Apologies to Martial Sports
By Herb Borkland
After my last
column "attacking" martial sports, I received fewer death
threats than usual, and most of those were along the well-worn lines of
"You bleeping-deleted-censored, I'll be waiting outside on your lawn
"And you're going to do exactly what, sportsman? Out point me?"
But I got a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger phone call from my Grandmaster.
And I knew I was in deep kimshi when he spent the first few minutes quietly
reminiscing about the great old days training at his dojang. Then, off-handedly,
he mentioned my Kukkiwon fourth dan. (Seoul's Kukkiwon is the world headquarters
of Korean taekwondo; and, thus, at the epicenter of Olympic sport TKD.)
What the Grandmaster hinted was clear enough and very damning. Since
I hold international master's rank in sport TKD, and yet go about publicly
criticize martial sports, I am a honking great hypocrite.
Guilty, Your Honor – with extenuating circumstances. Please, may
I address the court?
First of all, when I started training under Jhoon Rhee in the first TKD
school in the U.S., we were studying a combat art – the big switch-over
to Olympic sport had not yet occurred (with, when it did come, the unhappy
consequence of briefly corrupting everything Kukkiwon had stood for...
but that's a different column).
Moreover, high-ranking instructors I know mock me for only being a fourth
dan, after all these years. The reason is, in truth, I have little interest
in claiming mastery of a sport. But even so, even so...
Let me start by publicly apologizing to martial sportsmen, to "karate
instructors," and especially, to the teachers of our children. Over
the years, I have TV-interviewed and written dozens of articles about
some of the best and most successful among you. My admiration for what
you have accomplished as career blackbelts and martial business people
is unreserved and genuine.
I visit schools where, for example, I watch with whole-hearted admiration
the spiritual disciples of Kimber Hill, creator of Lil' Dragons, working
magic with pre-kindergarten-age boys and girls.
Some of these kids, too many, are products of broken homes, or from families
that were never together to begin with: kids who drift unsupervised through
aimless, ignorant days of junk food, gangsta rap, and first-person-shooter
Especially sad, to me, are the boys whose unhappy single moms once bought
into the PC crap that boys and girls are exactly alike, it's only "our
sexist society" which makes them act differently.
Once single mothers began to realize they have been lied to, they started
showing up at karate schools – there are hundreds of thousands of
these mothers, nationwide – desperately grateful for a strong male
figure their sons actually respect and want to emulate.
Let me tell you about "casserole moms."
I'm proud to mentor a first-class, street-credible TKD instructor, master
Roosevelt Shephard, who owns a fighting school in small-town Texas, outside
an Army base. He talks about "casserole moms." The home situation
of fatherless boy students became clear to him when shy, grateful mothers
began showing up at school with casseroles, gifts for the master, as a
way of saying thanks.
"He says 'sir' and 'ma'am' now," these hard-pressed, well-meaning
women say. "He keeps his room clean." The sparkle in their eyes
may be a misting of tears. "He's getting good grades in school."
This phenomenon of role-model martial arts instructors has become unique
in a society where the public schools and even The Boy Scouts no longer
teach the simplest human values. That it should end up being, of all people,
the strip-mall masters who are helping save a lost generation, makes me
proud as hell.
Yes, I have written in praise of traditional martial arts. Tradition
is profound and important in ways sports do not pretend to be. But, ironically,
the "karate" instructor, often the purveyor of a sport, has
become the living fulfillment of the highest promise of traditional martial
arts – that we can forge strong, healthy, alert, honest, can-do,
unafraid, and self-respecting students.
Okay, Your Honor, then what am I, the defendant, kvetching about when
I rip martial sports? I'm saying that, important as it may be, this new
kid-friendly mission is itself as reductive of the original meaning of
the arts as are MMA bouts. And by "reductive," I mean that some
crumbs of the vast harvest of the arts are having to be served up as the
This unhappy situation is nobody's fault. On the contrary, the kids benefit,
the schools profit, the instructors are justly proud of their contribution
to our communities. I'm not saying you martial sports people are bad.
I'm saying, while my guitar gently weeps, that we are cheating ourselves
Courtesy bow – shaolin salute. The defense rests.
About The Author:
Washington, D.C. native Herb Borkland has been called "a
martial arts pioneer" because he was an original student at the first
taekwondo school in the United States. After taking his degree at The
University of Virginia, Herb went on to become a closed-door student of
the legendary Robert W. Smith, author of the first English-language book
about tai chi. An Inside Kung-Fu Hall of Fame writer, he was the first
journalist ever invited to train in SCARS, the Navy SEALs fighting system.
Herb scripted "Honor&Glory" for Cynthia Rothrock, featured
on HBO, as well as winning the first-place Gold Award at the Houston International
Film Festival for his Medal of Honor soldier screenplay "God of War."
For three years he hosted the national half-hour Black Belts cable-TV
show. Herb and his wife, the Cuban-American painter Elena Maza, live in