A Memorandum to Jiu-Jitsu: Biases Are Rampant

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The definition for Bias by the Webster’s Dictionary is as follows: “an inclination of temperament or outlook; especially: a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment,” Unless you have been living under a rock for the past week or so, this last word: judgment, has been a catalyst for much controversy within the Jiu-Jitsu community. It is no secret that the refereeing in Jiu-Jitsu has never been great; if you go to any competitor they will undoubtedly have a story about how they were “robbed” by poor refereeing in a match or maybe one of their students. This speaks to a much larger problem that many have said which is that there is an alarming amount unfair bias in Jiu-Jitsu.

Like with many things in life, people like to put things in black and white categories. Either there is corruption or there is not, either there was an outright miscarriage of justice against a competitor or it was completely fair and legitimate. Unfortunately, life is not like this and neither is Jiu-Jitsu. I think the first thing that comes to mind is how the brackets are drawn up for the black belts. Leaders of the teams are gathered to decide how the brackets are drawn up and who will face who. Now in any other sport, this would probably be scoffed at, shot down and deemed completely inane. “The idea of brackets being drawn up by team leaders is so absurd that it isn't even funny.” says Ryan Hall, American Black-Belt when I asked him, “How do you feel about how the brackets are drawn up for the major tournaments?” He continued by saying, “To call it unfair and unethical doesn't even begin to describe the situation. Though I'm certain, of course, that everyone's best interests (and the sport's, as well) are being represented by these individuals, I'm going to have to go out on a limb and guess that there aren't too many Japanese or Australian team representatives at these meetings.” I think this gets to the heart of the problem, it is stupid to say flat-out that this is wrong! These guys are screwing over the competitors! Storm the castle and topple over the establishment. Let us be grown-ups about this, the leaders of these teams more than likely want what is best for Jiu-Jitsu, they want it to grow and they want everyone to be satisfied with the process in which the brackets are drawn up. Nonetheless, it is still not how a sport, that wants to become more professional, should go about conducting their largest and most important tournaments. Imagine if in the National Football League, the coaches of each team decided the seeding for the playoffs. It is not even worth thinking about because it would not happen. “Unfortunately there are leaders who have more influence than others and take advantage of a situation that should be a democratic decision to favor their own teams. A good solution for that would be a certain kind of ranking and I heard IBJJF is working on it already.” says Felipe Costa when I asked him how he felt about the way the brackets is drawn up. He mentioned a ranking system which is encouraging to hear and I hope the federation does follow through with that.

This leads me back to the refereeing in particular. This past couple of weeks, we have seen the refereeing under the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation, come under much scrutiny, particularly by the most visible American Jiu-Jitsu team’s leader Lloyd Irvin. I am sure many people have seen his controversial post on Facebook by now, where he says “there is a good ole' boy" network within the ranks of the IBJJF refs.” Okay, first I would recommend that people read both Lloyd Irvin’s post and also Augusto "Tanquinho" Mendes post where he posted a picture that seemed to be the final straw for Lloyd Irvin. Once again, I will go back to my original feeling, there are no absolutes and nothing is exactly how it seems. Tanquinho posting that picture reeks of impropriety, now according to Tanquinho; Alvaro Mansur has helped and taught him a lot, which is the reason for posting the picture most likely. But perception is reality, the plain and simple reality is that it doesn’t look good and it gives people a reason to doubt the legitimacy of the tournament. “To put it simply, my dad doesn't get to call balls and strikes in my baseball games. He wouldn't cheat for me, but it's a conflict of interest and I certainly wouldn't blame the other team for worrying he might. The appearance of impropriety alone, much less any that may or may not actually exist, should be enough to demand change.” says Ryan Hall when asked if he felt whether or not people affiliated with teams should be allowed to referee IBJJF tournaments. The problem however is that this has been accepted as a necessary evil by many who compete. Questioning Ryan about if he had ever felt he was not given fair treatment in a match, he spoke candidly saying “Absolutely. More times than I care to remember, actually. Additionally, I have witnessed many, many other people fall victim to either gross incompetence or blatant cheating on so many occasions that I'd have to sit down for a while to even begin to jar my memory and dredge up the good ones. Saddest of all is that this is so commonplace that people seem to simply accept it as part of the game.” This is dismaying and seems to be common, even Caio Terra who has always been very outspoken aired sentiments along these lines,“Many times. But I guess it has happen to almost everyone.”

