Cross Your Feet!
BJJ & The Empathy Gap

A Very Unpopular Opinion

Needless to say, it’s been a shamefully long time since I posted something new here. In the wake of my second neck surgery a few years ago and my more recent shoulder/bicep surgery, I haven’t had the drive to stay on top of the latest happenings in the grappling world. That’s not to say I haven’t done some teaching here or there or that I don’t still watch a lot of instructional videos, it’s just that my enthusiasm has waned given that I haven’t been able to train. My frustration with not being able to train serves as a nice segue into this post, which is motivated by all of the ceaseless chatter I see in FB threads and other grappling forums about reopening gyms as soon as possible. Much of what I see is willfully misinformed and even petulant. But as gyms go about reopening their doors, I did want to critically address one talking point I see a lot—namely, that the main safety measure gyms plan to use is suggesting that those who don’t feel well (or who know people who don’t feel well) should stay at home. While this advice makes sense for most communicable diseases, it doesn’t make sense with it comes to Covid-19. After all, the feature of this diseases that makes it so highly transmittable is that people can be the *most* contagious when they are still *asymptomatic*. Indeed, roughly half of the people who are infected with the virus never realize it despite the fact that they could nevertheless be shedding it. But this means that the aforementioned strategy will be too little too late. By the time people notice symptoms and hence stay home, they will have already passed on the disease to their training partners during the 5-14 days that they were asymptomatic (the range of the incubation period). There is no way of getting around this inconvenient fact. By opening gyms and training even though we can’t use social distancing, wear masks, or clean ourselves between rolls (which means we can’t meaningfully mitigate), we will thereby run the risk of turning gyms and the people who train there into vectors for Covid-19. In short, jiu jitsu gyms are uniquely situated to create unnecessary risks not just for gym members, but for their families, friends, coworkers, and the people they encounter while going about their daily lives.

Of course, I have seen countless people online insist that they have the freedom and the right to run those risks as they see fit. Worse still, others suggest that the risks will be *no different* than the ones we already ran in deciding to train before the pandemic (which is clearly stupid on the face of it). But this claim about the right to run risks cuts no ice. This only makes sense in contexts where the risks you run are your own. But lots of activities create risks that harm not only the agent, but also others (as is clearly the case with Covid-19). So, while the government doesn’t usually have the authority to paternalistically intervene to prevent people from causing harm to themselves (although, even here, the government can intervene when it comes to people who are suicidal), they *can and should* intervene when the agent’s actions will likely harm others. That is just to say that there are limits to our rights and freedoms where other-related harm is concerned. And in the case of training during the middle of a pandemic, it’s clear that those who are training are creating unnecessary risks not only for themselves (which is their business) but also for their families, friends, co-workers, and even strangers. In both criminal and civil law, this type of behavior is classified as either negligent (if done unknowingly) or reckless (if done knowingly). This suggests that this is not a trifling matter but rather something that requires deep and careful consideration. The mere fact that folks are impatient to train is not a sufficient reason to create these kinds of risks for others.

While I think the desire to train is an insufficient reason to open gyms, I appreciate the economic incentive of gym owners. After all, most gyms can’t stay in business long enough to wait for a treatment or a vaccine. So, these gyms must either reopen too early or run the risk of going out of business. I appreciate that this is a very difficult decision and I also realize that many gym owners are not taking it lightly. But in deciding to reopen, I think owners need to be frank about just how risky the decision is. Given the reasons I spelled out earlier, there really is no safe and effective way of doing this given that none of the usual precautions can be taken. Is the risk being taken worth the financial gain? That’s for others to decide. I am just suggesting that we ought to have our eyes wide open in this regard. I also think that patience and an other-regarding perspective would go a long way to prevent people in the grappling community from enacting the last scene from Braveheart—following William Wallace in bellowing “Freedom!” in protest to a grave injustice. These are extraordinary times that called for extraordinary measures. Peddling conspiracy theories and ignoring the policy suggestions of experts just so one can rationalize one's desire to train is singularly unhelpful. It also happens to be unduly dangerous to lots of people who need our help and consideration. So, while I, of all people, appreciate the frustration that goes along with not being able to train, I also appreciate the virtue of not being entirely solipsistic. Other people exist. The risks we create for them are morally weighty. Just my two cents…

p.s. I think there are lots of creative ways to keep gyms afloat while they are closed. Members who didn’t lose their jobs could and should continue paying their dues (since it’s an investment in their own future). Gyms could run fundraisers to drum up revenue. Gyms could run HIT body weight and mobility classes (which allow for social distancing) for drop-in fees. Gyms could give discounted rates to members who have the resources to pay their dues in advance. Gyms can use online conferencing platforms to deliver content to their own students and to students elsewhere (with a digital “tip cup” for people to donate money). That’s all on the gym side of things. At the state and federal level, the government could do a better job helping gyms and other small businesses instead of giving $500 billion to corporations and $130 billion in tax cuts to the real estate industry.


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Just wanted to say thank you for sharing this - I stopped training but in the months since, have been asked to train in a "closed group" and it's been harder to stay true to that decision as time has gone by. Reading your post has helped me find the resolve again.

Good to hear from you and glad that you're doing okay during these times!


Along the same lines as JB (above): what do you think of the 'bubble' idea? That is training with one other partner, both agreeing on strict measures to avoid contacts outside of the gym. This also assumes physical distance from other bubbles and cleaning measures before and after.

Thomas Nadelhoffer

Dear JB and OldGuyKeller,

Thanks for your comments! As for the bubble approach, I think it could work so long as your gym is taking a kind of phased approached as suggested by Moriarty. But if your gym is otherwise largely indifferent (and hence irresponsible) then I am not sure training at the gym will be safe until things improve. Obviously, this depends on where you live (which is also taken into account by M's guidelines). 14 states have recently seen a spike in cases and deaths. That's something everyone should watch closely. No matter what, be safe and stay healthy. Jiu jitsu will be there when this is over!

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