A Martial Arts Star Is Criticized for His Handling of Abuse Cases
- by NewYorkTimes
- Oct. 12, 2021
In March 2018, a 31-year-old instructor in the martial art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu was arrested at a gym in Naples, Fla. He was charged with three counts of sexual assault of a 16-year-old girl who was one of his students and a close family friend.
Today, the unresolved case and other allegations of sexual misconduct are rocking the sport and dogging one of its most powerful figures, Roberto Abreu. He was the longtime teacher and a close friend of the man who was accused of assaulting the 16-year-old. Many in the jiu-jitsu community assert that Abreu could have used his influence to expose and forcefully denounce sexual misconduct in the sport, but instead minimized it and did not offer adequate support to the accusers.
In the Naples case, Abreu, 40, a highly regarded fighter known as Cyborg and the owner of an organization called Fight Sports, has come under fierce criticism that he ignored the accuser and lent support to the man who was arrested, Marcel Gonçalves, even welcoming him at a Fight Sports gym after he was detained.
Gonçalves and Abreu are from the same region of Brazil, and Abreu is the godfather of Gonçalves’s young son.
And in August, a prominent promoter of jiu-jitsu published allegations of sexual misconduct involving a half-dozen coaches and competitors linked to Fight Sports. In interviews with The New York Times, some accusers and witnesses described instances in which, they said, Abreu discounted an attempted sexual assault and ignored or tried to pressure accusers or those who expressed concerns.
Abreu does not face any accusations of sexual misconduct, and he told The Times that he never dismissed the accusers’ concerns or tried to intimidate anyone.
But in a statement on Instagram on Aug. 13, Abreu acknowledged some missteps. He wrote, “To the victims and their families, I am sorry for my poor handling, ill-preparedness and lack of proper leadership to address the horrible experience they had to go through.”
Abreu wrote that in trying to protect his godson, he had “drastically failed” to address Gonçalves’s teenage accuser “adequately, publicly and swiftly.”
Answering written questions from The Times, Abreu said his organization was instituting policies to prevent inappropriate sexual behavior in the future, including sexual harassment training for all coaches and staff.
Allegations of sexual assault by fighters and instructors affiliated with Fight Sports underscore the failure of many global organizations to protect young women who participate in sports. This year alone, scandals involving sexual or psychological abuse have emerged in basketball, water polo, synchronized swimming, fencing, soccer and even dragon boat racing. The jiu-jitsu allegations follow a pattern in which top officials and coaches, operating with little oversight, are accused of seeking to protect the interests of the sport instead of victims.
Unlike other martial arts such as judo, taekwondo and karate, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, practiced around the world, is not an Olympic sport. It lacks a recognized international governing body with full regulatory and disciplinary power, uniform rules and standardized drug testing.
João Silva, the president of the Sport Jiu-Jitsu International Federation, is seeking to unify the sport to gain Olympic recognition. Speaking generally about the sport, he said: “People these days are looking for financial gain and not really for the development of the sport. ‘How can I make an event make money? Oh, this guy abused somebody? Who cares, put him in, he’s paying.’”
Abreu’s handling of the sexual abuse controversy has been widely followed on social media and in online publications like Jiu-Jitsu Times, but is only now receiving attention in the mainstream news media.
Recently, Abreu contacted the Florida teenager in the Gonçalves case and apologized. For her, the text message — the first contact Abreu had made in three years, she said — was too little, too late.
“I think he is somebody hiding behind a black belt,” the teenager said of Abreu, expressing a sense of betrayal that he continued to support Gonçalves. “Anybody who has morals, anybody who has a decent conscience, should know what’s right and wrong.”
At 5 feet 11 inches, 222 pounds, strong and agile with a shaved head, Abreu is a five-time world champion in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which involves forcing an opponent into submission via chokeholds and joint locks. Abreu is said to have been given the nickname Cyborg after finishing second in his division in the 2000 Brazilian championships four months after a car accident that required 300 stitches in his broken left arm.
Describing Abreu’s renown, Keith Rummel, who owns a gym formerly affiliated with Fight Sports, said, “I wouldn’t say Michael Jordan, but he’s definitely LeBron James.”
