Our Entitlement Culture

When the 2010 USJA Board of Directors was elected, I had high hopes that my two passions in national affairs- coach education and high dan promotions- would be addressed, and glaring problems within the two programs would be resolved. I say “high hopes” because prior to the elections several of the current officers lead me to believe that they agreed that both programs were in need of a serious reappraisal and restructuring. Although it’s only been seven months since the administrative change, it’s still evident, and not surprising, that an entitlement culture still persists at all levels of the Judo community , especially when it comes to high dan promotions. This entitlement culture makes any effort at restructuring a very difficult task, yet we must slay the beast.

During the USJA Board meeting at the USJA/USJF Junior Nationals, it was announced that two more people had been promoted to 7th dan! I am sure these two are great guys who have dedicated their lives to Judo in one capacity or another. But 7th dan should be reserved for people who have accomplished great things in Judo and are well-known in the national/international Judo community. I had never heard of these two. Evidently, our standard promotion operating system is still in effect: gather points at the kindergarten level, survive your time-in-grade, pay the exorbitant fee, and get what pretty much amounts to an automatic promotion. Where’s the quality control? If you are still not clear on what quality control means, read this to get a better feel.

On a positive note, the first salvo aimed at decreasing the ridiculously large number of unmerited high dan promotions to American players was led by the new chairman of the promotion committee, Sid Kelly. Unfortunately, his first attempt to interject a “performance” criterion into the system failed by a large margin within the promotion committee. Kelly had proposed that promotions to sixth dan and above would require that a candidate have placed at our national championships.  How dare he stop marginal 4th dans from becoming 6th-9th dans. Horror!

Once an entitlement program is launched, it is hard to dismantle it. But dismantle is what we need to do to make high dan promotions meaningful, and to reserve them for the few, truly accomplished judokas. Unfortunately, many of the members of the USJA Board of Directors and Promotion Committee are current beneficiaries of promotion largesse. They are heavily vested in maintaining the low standards, which will allow them to reach even greater heights of unmerited promotions. They really don’t have a clue as to why they should not be 9th dans, even when international standards are explained to them. Thankfully, a few do know that they don’t deserve the rank they hold. And a few have taken the bold step of declaring that they are at their terminal rank.

USJA high dan promotions continue to be out of control, yet the current USJA Promotion Committee has voted to maintain the status quo. Therefore, I call on those who deep-down know we have been heading in the wrong direction for the last twenty years to help effect the change we desperately need. Have the courage to do the right thing for American Judo. Return sanity to the rank system. Step up to the plate, especially if you told me you would if you were elected, and put a stop to our promotion-fest, even if it means you will never again be promoted.

With Sid Kelly’s permission, I’ve included a letter he sent to the 2002 USJA Board of Directors. I think it sums up the promotion situation in terms we can all understand. We can easily slay the entitlement beast if we accept his premise.



All sports have to endure difficulties which are the by-products of politics. However, no other sport but judo has a reason that causes these  by-products to be so inflated. And this reason is judo’s longstanding curse: the insidious, despicable, inherited system of ranking.

Judo rank is awarded for ability and service. Ideally, higher ranks should only be awarded when lower ranks were gained by ability at a young age, and service ranks acquired at a later age. If service rank is started  at a young age or at an age past one’s physical prime, very high rank should be impossible to attain. Otherwise, it gives the impression that players of limited ability are far more talented and capable than they really are. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world, and judo rank can and is being acquired through other means. Judo rank can now be, and has been, acquired through financial purchase, influence, nepotism, and, most of all, presenting a highly distorted view of one’s judo services rendered. This means, after the passing of time, a player of limited talent and ability can appear equal to, or, in some cases, better than another player of superior talent and achievements.

All too often it is difficult to get a clear picture of things when we are very close to or deeply immersed in a situation. Things become much clearer when we step outside  our environment and view things from a different perspective. To help us understand our judo situation more clearly, let us consider what happens when another sport awards honors to its participants through a system of ranking. We can consider any sport, because the historical consistency of human nature tells us the results would be the same. Let us imagine we are deeply involved in the sport of cycling and asking ourselves, ‘What is happening to our dearly beloved sport of cycling?’ Let us evaluate the effect of what this accursed, despicable thing called rank has on people, and ultimately on the sport of cycling.

Let’s say a man wins for three consecutive years the cycling race the Tour de France. Winning this event is cycling’s most illustrious prize. By winning this, plus some other notable events, the cyclist is awarded, at the age of 28, eight stripes. The highest award possible is 20 stripes. He now retires from competition and devotes the rest of his life to the service of cycling. In his   70th year, he is awarded the revered rank of 19 stripes. A very high honor indeed, as only a few men in the world are deserving of such a meritorious award.

