Ignition! (The Other Side of Louisville)

It’s nice that there were a few bits of silliness in Louisville, because otherwise this was a difficult tournament. The actual entries ended up at 2,621, better than the 2,746 entered going in, but still at least 20% bigger than it should have been.

Which was a major contributing factor to the referee unrest that rumbled all weekend.

It started with a couple of Facebook conversations in which a few officials complained about the plan to pay officials their per diem plus lunch money on the first day of the tournament in lieu of the usual catered lunches. That mushroomed into complaints about the change to debit cards instead of checks for paying officials, which mushroomed into rants about continuing dissatisfaction with the Fencing Officials Commission (FOC), the long hours referees are required to work, and the size of our national tournaments.

Some background: The care and feeding of tournament officials (air and ground transportation, housing, meals, honoraria and per diems) comes to between 65% and 75% of the expense of running a national tournament. (Take a look at the financial reports appended to the draft minutes of the November board meeting for the gory details.) The catered lunches alone run to 8–9% of the total, usually $12,000 to $15,000. National events, like every aspect of USFA operations, have had to cut expenses this season to help dig us out of our existing fiscal hole. I’ve hired a couple fewer BC staff for each NAC, travel expenses are more tightly monitored, and the national office decided to experiment with less expensive options for officials’ lunches, too.

In theory, vouchers for officials’ lunches in Milwaukee weren’t entirely a bad idea—the expense was less than half that of the catered lunches, and the concession food was pretty good the last time we were there (that was the NAC where I blogged the grim catered lunches of mostly-tortilla wraps and miniature-body-part pasta salads). Unfortunately, the same menus were not available this season, and we were stuck with the usual hot dog/chicken tenders/french fries/petrochemical-orange nacho sauce selections, which were less than appealing.

Due to the complaints about the vouchers, officials were asked to complete a survey about whether they would prefer vouchers or cash for lunches. While the response was overwhelming in favor of cash, it was only the officials who worked the December NAC who were polled, and the results were not communicated before the plan to pay cash was announced to the January cadre of officials. With the January event as large as it was, officials could anticipate both lunch and dinner from the venue food concessions, an unattractive prospect to most. Hence the relatively public Facebook outrage that turned into talk of a referee boycott that startled and dismayed those who started the discussion. Due to the cancellation of another event, the convention center caterers turned out to have (barely) enough food and staff available, so the national office staff was able to arrange the last-minute switch back to catered lunches.

More background: And then there are the debit cards. The upset about these mystifies me. The idea is that officials are issued debit cards, which they will keep. Every time officials work an event, instead of issuing a check, the USFA will load the appropriate amount onto the debit card; officials can use the card like any other debit card or they can transfer the amount to their own bank account, as they choose. This will significantly reduce staff time spent preparing and distributing checks (and then re-cutting checks that need to be changed or mailing those that weren’t picked up or weren’t cut in the first place because the official was hired after the hiring deadline) and in many cases (like mine) be more convenient than checks, eliminating the need to scan the check or make a trip to the bank in order to deposit. And unlike direct deposit, the debit cards don’t require the USFA to keep records of everyone’s bank information. (Not too surprisingly, there are a few problems with the initial roll-out which still need to be resolved, but I expect those will be cleared up relatively soon.)

Unfortunately, at one of the morning referee meetings where the debit cards were first explained earlier this season, someone joked about them being Walmart gift cards, which eventually became gospel among some officials and grounds for continuing disgruntlement. Suddenly it was common knowledge that officials have not been paid at all for several years and that now we’re all going to be paid in Walmart or Target gift cards that we can’t convert to cash at all. No matter that it wasn’t true—officials were being abused and mistreated, and the time had come to put a stop to it.

So what’s going on? The fuss over officials’ lunches was what I think of as a precipitating event. Our national events have been cruising along—too big, too stressful, too difficult to manage—on officials’ good will for at least the past five years. I’ve warned about the problems with our national tournaments for longer than I’ve been Tournament Committee chair, as have my predecessors and others, but the USFA as an organization has failed to recognize and deal with the problems. So resentment and distrust has built and simmered for years, until the Louisville lunch plans caused a reaction out of all proportion to the specific issue that ignited it.

The frustration and resentment and distrust is legitimate—we are a damaged and injured organization, and it’s going to take a huge amount of work to rebuild the trust that’s been abused for so long. Perhaps it’s only because matters are beginning to improve that the explosion occurred—expectations were lower when we had no hope of change. Now it’s a matter of modulating expectations a bit—we’ve had a new president and CEO for five months now, so why isn’t everything fixed yet?

In a weird way, the rumbling in Louisville seems almost old news to me—some of us BC folks faced a potentially precipitating event last spring. It did not actually occur, but the possibility was serious enough that we spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how to staff Summer Nationals if it did happen (because some BC volunteers would have quit immediately and others would have waited until after SN was over). Since then, we’ve  begun to see enough progress to be hopeful, but the signs of progress haven’t been communicated clearly enough or widely enough.