Fight Sports, based in Miami, lists 32 training academies in the United States, South America, Europe and Africa. Abreu said Gonçalves came to his school in Brazil at age 14 to try to overcome the trauma of his mother’s death by suicide. Gonçalves was among the first of more than 150 competitors Abreu ever awarded with a black belt.
Abreu seemed incensed after Gonçalves was arrested on second-degree felony charges in Florida. He wrote on Instagram that “sexual assault can never be tolerated” and that “my heart breaks for the victim and her family.” Without mentioning Gonçalves’s name, Abreu said he would “be held responsible.”
Abreu’s sincerity came into question in an Instagram post in August. Mo Jassim, who organizes one of the sport’s premier tournaments, presented statements and video and photographic evidence from other fighters that Gonçalves was permitted to train and socialize at Abreu’s flagship gym in Miami and at an associate’s Florida gym after his arrest. (Abreu said he permitted Gonçalves to enter the Miami gym only to pick up his wife and son.)
Jassim, who said he was motivated by concern for the accusers, also published a statement from Hind Chaouat, 42, a Moroccan visual artist who said she was assaulted while attending a Fight Sports training camp in Bonito, Brazil, on Sept. 9, 2016.
In an interview with The New York Times, Chaouat said she was asleep in the Marrua Hotel when she awakened to find another fighter on top of her. According to the police report, read to The Times, Paulo Félix Figueiró, then 37, was arrested and charged with attempted rape. Hotel security footage showed Figueiró entering Chaouat’s room, but he denied assaulting her, the police said. When reached by The Times, Figueiró said he knew nothing about Fight Sports.
According to Chaouat, Abreu told her that because her attacker had not penetrated her “it was no big deal.”
Abreu and Chaouat’s coach at the time, who operated the Fight Sports franchise in Casablanca, pressured her to drop the charges, Chaouat said, and feeling isolated in Brazil and fearing for her safety, she complied. Chaouat called Abreu “the biggest coward,” one who protects accused fighters who “attack without fear.”
A former member of the Fight Sports team who participated in the camp confirmed in an interview that Chaouat recounted the incident, and Abreu’s reaction, to him at the time. The witness asked not to be identified in this article. After a statement he made to Jassim was published in August, the witness said, Abreu’s father and two black belt jiu-jitsu fighters visited his mother’s home in Brazil in an apparent attempt to silence him, warning that he should “stay out of it.”
Abreu said he “made no such statements” to Chaouat dismissing the attack and did not pressure her to drop the charges against Figueiró. Instead, Abreu said, he ordered Figueiró to leave the camp. “I respect all women and I do not condone sexual misconduct, and that is why the person involved in her incident was expelled from the team,” Abreu said.
Abreu’s father, also named Roberto, visited the witness’s mother’s house, Abreu said, to tell the witness to stop spreading “false information about Fight Sports and myself.”
In Abreu’s words, jiu-jitsu’s values, as taught by him, transform lives “by helping my students develop self-confidence through discipline, respect, teamwork and integrity.” But it is also a sport whose black belt instructors are regularly addressed as master and professor, and according to Jassim, are viewed “almost like demigods.” Jiu-jitsu’s close-quarters training also erases the physical boundary between instructor and student.
“You’re taking these girls, 15, 16 years old, with a coach who they look up to, and then they have the pressure of succeeding at all costs,” he said. “I think all that combined is a recipe for disaster.”
Mandy Schneider was 16 in October 2020 when, she said, she was manipulated into drinking wine by her Fight Sports instructor and raped in a hotel room the night before a competition in Houston. The instructor, Rodrigo da Costa Oliveira, had trained in Abreu’s Miami gym and received a black belt from Abreu. Schneider first told her story to the Jiu-Jitsu Times.
Shortly after the assault, Oliveira, then 29, left the country, Abreu wrote to Schneider’s father on social media last Nov. 11. Gary Schneider, Mandy’s father, said he insisted that Abreu contact U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, seeking to revoke Oliveira’s visa, which Abreu did in a letter dated that same day.