Now competing in the same Tour de France race was another man who came 179th. Not bad considering the caliber of the race, but not in the same class as our man who came in first for three consecutive years. In his local town Mr. 179 is considered a cycling expert. However, when truly tested in world class competition he had not trained hard enough, and did not fully understand what was needed to go the extra mile (no pun intended) to win the race. But he was fanatically interested in cycling. He would astound the novice and seasoned player with information that flowed from his smooth tongue. He knew the name of every bicycle, their places of manufacture, the number of spokes on different size wheels, materials of bicycle components,    number  of links  in  different length  chains, gear ratios of sprockets, correct greases and lubrications, brake lining materials, names of present and past champions, and who had won what and when and where.

Our Mr. 179 wanted very much to be recognized, and he knew that he could be, because he understood how the ranking system was set up. He knew it was possible, because the powers that be in the cycling world had decided, in their wisdom, that awarding cycling rank through service would help the sport grow. The false logic behind all this was that cycling would become more popular, and standards would improve, if people were motivated and rewarded and recognized with a service rank. This recognition was not done with a belt, as, say, in the martial arts, but by having the bike painted a certain color. So when a person rode by, however slowly, people would drool and say, “Wow, there  goes a 15-striper.”  Besides earning stripes for ability,  stripes could be attained by accumulating service points for attending cycling events, helping at cycling events, attending cycling camps, teaching at cycling clubs, assistant teaching at cycling clubs, officiating at events, getting news and sports media to attend functions, and the list went on and on, including, and especially, raising money for, or donating money to, the cycling association.

Not only did our Mr. 179 assiduously pursue his path of accumulating points, he was also very conscious of the field of public relations. Whenever a camera clicked, he was there in front of it. In the national cycling quarterly magazine he was shown rubbing shoulders with the greats, giving out trophies to 10 year olds, and reporting on clinics he had given. As the years rolled by our Mr. 179 would submit his paperwork in a timely manner to the promotion board. He knew each person on the board intimately, as many of them were of the same ilk. They, too, had worked conscientiously on their points, and had also submitted their paperwork in a timely manner. Eventually, Mr. 179 was awarded his 19 stripes. He was now respected and revered as much as the man who had placed first for three consecutive years in the Tour de France race. But what was more amazing than Mr. 179 becoming Mr. 19 stripes was, he really believed he was equal to the Tour de France winner and other champions. Why shouldn’t he? After all, he had put his time in, and he knew the right type of grease to use on different chains at different altitudes.

As the generations passed by, unhealthy signs began to appear through the cause and effect of awarding stripes. Many champions retired from the cycling scene. This was because they were either too old to challenge the younger competitors, or they were fed up with being surrounded by people far less capable and experienced than themselves, but who were more politically oriented and continually inflating their past achievements. Some of these people had, through their consummate long-term machinations, been promoted to equal and even higher ranks than these ex-champions. On the other hand, these wannabes who had never had the satisfaction of winning high cycling accolades plodded on, driven by several reasons. They plodded on because, to give credit where credit is due, they had a genuine interest in cycling. But the real motivating factor was, they realized that they could be awarded higher and higher stripes, as others had done before– others who had never won a noteworthy cycling race in their lives.

In time, the final outcome of all this was to have disastrous effects on the standards and popularity of cycling. All the committees and sub-committees that made important decisions consisted mainly of people with watered- down stripes. These committees allocated more money for buying buildings,  computers, office equipment, and marketing paraphernalia than they did on any training programs, whether it be for top athletes preparing for international events or up-and-coming cyclists. They made the requirements for stripes more and more service oriented. They selected trainers for teams who were people like themselves. That is, trainers who did not know what they were doing when it really came down to the nitty-gritty of winning a cycling race. So, in the long run, the results were inevitable. There were no results. None of their players ever placed anywhere in world events. There were occasional moments of glory, but it was usually when an individual  went abroad to train under the tutelage of his father or some foreign coach. Never through the system that had become saturated with self-anointed high-stripers did a squad of capable cyclists emerge. The country finally became a joke in the international cycling community. And this was sad, because there were many people who were sincerely trying to help  the sport of cycling.

In the final analysis, the root reason why all this happened was that leaders in other countries took their cycling very seriously, whereas, in the country that had become an international joke, most of the leaders only took themselves very, very seriously.

