While we provide not-for-profit martial arts programs at the Carbondale Park District, we respect our colleagues in the private sector. They need to pay for space, insurance, utilities, and equipment. All of that costs money. Some of them dedicate themselves to earning a living as martial arts instructors. It’s an incredibly difficult life, physically and financially.
To pay their bills, instructors must charge their students—not just for classes, but for uniforms, sparring and training equipment, and other goods and services. Honest instructors who charge a fair profit deserve your respect and support—even when you can get equipment cheaper online, you should buy from your teacher instead.
But the pressure to pay the bills should not lead instructors to cheat their students.
Demanding you sign an exclusive contract or charging exorbitant testing or promotion fees are the two biggest scams you might encounter as you search for instruction, whether in karate, tae kwon do, jujitsu, aikido, or any other martial art. No ethical martial arts instructor will ever require either from you.
When you sign up for classes, an ethical instructor may ask you to sign reasonable contracts.
One is a standard waiver of legal liability. That contract should acknowledge that martial arts are potentially hazardous activities, that even properly run classes carry the risk of injuries, and release your instructor from liability for injuries that don’t stem from negligence.
Your instructor may offer you a bulk discount. Classes, for example, may cost you $100 a month—but if you agree to sign up for a whole year of instruction, you may only pay $1,000 instead of $1,200. You receive substantial savings and your instructor can project annual income and budget more accurately. If, however, you stop taking classes half a year later but didn’t pay that $1,000 upfront, you will legally (and morally) still owe your instructor $500.
An exclusivity agreement, however, is inherently unreasonable. If an instructor asks you to sign one, walk away.
An exclusivity agreement typically requires that the student take classes from that instructor, and only that instructor, for a set time, potentially several years. Should you decide to leave that instructor for any reason (including lack of quality) while the contract remains in effect and take classes elsewhere—or even attend a seminar—the instructor can sue you for breach of contract, secure a court order prohibiting you from receiving instruction for the duration of the contract, and make you pay substantial damages and court costs.
No ethical martial arts instructor will ever require you to sign an exclusivity agreement.
A martial arts teacher secure about their quality of instruction will never legally bind students to themselves through an exclusivity contract. Only those who know they offer inferior instruction and cannot otherwise retain students will do that.
All ethical martial arts instructors know that a lot goes into building good teacher-student relationships—personalities, teaching styles, and physical requirements and abilities. Some students flourish while others founder under the same instructor—but students who struggle or even fail under one teacher may blossom under a different one. Similarly, students who fail at karate may find great proficiency in aikido or jujitsu. Credit for student success doesn’t always accrue to the teacher, nor does failure always fall on the student.
Regardless, an ethical teacher will not prohibit, through a legally binding contract, any student from finding the right martial path for them. Instead, the instructor should do everything possible to help the student reach their potential, even if it means helping them to find the right martial arts program for them and saying goodbye.
Exorbitant Testing or Promotion Fees
Even in not-for-profit settings, instructors may choose to pass along the costs of promoting their students. While high-quality home printers make the price of certificates negligible, belts and other items that may accompany a promotion cost money. An instructor who charges a student for those costs—or who charges a reasonable profit for them—should not raise any red flags.
Here’s where you may see danger signs.
Let’s say an instructor charges $50 for a yellow belt promotion. He charges $100 for a green belt promotion and $250 or $500 for your purple or brown belt. By the time you reach black belt, promotions may cost $1,000 or more. The charge for higher degrees of black belt may grow even greater.
The instructor may not charge you for the promotion. They may charge you to administer the test instead. Or they may charge both testing and promotion fees. Some schools belong to organizations that require newly promoted students to register with them, and they may take a cut of your promotion fees to “certify the promotion.”
These fees make promoting students in the instructor’s best financial interest—even those who obviously have not earned their belt ranks. The faster a student gets to black belt, the quicker the instructor makes more money.
Students can find themselves rapidly climbing the ranks, but without developing the skills they need to make their belt ranks meaningful achievements.
That puts students in real danger. People who receive unearned black belts may think they have learned the skills they need to handle danger, only to find out the hard way how wrong they are.
Again, a promotion fee alone does not signify a martial arts scam, since it can offset the reasonable costs of the time and materials that go into a promotion.
Prospective students, however, should look carefully at an instructor’s fee structure. Does it make it easy for people with enough money to buy their way to a black belt, rather than earn it? Does it make it hard for a teacher to deny unearned promotions and force you to meet rigorous standards? If so, you can save thousands of dollars, buy a black belt online for less than $10, and it will mean about the same.
Meanwhile, if an instructor requires you to pay money to any organization as a price of instruction or promotion, you will want to find out if it provides any value for your money.
What We Do at the Carbondale Park District
The Carbondale Park District’s karate program will never ask you to sign an exclusivity agreement. We want you to join us and hope you’ll love our class. Sadly, not everyone does.
If you’re not happy in karate, we’ll gladly refer you to the Carbondale Park District’s other outstanding martial arts programs, which teach aikido and jujitsu. If it’s not the style of martial art but the demands or personality of our teachers, we’ll gladly refer you to other area schools where you can find excellent instruction but different teaching styles or atmospheres that might suit you better.
The Carbondale Park District’s karate program will never charge you a penny for any test or promotion. We feel that if you fulfill all of the requirements and meet all of the standards for a promotion, the belt and other sundries that come with a promotion belong to you by right. But you first need to meet our expectations for those promotions—something our no-fee policy encourages.
We hope you join us on your martial arts journey. Should you choose to travel a different path, we hope this blog leads you away from martial arts scams and toward a high-quality school that steers you in the right way.