Here’s the $50,000 question:
Do Martial Arts instructors have any duty to screen their students before teaching them the skills of physical violence?
For outsiders who only know about Martial Arts through popular culture, there’s a gross, sometimes deliberately-crafted misunderstanding that a cornerstone of the hobby involves turning students into better people. Discipline, honor, self-confidence, and Eastern spiritual concepts are all dumped into a pot to make a marketing stew, that’s offered to consumers in the hopes that some of them will find it tasty enough to sign up for classes. And many people do.
Martial Arts in the United States alone are a multi-billion dollar industry. In the days when yellow-paged phonebooks were still a thing, you could flip through several of those pages, all filled with ads for schools teaching Karate, Taekwondo, Kung Fu, and less recognizable combinations of Asian words. Nowadays, an Internet search of “Martial Arts Near Me” in many places, returns a map that looks like the skin of an un-vaccinated child in a dirty pre-school:
Clearly there is a lot of competition for students, and the disingenuous technique of promoting the character-building aspects of the industry while only winking obliquely at its violent aspects is wildly successful. It appeals directly to the concerns of nervous helicopter parents and others with qualms–reasonable or unreasonable–about the idea of learning how to hurt other people. But that’s the thing about marketing–it’s the art of selling you an unreliable car based on the rich leather seats. And as long as it doesn’t involve outright falsehoods, we generally accept being sold on the sizzle rather than the steak.
So let’s be clear: the point of Martial Arts is to learn how to hurt other people. It’s not building character, it’s not self-improvement, it’s not fitness, or discipline, or honor, or cultural appreciation/appropriation/approbation. You do not need to know how to throw a punch to be a more focused individual. Mastering the nuances of sinking a forearm under the chin of an unwilling person in order to choke them unconscious is not a pathway to being a more upstanding member of society. Practicing how to kick someone’s head off their shoulders does not result in enlightenment, just encephalopathy.
So let’s be clear: the point of Martial Arts is to learn how to hurt other people.
An honest, fact-based understanding of any subject is the mandatory prerequisite for addressing its associated problems, whether by social pressure or government intervention. (This is why millions of dollars are spent in advertising to confuse the public.) In the case of the Martial Arts, the emphasis on promoting the ancillary features of the fighting arts dangerously muddies the water for several reasons, most importantly in this context being the fact that if your product can be used to harm people, you have some moral–if not legal–duty to try and ensure those who buy your product do not use it negligently.
Now, to answer the question ourselves: no, it’s not reasonable to expect a school owner or instructor to screen everyone who signs up for classes. In a perfect world, it would be easy enough to do that there wouldn’t be a financial disincentive to run background checks on everyone before they hit the mats. But that’s not the world we live in–background checks cost money, students won’t volunteer to pay them, and many schools run on tight budgets as it is. Realistically this will not be something that gets implemented any time soon.
On the other hand, by the time someone has been around long enough to earn a black belt–a symbol of mastery of your style–those excuses no longer hold water. At this point in the student-teacher-business relationship, thousands of dollars have generally been spent on classes, events, uniforms, and chintzy gym swag. More importantly, in order to award the belt, an instructor has spent thousands of hours directly evaluating the person’s performance and skills–to the point they have significant knowledge of his or her character within the walls of their school, if not out in public as a potential ambassador of their lineage.
This should be enough of an incentive for the greater Martial Arts community to police itself. But sadly, if it were, this piece would be unnecessary. Regardless, when it comes to screening a student before promoting them to an instructor or mastery-level rank, the answer is yes, there is absolutely a duty to screen them before setting them loose on a trusting public. Virtually every other notable sport, especially those involving children and teenagers, already includes background checks for those in positions of trust. Why not Brazilian Jiujitsu?
The most recent instance of this issue comes with legendary Brazilian Jiujitsu figure Rickson Gracie promoting convicted sex offenders: Scott Naugle, instructor at Leverage Jiu-Jitsu, who was convicted of sexual battery of a child less than 13 years of age. Romolo Barros Silva, who pleaded No Contest to sexually assaulting three women. David W. Arnebeck, owns three martial arts schools. In 2013 he was convicted of molesting a 15 year-old girl, in 2015 he was promoted by Rickson to second degree black belt.
The problem in the Brazilian Jiujitsu community almost seems systemic. This isn’t the first case of a “legendary” figure in that community not only promoting a sex offender, but continuing to associate with him, as we detailed with the Rigan Machado promotion of rapist Paul Saucido.
Other black belts in the community continue to speak out, but the problem remains unchecked.
As of this post, no action has been taken to strip either the rank or affiliation from these sexual predators, and they continue to be in a position to prey on vulnerable students–including children–who come to them, ironically seeking the ability to defend themselves from predators; or even more tragically, for discipline, honor, and self-confidence.