So, the message to all of you that are interested in cycling is: When you read or hear or speak to someone who has the cycling rank of 15, 16, 17, 18, or especially 19 stripes, and has never won a major competition in his or her life, or has not contributed to judo in a major way: THE BOOKS HAVE BEEN COOKED! YOU CAN BET YOUR LIFE ON IT!

Sid Kelly,

Four Stripes (and working on more).

West Haven, Connecticut, August 2002.

7 thoughts on “Our Entitlement Culture

  1. Interesting take!

    Let’s assume that in Judo we have a single division (like the All Japan Championships) and it included men and women. Then the promotion system that Mr. Kelly is talking about would make sense.

  2. Excellent points by both you and Sid. I’ve long wondered if judo would simply be better off without rank entirely. When something becomes more political than meaningful, or it’s meaning becomes too blurry, it’s useless. Most other sports in the world don’t need it and they survive and thrive. You just know who the good wrestlers are and the good wrestling coaches, for example. You learn from whomever you can and nobody worries about the status of rank.

    I know and respect many deserving high dan ranks (like Sid). I find it funny that Jim Bregman, a world class competitor and amazing teacher has to have dan ranks thrust upon him. He often just wears a black belt (he’s now a red belt) on the mat. He tries to sit with the godans instead of the kyudans. I know what guys like Sid and Jim have done, and what they offer as teachers. I see other folks with red and white belts linger around the mat, but rarely see them teach. Some of them may well be deserving based on their accomplishments and knowledge; some probably aren’t.

    I know that I’ll probably hit my terminal rank soon (if I haven’t already) and it won’t be ninth dan. What will never stop is my personal commitment to improve my judo, expand my knowledge, and improve my teaching ability. My competitive days are over (unless I want to compete in kata, which I don’t), so my contribution must be through the students that I develop. I know people deserving of higher ranks who just don’t care about rank at all, so they never test.

    Perhaps the issue isn’t with rank, per se, but with the attitude that comes with it. With any rank, the feeling that you don’t deserve it and must work hard to fit into it creates the best mindset.

  3. I think you are missing the point. It has nothing to do with a single division sport like cycling vs a multiple division sport like Judo. It’s about performance pure and simple.

  4. Granted, it should be about performance, but at what level? The way the system is designed, the level of competition varies from division to division, state to state, world cup to world cup. Look at the last couple of WC events.

    Some divisions are lightly contested where others World Cups include some heavy lifters.

    To place 3rd in a division of 4 at the smaller World Cup events is no great feat, yet the system we are forced to follow, grants a certain status to it. Does that make the Judoka that can afford to attend a better Judoka? No.

    While I’ll agree that rank should have nothing to do with performance, this rank system was designed by the Kodokan. We’ve adopted some portions of it and while I’ve always felt there was a level of corruption in the USJA/USJF/USA Judo’s promotion board, isn’t there corruption in everything?

    How many non-Japanese have attained KUDAN from the Kodokan? Is it because they weren’t worthy or did it have more to do with politics?

  5. I think it’s a given that not all tournament wins deserve the same weight. Weighing tournament results would be one of the functions of the promotion board.

  6. Once again I found your article well thought out and well written. I see little reason why your blog should not be mandatory reading for everyone involved in judo. People may not always agree on everything, but they do need to think about what goes on in judo. The more thought that is given, the better chance that action will be taken. Entitlement does not have to always be a negative, it’s just too much of the time it turns out that way. Entitlement can be a good thing. For example, I’m going to entitle myself to accept my current rank as terminal. Why? Because I do not deserve to be ranked any higher. Second, I am not in judo for the “glory” and third it’s about time we start doing what is right and NOT what we think we are entitled to. Frankly I hope I am wrong, but I do not think many people have the stones to look in the mirror and admit that they are over ranked and then have the back bone to accept self entitled terminal rank.

  7. Another thought provoking read. Here in the UK I am beginning to see many red and white belts sported by people with no real success at national level let alone international. Nowadays you can achieve a black belt through a points system, getting the required number of wins over a period of time, possibly years. This has devalued the grade. In my day for 1st Dan you had to beat two Brown Belts to qualify for the line up of six Brown Belts and you were allowed one draw. There were no yukos or kokas and if memory serves me right, no wazari’s counted. It was a physical challenge. Sid Kelly’s comments are interesting. Sid was a leading light in the Northern Home Counties before crossing the pond. I had the pleasure of his company together with mutual friends when he made a return visit. Hopefully I shall get to discuss this topic with him on his next return.

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