Mandy Schneider, who lives in Frisco, Texas, outside Dallas, said she appreciated the gesture “for my own safety,” but criticized Abreu for his judgment in developing Oliveira as an instructor.
According to the police report, Oliveira faces a charge of trafficking a child to engage in sexual conduct. He did not respond to attempts to reach him.
Schneider, now 17, is in therapy to deal with the trauma of her attack. She told her story to The New York Times with her father’s consent and said that she is speaking out to bring awareness to sexual assault in jiu-jitsu and to help her begin to heal.
Schneider found some catharsis, she said, in burning the black belt that Oliveira left behind at the gym in Frisco where he worked. She continues to compete, partly in defiance of him. He told her, she said, that if she let anyone know about the assault and he had to leave, she would have little success without him.
“It’s kind of a slap in the face to him,” Schneider said.
The teenager who accused Gonçalves of assaulting her said she began training with him when she was 11 or 12. She asked that her name be withheld. The teenager babysat for Gonçalves’s son and said she often spent time at their home. In retrospect, the teenager’s father said, Gonçalves seemed to have been grooming his daughter.
“All she wanted to do was be great,” the father said. “This guy saw that and took advantage of it.”
On Dec. 9, 2017, days after her 16th birthday, the teenager said, Gonçalves offered to give her a massage at his home and assaulted her. It happened a second time that night, she said, leaving her shaking, feeling empty. The assaults continued until February 2018, the teenager told the authorities. Gonçalves, she said, kept telling her that if she told anyone, it would ruin his son’s life. Eventually, she told a friend, who informed a police officer at school, and, on March 13, 2018, Gonçalves was arrested.
The few times she encountered Abreu after that, she said, he looked the other way. Being shunned by someone so highly respected in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and who had seemed to publicly support her after Gonçalves was arrested, left her feeling “ashamed and embarrassed,” she said, as if “I did something wrong.”
Rummel, 37, who owns the Naples gym where Gonçalves taught the teenager and was arrested, said that Abreu told him the sexual relationship “wasn’t even that bad” and that the girl “was 16 and she wanted it.” Abreu said he never made such “harmful comments.”
Abreu said he did not recall having any contact with the teenager after Gonçalves was arrested. He said he could only offer “my sincere apology again” and strive to make sure that what he called “terrible harm” to the teenager did not occur again.
The case against Gonçalves recently hit a significant snag. On Sept. 21, he skipped a court hearing in Naples and a warrant was issued for his arrest. He did not respond to requests for comment. His lawyer declined to be interviewed.
Hours after that hearing, Abreu sent a statement to The New York Times, denying speculation in the jiu-jitsu community that he had helped Gonçalves flee the country. But Abreu acknowledged visiting his Brazilian hometown, Campo Grande, a month earlier and encountering Gonçalves there.
Asked in writing if he had alerted authorities in Florida or Brazil to Gonçalves’s location, Abreu did not answer directly. He wrote, “I told Marcel that he needed to take responsibility for his actions, and I permanently cut ties with him.”
When Jassim wrote about the Gonçalves case in August, Abreu said in a statement that he was rescinding Gonçalves’s black belt and severing all ties with him.
He told the Jiu-Jitsu Times that he was also revoking black belts given to Oliveira, accused of assaulting Mandy Schneider, and to Tony Harris Jr., a former Fight Sports-affiliated instructor in Illinois, and barring them from all Fight Sports academies. According to court records and news media accounts, Harris was convicted of sexually assaulting in 2014 one of his female students who was 15 at the time.
Abreu also said he was creating a sexual misconduct hotline and implementing a zero-tolerance policy at Fight Sports gyms. It was seen by some, though, as a fumbling response.
Victims should call 911, not a Fight Sports hotline, if they are assaulted, said Nathaniel Quiles, 38, who formerly trained at Abreu’s flagship gym in Miami. “Are you kidding me?” Quiles said.
As for Fight Sports’s new zero tolerance policy, Quiles said, “It should have always been zero tolerance.”
Flávia Milhorance contributed reporting from Rio de Janeiro and Elizabeth Djinis from Naples, Fla. Kitty Bennett contributed research.