Now What?

I’ve been following an interesting discussion in the Reno Post-Mortem thread on fencing.net about why referees choose to work SN and why they cease to do so.
There’s a big gap in comprehension between those who are referees (or other officials—the same reasoning applies for armorers and BC staff) and regularly work national tournaments and those who are solely fencers or referees who have not attempted the SN marathon in recent years.

Ian Serotkin, explaining in post #49 why he likes refereeing at national tournaments, outlines the basic reasoning in favor:

I enjoy doing something difficult, well.

I enjoy giving back to the sport of fencing, which has given me a great deal in terms of personal development, character building, and physical & mental strengthening for the past 17 years.

I enjoy sharing this experience with my good refereeing friends, who share a singular dedication and camaraderie that is hard to match.

I enjoy visiting cities that I would have little reason to otherwise visit.

I enjoy being involved in extremely high level matches that I only could have hoped to reach as a competitor in my wildest dreams.

In my own case, it was better both for my kids and for me that I had something useful to do at tournaments, so I was happy to help out on the computers at that first JOs I worked in Sacramento in 2000. Once I started working national tournaments regularly, I was well and truly hooked on one of the more obscure hobbies in the country. Running individual and team events—and then whole tournaments—was incredibly challenging and satisfying.

I developed a whole new category of friends I see regularly at tournaments, and look forward to seeing them again wherever the next tournament takes us. Some of the best times in my life have been spent listening to stories at lunch in the officials’ lounge (I can’t remember all the details of Brendan Baby’s tale of Wes Glon testing some poor innocent’s worthiness to fence saber, but I remember how hard we all laughed) or in whatever that venue’s Official Officials’ Bar was. And there was the noisy little flight from O’Hare to South Bend one January that was at least 75% fencing people—I always felt sorry for that poor 25% who had no clue what the party was all about.

It’s been a hoot to see fencers I knew first in the Y1os or Y12s head off to NCAA teams (or the Olympics!) and others become ferociously competitive again once they age into Veteran events. I’ve seen fencers transform themselves from bratty whiny kids into impressively competent and personable young adults (and I’ve seen others retain their original annoying personalities well past the age they should know better).

love running fencing tournaments.

But I don’t know that I can continue. I’ve promised myself and others that I will stick with it through the end of this Olympic quadrennial, but beyond that is an open question. Like many other national tournament officials, I’m ready to say, “Enough.”

Some of the fencing.net posters postulate single causes for referees to opt out of working SN:

  • the delayed compensation, or
  • the minimal amount of the compensation, or
  • the abuse from fencers, coaches, and parents, or
  • the long hours, or
  • the often less-than-wonderful food (especially what can be had with those late-night meal tickets

The problem is not that simple, though. Nobody volunteers as an official for the money. Sure there are some referees, particularly some of the younger ones, for whom the delayed payments all last season was a serious issue, but nobody expects to make big bucks as a tournament official.

Getting screamed at by coaches and parents every so often comes with the job, too. The vast majority are fine—usually—but that people sometimes get mad and behave badly is only to be expected.

Nobody—well, at least not anybody who thinks about it for more than a few seconds—expects USFA tournaments to run on the same hours as world cups. Two or three thousand fencers in 12 or 18 or 24 events over four days (or nearly 6,500 fencers in 89 events over 10 days, as in Reno) naturally require longer hours and busier days than the two-events-each-spread-over-two-days schedule common to FIE world cups and championships.

Hotel and convention center food is what it is (all too often deep-fried). But there are often good restaurants around that surprise us (though we know the per diem probably won’t cover the price of the evening meal). But getting together with the gang is usually more important than the food.

The negative aspects eventually accumulate to the point that they overwhelm the many reasons for working national tournaments. The Atlanta 2010 Summer Nationals was a tipping point that way for many officials. All the problems combined synergistically to create an event that was no longer satisfying, no longer challenging, no longer fun.  It had become merely an ordeal to get through.

My tipping point was more gradual: the past season as a whole. Normally, I get twitchy if I don’t get to a tournament often enough. Two or three seasons ago, I was only scheduled to work a couple of tournaments after a year of working four or five, and I missed my fencing community. I look forward to national tournaments with great pleasure, despite the occasional horrible ones, like the 2006 Atlanta SN or Austin in 2003. We never plan on tournaments being horrible.

This past season I still looked forward to tournaments as usual—until the instant I fastened my seatbelt on the plane and suddenly thought, “Wait a minute! I just did this last month and it wasn’t fun.” Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Dallas, and Dallas were all like SN or worse, in the numbers of entries, in the long hours, in the punishing conditions that made it impossible to do as good a job as I knew I was capable of, that demanded the clearest thinking when I was most battered, that left me too tired to even feel relief at the end.

Those of us who volunteer for the satisfaction of doing our jobs well, for the fun and the community, no longer receive those rewards. Under the current conditions, we cannot do the job well, the community becomes almost non-existent, and fun is so rare that it startles, as it startled me on my Sunday off in Reno.

At this stage, deciding to quit working as an official is more a rediscovery of sanity than a conscious decision. We have to be lunatics to volunteer in the first place, but we’re not insane enough to keep at it forever.

This week I’m looking at drafts of the day schedules for next season (which look to be even more difficult than last season’s) and at the early returns (usually the majority by now, but this year so far only a sprinkling) to my request for availability to BC staff. We’re already potentially losing two or three experienced BC people through normal attrition (job and family changes), more than the newbies we’ve got coming in. I wonder whether I will even be able to staff national tournaments this season—are enough of us still crazy enough to stick it out through 2012 in hopes of the situation changing for the next Olympic quad?

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