As if you complain about it, you’re making excuses for losing. “Oh you don’t like the refereeing, then go out and finish everybody.” says the imbecile, who has no understanding of accountability or how high level sports actually work. If it is my job as competitor to know the rules, make the weight and adhere to all the rules and regulations of a tournament in order to receive my compensation, whatever that is, be it medals, money or even a plane ticket to Abu-Dhabi; then the referees must be made accountable for what they do. The idea that it is all in the hands of the competitors and referees bare no responsibility is infuriating. “Speaking personally, I'm tired of not only me and my students being on the receiving end of some absolutely horrific refereeing that toes the line between gross incompetence and outright cheating, but also seeing it happen to other people I have nothing to do with. It's very disconcerting and one of the major reasons that I have decided to leave competitive Jiu-Jitsu. NFL referees (not that Jiu-Jitsu is anything even remotely close to a sport of that level) certainly do not have any affiliation with teams or players. If they do or did, they are removed. This is not a complex idea, so I am left to speculate as to why it has not been instituted, particularly as Jiu-Jitsu has adopted some external vestiges of professionalism. I have a few theories that I'll keep to myself at this point” Strong words from Ryan Hall and he makes some interesting points.

So the only thing left at this point is to ask, “How do we fix this?” I am under no illusions about the limitations and resources of a niche sport like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. This is not the National Football League, this is not Mixed Martial Arts, hell this not even International Wresting. Caio Terra, who has been one of the most vocal critiques of refereeing, asserts that, “As of right now, we don’t have another option, especially because most rules are subjective so the ref should know BJJ.” in response to the question of whether or not affiliates of teams should be allowed to referee. Felipe Costa also adds on to this by saying, “It would be great if it was not, but is not the reality of an amateur sport like ours. The most important thing to do in my opinion is to train properly the referees and pay them decently. None of this happens today.”

This is the unfortunate reality of Sport Jiu-Jitsu right now. My solution to this problem has always been getting third party referees to work these events, no affiliations to Jiu-Jitsu, train them properly and this will eliminate many of the grievances people have.What I am always met with in response is these things cost money, but don’t give me this nonsense that the Federation cannot afford to do this for the major tournaments. If it is true than I would much rather see resources allocated towards third party refs than the membership program they have instituted, I would rather see this than the IBJJF TV and I would much rather see this than pointless drug testing. Not to say these things do not hold any value, but the need to legitimize the tournaments is more pressing and should take precedents. Ryan Hall seems to agree with my line of thinking, offering a similar solution, “Solution? Get impartial individuals from outside the sport, train them, and pay them to do a good job. Institute a system for evaluating their performances, as well as a means of filing a grievance that will actually be listened to (there currently is none).” Caio Terra offers a less radical solution that I would not be surprised to see the Federation implement something similar to this effect, “They should have tests and only have people who passed in the test refereeing. For that to happen they would need to pay better the refs, so they could actually study the rules. Something that 95% of them don’t.”  

I find myself very lucky, to be involved in a sport that is so infantile in its growth. To be able to witness Jiu-Jitsu and participate in it at such a pivotal time in its history is surreal to me. What gets lost in the conversation often is the IBJJF has not been around for very long. It took many years for mainstream sports to get where they are today; it did not happen overnight and it will not happen that way for Jiu-Jitsu. The only thing that can stand in its way is ignorance and misguided ideologies by old-timers of the sport and the current generation alike. One thing that I have noticed recently is the federation seems to be very responsive to what the public sentiment is and try to change accordingly. This is something that I hope continues because not maximizing the potential of this beautiful art is the greatest injustice we could ever do.