Saturday, Feb. 1, 1997 | 11:59 a.m.
Parents beware: That karate black belt you think your child is earning may not be all it's cracked up to be.
Martial arts schools catering to children are booming in the Las Vegas Valley. Many begin teaching children as young as 4 and promise black belts within three years.
But several longtime Las Vegas instructors are critical of those promises and are warning parents to ask some tough questions before enrolling their children.
Many so-called black belt programs, they say, are nothing more than a lure to get parents into their "money machines." The belts are worthless, they say, and will not be recognized by any other organization.
"That's how the schools get these kids, they promise them a black belt," says Bob Salay, a judo instructor at the Green Valley Athletic Club who has coached at the Olympic Training Center and the Air Force Academy.
"It's ridiculous -- it's totally absurd. In Japan, there's no such thing as a child getting a black belt.
"I've been coaching since 1958, and I've never had a child make a black belt," says Salay, who holds a seventh-degree black belt in jujitsu and karate, and a sixth-degree black belt in judo.
Former state and national karate champion Johnny Rhodes, who teaches at his Traditional Japanese Karate Association on East Tropicana Avenue, agrees.
"I wouldn't give a black belt to a child," says Rhodes.
But defenders of the practice say the martial arts have changed, and old attitudes don't work these days. Children benefit by staying motivated, thereby learning self-discipline and confidence, as well as self-defense techniques.
"I don't think the belt is so important," says David Barry, regional director of Karate for Kids and owner of a booming 300-student school on Buffalo Drive. "Really what we're trying to do is build self-confidence in kids.
"Whether they have a black belt or a brown belt or a green belt, I don't think that matters. What matters is how they feel about themselves after they're done with our program."
That's fine, critics say, but if belts don't matter, why hand so many out?
When parents come into Rhodes' school bragging about their 6-year-old's black belt, he's quick to bring them back to Earth.
"This kid has not lived long enough to know what a black belt represents," Rhodes says. "What does he know about life? If you put him in a position he's uncomfortable with, he will start crying. Is that how you want a black belt to act?
"All you're doing is kidding yourself, making a fool out of yourself," he says of the parents. "There are a lot of kids with black belts around because most instructors know parents will pay for it."
Alan Sarac, a sixth-degree black belt and owner of Professional Karate Centers, also criticizes the child-black belt craze.
Like all the instructors interviewed for this story, Sarac stressed that parents can expect many benefits for their children from studying martial arts, but a black belt isn't one of them.
Sarac, whose four schools teach 600 students, compromises by awarding "junior black belts" to children, but those belts aren't officially recognized until they're 16.
It's hard, the instructors say, to find a good school these days.
The Sprint Yellow Pages contain 85 separate listings for martial arts schools, many of them with multiple locations.
Sarac says there are 113 schools in the Las Vegas area.
That's a lot of competition for this "small town," Sarac says, especially in such a tough business.
A recent Consumer Reports article stated that martial arts schools are the No. 2 category for new business start-ups in the United States, but the No. 1 category for business failures.
Still, Sarac says, there's plenty of room for all the schools if they're just teaching kids aerobics and health.
"But if they want to teach the katas (or forms,) the weapons techniques, the fighting techniques, the self-defense techniques and the philosophy, then there are only a few I could recommend."
They would not include Karate for Kids, Sarac says.
"I have a lot of kids who have black belts from Karate for Kids who are so much worse than people who have studied with me for four or five months."
Sarac doesn't take those black belts away, though.
"Most of them, their parents made them demote themselves. They're embarrassed to get out in front of everybody. And the ones who stay black belts don't test again for four or five years -- until they catch up."
Barry, however, makes the same assertion.
"I have people who come in here and say they're a black belt, but they would be a green belt here," he says. "It really has to do with the instructors, how they teach."
Barry chalks up much of the difference to old thinking.
"The modernization of martial arts has really changed things dramatically," he says. "In the old days, they used to say if you could kill one man with your bare hands, you're a black belt.
"Some of the philosophies that these people are carrying around with them have been used for hundreds of years. To me that's ridiculous."
Barry acknowledges there's a debate within the martial arts industry about black belts for children, but he sees no reason to deny them.
They have to meet the "exact same" standards as adults, he says.
The kids are given a smaller board to break, and they're not expected to fight adult black belts.
"A 7-year-old little boy who earns his black belt will not be able to defend himself against a 250-pound man," Barry says.
At Super Kids Karate, Sue Langdon says her black belt expectations are lower for children.
"We don't expect an 8-year-old to have as much knowledge as an adult, or as much strength," says Langdon, a third-degree black belt.
But the children's black belts will mean something to many other instructors, she says.
"It shows that in some organization, that student has done a whole lot of work."
In truth, with so many different martial arts styles and organizations, the instructors admit there is no one standard for belt qualifications. Nor is there any one tournament to determine a national champion: Every organization has its own contests, testing standards and rankings.
Tom Griffin, owner of the Academy of Kenpo Karate, says the emphasis on belts is beside the point.
"I always say, a belt holds your pants up," says Griffin, a second-degree black belt.
"A black belt doesn't really mean anything. If you walk out on the street and get beat up, the black belt isn't going to help you.
"Getting your skills is what's important."
Still, Griffin admits his black belt is "very important" to him.
"It represents years of hard work to meet a goal I set, and it's something no one can take away from me."
In other words, the belts, like many things in life, are worth what you put into them. The higher the standards, the more valuable the belt.
Salay and others worry that the shortcut black belts are hurting the martial arts as a whole not only because they dilute the meaning of the belts but because people with incomplete skills and knowledge go on to be teachers.
"It becomes a vicious circle," he says. "I want to be sure the instructors have met the standards."
But even worse, he says, it's misleading the children who think they're earning a real black belt.
"For a kid to find all of the sudden that all the recognition and qualifications you thought you had earned are not there -- that's very destructive," Salay says.
"I get infuriated when you're hurting kids."