Make them earn it
A disclaimer: In this post I will be describing something that happened to a friend of mine and my take on the situation. I realize that not everyone will agree with my opinion. While I won’t apologize for it, your feedback and discussion are always welcome.
Loyalty and respect are themes that are pervasive in the martial arts and jiu-jitsu is certainly no exception. In fact it seems that the higher the belt, the more respect a person gets, whether earned or not. I’ve had some reason to examine what the notions of respect and loyalty in BJJ mean to me in the past few weeks.
Last summer I attended a 4-day jiu-jitsu event. I went with a teammate of mine who I managed to persuade to come with me because 1) she is awesome and 2) I was afraid of being the only woman there. As luck would have it, there was another woman signed up. The three of us lodged together and became fast friends. The event, although open to the public, was run by a prominent regional BJJ franchise. Most of the instructors and attendees (including my new friend) were members of this organization. This summer the event was scheduled to take place again and my new friend and I both signed up.
About a month and a half ago I was sitting in my gym waiting for BJJ to start and catching up on Facebook news. I saw the following post from my friend:
I immediately reached out to her to see if she was ok. She assured me that although she was a bit upset, she was going to be fine and keep training. After making sure she was ok my thoughts naturally turned to me (I am ridiculously self-centered) and I wondered if her no longer being associated with the organization was going to affect her going to the event. I asked her if she was still comfortable going and she said she was, that she still had a lot of friends that she was looking forward to seeing and it was going to be fine.
A few days later a mutual friend brought my attention to the following Facebook post from her ex-coach (clearly my sister has been right all these years and Facebook is indeed evil):
This post was very disturbing to me. Of course the first thing I felt was outrage and sympathy for my friend. I could only imagine what she was going through because of what seemed to me to be an angry, hurtful and juvenile attack on her character.
I next couldn’t help but think about how unprofessional and “un-BJJ” like the post was. I understand saying heated things out of anger, but surely a business owner who makes a living in a discipline that is centered on respect would realize this wasn’t a good way to represent himself to the community.
I figured that if he had still been too upset to realize this wasn’t the right thing to do, surely someone else in the organization would tell him. I expanded the status to see the comments, expecting at least some of them to be admonishing and was dismayed to see that not only had everyone else seemed to be happy to add to the mudslinging, the head of the organization, several coaches and some potential camp attendees had “liked” the status. In case you are wondering if maybe they didn’t realize who her ex-coach was talking about, he mentioned her by name in the comments.
As I sat there reading the nasty comments, my heart sank. I was upset for my friend and what she was going through but I was also upset as a woman who trains jiu-jitsu.
My friend and I are in very similar situations in that we are often the only woman on the mat during class. Even if you are a woman who gets to train with lots of other women, the overwhelming majority of people in the sport are men. There is a good chance that you are going to become friends with a lot of guys. I know that her close friendship with one training partner (who also left the gym to pursue MMA) had long been a source of speculation at her gym.
I have made many friends, both male and female, that I hope I will be talking to for the rest of my life through jiu-jitsu. I know I am not alone in this, jiu-jitsu has a way of bonding people. I know anytime a man and woman spend a lot of time together some people will start to speculate but because most of the people involved in jiu-jitsu are men, it is only natural that a woman who trains would become friends with men.
However as a woman who is surrounded by men while training you can’t help but worry about the perceptions of others sometimes. In a sport where many of the positions are suggestive (for examples read the comments under the recent Kyra pictures), it is natural to be concerned about what people think about the one lady rolling around on the floor with a bunch of men between her legs.
These concerns are largely unfounded but they are there for a lot of women who train. My hope would be that the leader of a gym would do all he could to dispel these misconceptions. Instead my friend’s coach not only chose to feed into them, but used them to bully and slander her.
A few days later she called to tell me that things had gotten worse. She was concerned for her safety and no longer felt comfortable going to the event. I told her that I understood and she said she was going to talk to the man organizing the event to try to get a refund of her deposit. I told her I was not very interested in attending anymore either and she said she was going to try to get my deposit back as well.
My friend spoke with the organizer and we found out that we were not going to get our deposits back. Although disappointed, I was not overly surprised. I accept his reasoning that he had already used the money setting up the event with only the slightest bit of skepticism and anger.
Obviously my friend was not going to go under any circumstances, especially since her ex-coach was likely to attend. I was left with the decision to either lose my deposit money, $325, or spend an additional $500-$600 on getting to the event by myself and paying the remainder of the tuition.
I didn’t like the idea of losing money but I couldn’t stop thinking about what her ex-coach had said and how others in the organization had reacted to it. I have often struggled with feeling like I don’t fit in when training. There is a certain testosterone-laced machismo that goes along with training a combat sport and as a woman, it’s easy to feel out of place and even isolated sometimes.
I know that much of this is in my head. Many of the people who train jiu-jitsu feel out of place sometimes whether it be because of their age, their size, their perceived lack of athletic ability, etc.
To me, her ex-coach’s statement felt like he was confirming the secret fear that so many women have felt when training, that we don’t belong there. He had rid the gym of the girl who comes in not to train but to cheat on her husband with the men at the gym. He only mentioned her by name in his status suggesting he was placing the blame for these alleged affairs squarely on her shoulders. It made me feel like my inner fear was true, the boys don’t want the girls to train. The support of the leaders of his team suggested that they agreed.
Even if you do not agree with my interpretation, I think it’s hard to argue that her ex-coach’s statement was anything but disrespectful. He used accusations spread about in a gym and posted them as if they were fact without any kind of proof. Even if he had believed his words to be truth, he showed a complete lack of respect for her family in posting them publicly.
In the end I made the only decision I could and skipped the event. I couldn’t go and pretend I was ok with the way my friend’s ex-coach had treated her and the team’s continued support of him. As the event came and went and I saw pictures posted online that included her ex-coach, I knew I had made the right decision.
I don’t know if the leaders of the organization addressed this situation with my friend’s ex-coach behind the scenes. It is my hope they did. I do know that no one has apologized to my friend for what he put her through and publicly they have done nothing but support him.
So I didn’t get to go away for vacation this summer. It wasn’t a complete loss though. This experience reminded me that respect and loyalty are not things we should give away blindly based on the color of a belt someone puts on or the team they train under, but rather they have to be earned.