Monday, May 12, 2014

Who Bears the Weight of Community PR in BJJ?

I hadn't planned to start writing again for a can be easy to get caught up in feeling repetitive as a blogger  (and I still haven't figured out how I wanted to end the last series I did) but some hullabaloo over Dean Lister and some sexual pantomimes and Lister's responses and Lister's defenders has popped up, and I wanted to clear my head a bit.

I think it's important for me to say that there are very few things in life I see as one-off or isolated incidents. I believe that if that wasn't true before, the Internet (social media specifically), has made it so today. I believe that we really are all marketers now.

So I've been training...rolling up on 5 years soon, and I still remember my first class. It was taught by a black belt who I now consider a friend. I was in his class for a few years and our similar personalities and approaches in working with people made connecting very organic. I've said before that I knew we'd be buddies after only a couple of classes

I train at a gym where our greetings are pretty formal--we bow off and on the mats. You have to find, bow and shake the hands of all black belts on the mat when entering and leaving. That's never been difficult for me since I was brought up with some decently rigid rules around addressing those in different power positions. Needless to say, the bro-hugs that we used off the mat as greetings didn't fit in our academy's culture. I knew that, but still, once someone's a friend, even if there's a black belt around their waist, it can be easy to forget where you are. 

Well one day I saw him, drew my hand back, let out a "What's up!!" and went in for a front of Parrumpa. 

"You can't do that. Greet him like a black belt."

I knew he was right...for both the sake of the belt itself and the perception of the belt by others. See...I've heard Parrumpa say similar things to teammates before, usually starting at blue. By the time you have color around your waist, it's quite apparent that he's aware of what the perception of that color means. I was also reminded of my own talk with a higher belt who'd done something similar (to the video) with me once, and how my concern didn't come so much from personal offense, but from the resulting break in respect from white belts (and having to start from scratch in teaching them how to behave with female students) who had been quick to take social cues from behavior of higher ranked students.

And that, is where I think the disconnect in the Lister discussion falls. Dean and his supporters are arguing over the harmlessness of the incident itself, the woman's personal lack of issue with it and Lister's impeccable record as a competitor and instructor. Criticisms center around the perception of him giving a mock handjob to people who don't know the context. You gotta love false dichotomies.

I'll say both sides are right in their own contexts...but I also don't believe that all contexts are created equal. 

I spend a lot of time thinking of BJJ and the future and how it's perceived and by whom it's seen. The clip (now taken down) is obviously not an ad for a BJJ class, but still, this behavior (initially private, now public by way of the Internet) is definitely not a selling point...mostly because it's not special, unique to, or a characteristic of BJJ. Pretty much any sports-centered environment provides a space where hand jobs are considered funny and teasing is the norm. Relaxing for some people? Sure. A unique selling proposition for BJJ? Not in the least. 

And while I've heard people defend it as such, I know...I hope rather...that's not what anybody involved in the video was going for. I did have to ask myself though, why people (in this case, Dean Lister) are quick to double down on defending an "inside joke" that likely should have stayed indoors.

There's a saying in business that "you get what you measure". As Lister points out, he's created champions and has held seminars in over 40 countries. Little of his career reward or measurement centers around his public perception...BJJ has no big sponsors to threaten pulling out or PR firms coaching athletes. So in light of the current state of cash in BJJ, I get it. There is simply no reason, aside from personal values, to give respectful thought to the opinions of an "extreme minority".

I'm not going to quote Uncle Ben or rehash my thoughts on the complexity of the perception of stars in any community, but for me personally, this hurt a bit...the responses much more than the video. 

I still remember the first time I heard Lister on InsideBJJ and being immediately enamored with his polyglot status (I have a knee-jerk love for language people), honesty about his experiences as a child growing up as an outsider, and how he spoke and thought about BJJ. I'm in no way naive as to the humanity of humans, but I did, based on what I'd heard before, and a side conversation I'd recently had with him, expect deeper, if not only different responses. 


slideyfoot said...

Good to see you posting on your personal blog again! :)

Yeah, I think I've got a similar perspective on the Lister video and response. Up until that video, I'd only seen positive reactions to Lister and had thought of him as an example of the more progressive end of BJJ.

However, much like in the MANTO thread back during their PR misstep, the responses on that thread were disappointing. Lister is obviously an intelligent guy, so I expected more than "bro, it was a joke, lighten up you feminazi."

The fact that he had plenty of support from the woman in question (and other women at the seminar) is worth noting. However, it doesn't automatically disregard the potential effect that kind of (IMO, misplaced) humour could have on other people interested in the sport.

I know that I personally would be completely put off an academy if it regularly did that kind of thing. There were some great responses on that thread from Georgette, Griff Sombke and especially this one from Anthony Barr-Jeffrey:

---"Dean, this whole thing should be a reminder that with great power and internet exposure comes great responsibility, whether we like it or not. On some level, this is not about you!

I'm sorry you feel that your joke was misunderstood but you

a) control your own press;

b) are a professional athlete and are held to pretty freaking high standard whether you want to be or not (and it can impact your bottom line, whether you think political correctness is the problem or not) and

c) have an obligation to protect our sport from misuse of power in whatever form. Whether or not any of your team think it was a joke doesn't matter once you post it.

If this was an inside joke, then keep it inside, don't post it. The streets are watching and you matter. This isn't about you!

Your behavior influences people you want to influence and people you don't, because you have well-earned celebrity.

You not only left it open to the interpretation of so-called "misandrists" but also to misogynist and predators who are happy to misinterpret your joke as further tacit encouragement of their attitudes.

I'm not saying you are a terrible person who has done terrible things or are directly responsible for terrible people's terrible actions. You may have felt misunderstood or attacked but none of that changes the fact that your behavior happens in a context and you have influence you have to own up to.

You are freaking Dean Lister, after all! :-)---"

Megan said...

That was my favorite comment too (I alluded to it a bit), especially this part "You not only left it open to the interpretation of so-called "misandrists" but also to misogynist and predators who are happy to misinterpret your joke as further tacit encouragement of their attitudes."

But does remind me of MANTO. Ok, fine, you did something I wouldn't do that I might even be offended by, but I can get past that. The response to criticism though as a business/community leader/star...whole different ballgame.

New Girl said...

I'm delighted that you're writing again - I love your writing! I totally agree that we all represent the sport. I think this is heightened for me being female, since we are such a minority in BJJ. Even though I'm a lowly whitebelt, I might be the only woman someone ever meets who trains BJJ. It may not be fair, but their perception of women in BJJ could be completely formed on their interaction with me.

I loved my copy of GroundWork by the way, thank you! (I was the competition winner from Julia's blog a while ago.)

Megan said...

Awesome New Girl!! Glad you liked it:)

I think a lot of choice or not...are unaware of the power they have to influence others.