Himmler was at the time that he tweeted it, and he has since been responding to people on Twitter in a variety of, erm, interesting ways.

Then, of course, there’s Jeff Glover, who shared (and has since taken down) this on Instagram:

If years of formal education and endless free information on the internet have failed to teach you what is wrong with posts like these (yes, even with follow-up statements in the vein of “I love everyone equally”), I’m not going to achieve it in an article on a jiu-jitsu website. If you genuinely want to learn what’s wrong with them, this book is a great place to start.

For those who do see the problem and have been disheartened by posts like these, it’s easy to hope that these are just fringe beliefs followed by a select few people in the sport. The truth, however, is that jiu-jitsu as a martial art has troublesome roots (which you can read about in this academic paper written by Jose Cairus in 2012). And while Glover and Gracie have frequently been the center of this week’s big topics of discussion in the BJJ world, they’re far from the only ones who have disappointed many of their followers.

Depending on where your beliefs fall in terms of which people deserve to be treated like people, you’ve probably been dismayed by additional prominent figures in the BJJ community sharing their thoughts on social issues like race, gender, sexuality, class, and human rights in general. This doesn’t even get into the number of coaches and athletes at smaller local gyms who create unhealthy or dangerous environments for their students.

One of the sharpest double-edged swords in jiu-jitsu is how, unlike in other sports like basketball or football, we can easily meet and even train with our “heroes.” Can you imagine being able to play basketball with Michael Jordan? How much do you think a tennis lesson with Serena Williams would cost? Probably more than your average seminar with even the biggest names in jiu-jitsu. On one hand, this aspect of our sport is super cool and inspiring. On the other hand, it gives jiu-jitsu athletes a bit of a demigod feel — far enough above us to allow us to be fans and followers, but accessible enough to feel just like us.

It makes it that much harder to detach ourselves from jiu-jitsu athletes who say and do things that go against our core beliefs. You hear it a lot: “There’s no way that person is a predator. They were so nice to me when I met them at their seminar!” “I know for a fact that there are Black and Latino students at that coach’s gym, so stop claiming racism!” “I’m sure it’s just a misunderstanding. I’m sure they didn’t mean what they said.” Or, the classic, “It was just a joke. They don’t really think that.”

I get it, and I’ve fallen into this trap in the past as well. It sucks to be confronted with the concept that someone you admire may not be the great person you’ve believed them to be. Particularly with the deification that surrounds the term “black belt,” we are brought up to believe that people at the highest level of martial arts also exist at the peak of morality. The media portrays black belts in any martial art as having achieved enlightenment and wisdom, and there are probably a number of black belts in jiu-jitsu who have used their journey on the mats to become better human beings as well. But most of them are just regular people who just know a lot about jiu-jitsu.

Once you’ve accepted the fact that your favorite grappler (or a large number of people in the BJJ community) have let you down, the next and obvious question is, “Now what?” What can be done when you see sponsors and promotions and other elite grapplers and coaches continuing to support these people even after they’ve shown their true colors? Is it enough to just “disown” the athlete causing the problem, or should we be going all the way down the line and refusing to give our time, money, or attention to anyone who is connected to or supports that athlete in any way at all? Yes, doing the right thing sometimes means making sacrifices, but is it fair to ask everyday jiu-jitsu practitioners to deliberately throw wrenches into their own training while elite athletes and figureheads in the sport shrug and look the other way, preventing any substantial consequences from taking place?

These are not rhetorical questions — they are moral dilemmas that many practitioners face when making tough decisions that could heavily impact their entire jiu-jitsu experience without making a dent in the careers of the athletes they want to stand up to.

There are enough racists and homophobes and transphobes and misogynists and predators and classists in the jiu-jitsu community that even when someone expresses a sentiment that would get them fired from a “normal” job, there will be enough like-minded people to keep funding their BJJ career. If a small-town coach throws around slurs and creeps on the naive white belts, the departure of five students could hurt their bottom line and at least convince them to change their behavior, if not their thoughts. This is a bit harder, though, when the behavior is coming from a big-name athlete with a huge school, plus the silence or vocal support of dozens of other big-name athletes.

Any imbalanced power dynamic relies on inaction in order to be maintained. You see this a lot when popular athletes get called out and start relying on identity-specific insults and encouraging their followers to harass the person calling them out. It can be an effective tactic to silence dissenters — Imagine being laughed at on the school playground by a group of kids, but instead it’s on social media and there are tens of thousands of potential kids willing to point and laugh at you — and the person on the favorable end of the power dynamic gets the validation they need to continue doing what they’re doing.

Even when a large number of people speak up, this creates the opportunity for the person in power to make themselves out to be a martyr — a victim of the “mob,” the only one brave enough to speak their “truth” even in the face of such controversy, a “lone wolf” amongst “sheeple” who are against “free speech.” It’s the stuff of satire, but again, it’s remarkably effective, especially when used to discredit people or companies in higher places of power (such as social media platforms that take down posts that go against their standards).

Ideally, the solution to this would be for other elite athletes to speak up against all the -ists and -phobes in our community (and a few of them have), but even that likely won’t be enough to counteract the damage that’s being done.

Jiu-jitsu relies on trust and consent in order to be safe and legal. People who are comfortable enough with their prejudice to openly express it are laying down a welcome mat for people with similar views in a sport that relies on a tap to separate fun from hospitalization. If racists are welcome in your gym, do you worry that they might ignore the tap of people of color who train with them? If your coach makes a homophobic joke and ten students laugh, are you concerned for how they might treat a teammate if their same-sex partner came to watch a tournament? You should be.

If the ability to perpetuate prejudice in jiu-jitsu relies on a power structure, we have to figure out where that leaves us. Where are you on that spectrum of power now? Where do you hope to be? What actions can you take that will create a safe, welcoming environment for other practitioners? What can you achieve from where you are now and where you aim to be in the future?

The answers to these questions will look different depending on where you are in your jiu-jitsu journey and what your goals for the future look like. A black belt instructor with a large school and strong social media following, for example, can promote inclusive policies to their own students and beyond, possibly starting an entire affiliation that can create numerous spaces where students of all demographics can feel safe where they train. A white belt hobbyist may have significantly less power, but they can talk with their coach if they notice problematic behavior in the gym or use their own social media (however small or large their following may be) to demonstrate their allyship to marginalized groups. Start a podcast, Facebook group, or organization to help underrepresented groups get the support they need in training. Vote with your wallet — if you’re avoiding a gym, product, or event because of their involvement with a particular athlete, send them an email and let them know why.

Of course, publicly calling out bad behavior when you see it can also show people in jiu-jitsu that not everyone subscribes to those beliefs. If you decide you can handle whatever backlash comes with that, go for it. If not, examine other opportunities to make the jiu-jitsu community a healthier place to be.

The jiu-jitsu world — and the world in general — is not going to get better through complacency. Our niche community may feel big, but relatively speaking, it’s tiny. We have the opportunity to make our little corner of the world a true escape from the pain that we’re all subjected to outside of the gym, and we should do our best to exercise our own power to create the type of world we want to roll in.

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