Should Martial Artists Be Licensed?
Updated: Feb 25
Periodically, someone will make a push to require some sort of official regulation and licensing for martial arts instructors. This story from the UK came to my attention: Martial arts knife teaching 'should face better controls'
The reasoning is usually all about making sure that martial arts instructors are teaching authentic material safely and to assure the public that their teacher is certified and background checked.
I empathize with this idea.
There are certainly too many people teaching bad and dangerous information to people who don't know any better. There is certainly nothing to stop anyone from offering martial arts training with literally zero training and I don't like that at all.
We also have a Sensei Scumbag problem. That's what I call the asshats who use martial arts training as a method to sexually and emotionally abuse students, which seems to be something that makes the news at least once a week.
Regulation - official legal regulation - is often proposed as a solution to these issues, usually proposed as background checks and licensing by some governmental board.
I don't agree with that, and here's why:
Who decides what is "dangerous" and what isn't, and to what degree? We always use the most obvious as the example, but in reality, much of what we do is only dangerous in certain situations and not so much in others, and it's all a matter of degree.
For example, there are people who think that kids can't learn Filipino Martial Arts with rattan sticks and insist they use padded sticks. I actually think this is more dangerous than rattan (false sense of security and padded sticks are not as good at blocking as rattan is - I have been hurt with padded sticks way more than I have with rattan). But what if those people had control of the licensing organization and forced me to comply with their point of view?
What's my recourse, there? I'm being told I MUST do something I know is more dangerous. If I disagree... tough luck for me? I gotta do the more dangerous thing because some government body says so?
Innovation will be stifled. How will such a body handle a new approach to martial arts training? Government bodies are not well known for being ahead of the curve in such things, and how long would it take for a new style to be "certified"?
I bet right now NO new martial arts style would be "approved" by the government body, just as licensing boards are often a barrier to keeping competition and innovation down in other areas of life (read about that here and here).
Given how young the Filipino Martial Arts are in the world at large, I doubt that the empty-hand world dominated by karate and taekwondo and kung fu would have allowed the FMA's to be taught in such a scheme because of how "dangerous" they'd claim it is. It is weapons-heavy, after all, and weapons are inherently dangerous and if you don't teach them the way the established arts do... you must be wrong.
They gotta protect the public, after all, right?
You think we're "political" now? Wait until the government gets involved! We'd quickly get to a point where a certain style or lineage would capture the official body, and not only regulate teaching obviously bad or dangerous information, but also anything that they don't agree with.
We are a very, very splintered community, guys. We "break up" our organizations and with teachers over basic disagreements over how to do stances and which forms should be taught. We will have students and teachers stop talking to each other over this stuff.
Can you imagine what that'll be like when there's taxes and bureaucrats and politicians and fines and jail time involved?
Speaking of jail time, how will this be enforced? Fines? Okay, but what if I don't pay the fines? Jail time?
You really want to put someone in jail for teaching an unapproved martial arts technique or style?
We have people killed over traffic stops and literally just peacefully being in their own yards in the United States - you want to risk killing someone over unlicensed ninja-larping training in his basement? Especially since there really isn't any evidence other than our imaginations that "unapproved" martial arts training is actually a serious risk in real life for most of us?
Regulation won't stop Sensei Scumbag. Public school teachers in the US are certified and background checked, and there are also stories on a weekly basis of them abusing students physically, sexually, and emotionally.
Sensei Scumbag is really, really good at hiding his scumbaggery until he's actually caught. Even in well-organized and regulated sports organizations it happens, such as the Olympic bodies for martial arts sports here in the US.
But I don't want you to think I'm not in favor of licensing bodies. I just don't think they should be required by law.
It is a great idea to create private groups where there is a standard to be met to be "officially licensed" by that body to teach. I think of it as a "Good Housekeeping Seal" kind of thing - not perfect, but a way to separate shenanigans from solid instruction.
Such a scheme would at least give prospective students and their families a way to help them decide who to train with other than "Wow, that dude has a really impressive uniform and belt and some papers on the wall written in a foreign language, so he must be legit!"
But, nope, I certainly don't agree that those groups should be able to use the force of law to enforce membership or compliance with their dictates. I think the problems associated with it simply aren't worth the risk of having bad teachers teaching dangerous material.
Official government licensing of the martial arts? No thanks.
Do you think there should be licensing of martial arts instructors? How would that work? How would you deal with the downsides I've mentioned here? Let us know in the comments!