And the number of areas that need work is simply daunting. We’ve barely begun on what’s needed.

But we’ve begun.

Lighter Louisville

• Last month I said the day I flew home from Milwaukee was a gorgeous day for flying, but the day I flew out from home to Louisville was even more spectacular—something about the light on the mountains as the sun came up  (and the photos do not do it justice):

• I laughed every time I traversed the passage, instantly labeled the Blue Hallway of Doom, between the fencing hall and the officials’ lunch room. Something about the scale meant that you had to get at least a third of the way through before it looked as though you’d made any progress at all. Eventually, quite a few fencers decided it was a good space for warming up.

Blue Hallway of Doom

• Two different armorer calls on two different days from two different referees: “I’ve got some kind of electrical problem—the fencers on my strip are getting shocks from the equipment.” I asked the armorers later, and they laughed. It seems that people were shuffling on the carpet and then touching the pipe barrier. Apparently, a few individuals from warmer climes didn’t know that cold, dry days could provide the perfect conditions for getting zapped by static electricity.

• A perfect trifecta of error: Fencer brings DE slip to BC. BC staff person checks his name, writes it on her tableau, and gives him the slip for his next bout. A short time later, fencer returns with the slip from that bout. BC staff person records it, and fencer leaves. Then a while after that, fencer comes running back to say his mom looked at the web results, which show the other guy having won that first bout. The computer entry person finds the original DE slip, which, duly signed by both fencer and referee, and recorded incorrectly by the BC person, clearly shows that the other won. BC staff person lectures herself severely, lectures fencer on the importance of reading one’s slip before signing (and allows fencer to lecture her), and sends fencer out to strip to have referee correct her error, too, telling fencer to feel free to lecture referee, too. Results are fixed and everybody is happy. Why is this of note? Because all three individuals should have known better: the fencer was on the Cadet point list, the referee was Sharon Everson, and the BC staff person was me.

• Finally, of course, the Louisville carpet gallery:

Next time: the serious side of Louisville.

You’re Doing It Wrong

I haven’t looked up the final numbers yet for Louisville, but this NAC was a big one. We had 2,746 entries as of the final deadline, and while at first we thought we would have a larger-than-usual number of last-minute withdrawals because of the flu, there turned out to be only a sprinkling of those—nothing out of the ordinary at all—so we ended up with some very large days.

What we also had this weekend were a few referees more than usually disgruntled with our procedures. I’m not talking about the referees unhappy about meal options or new payment procedures or problems with the Fencing Officials Commission (though I’ll say something about all that in a future post). The specific complaint I heard more than usual was about our pod system of assigning the second round direct elimination bouts: Were we to use the FIE’s system of scheduling bouts as is done at world cups and at the Olympic Games, I was told, the referees would not have to be constantly chasing down fencers who wander off before their bouts are called, and the proceedings would finish much more quickly.

I knew they were wrong, but I’ve given up trying to explain why to the people who believe this. I used to contrast the differences in size and number of events between NACs and world cups, and suggest that the ability to run only two events in any one day perhaps made a qualitative difference in the fencing experience, but debating articles of faith isn’t productive.

Just for fun, though, I looked up the numbers from last Saturday, our biggest and longest day in Louisville, and figured out how much time each event would have taken had we used the FIE’s scheduled-bouts approach.

These are the events we held that day:

Youth 14 Women’s Sabre – 62 fencers – 100% up, DEs on 8 strips
Youth 14 Men’s Foil – 134 fencers – 100% up, DEs on 20 strips
Junior Women’s Epee – 175 fencers – 80% up, DEs on 24 strips
Cadet Men’s Sabre – 210 fencers – 80% up, DEs on 16 strips
Junior Men’s Epee – 265 fencers – 80% up, DEs on 32 strips

In international competition, DE bouts are scheduled at half-hour intervals for foil and epee, and 20-minute intervals for sabre. I assumed the final round of 8 would be the same for both methods, 90 minutes for the point weapons and 60 minutes for sabre.

So for each event, I took the number of DE bouts before the round of 8, divided that by the number of strips used for DEs, figured out how many intervals that would take, and therefore how long the DEs would have lasted with assigned times for DEs.

For the Junior Men’s Epee, there wasn’t that much difference: we would have finished at 4:30 pm instead of the actual 4:00 pm. Similarly, the Youth 14 Men’s Foil would have gone to 9:45 pm instead of 9:15 pm.

But the Junior Women’s Epee would have taken an extra hour and a half, running to midnight instead of the actual 10:30 pm. The Youth 14 Women’s Saber would have gone to 2:45 pm instead of 12:30 pm, and the Cadet Men’s Saber would have ended at a daunting 11:15 instead of 7:30.

Of course, world cups seldom use more than 16 or 24 strips, either—the idea of using 24 or 32 strips for a single event, or 60 strips for a single tournament, leaves most of the FIE officials who’ve seen our Summer Nationals awed and nonplused. (I’m still amused by the FIE observer who was so impressed he thought we should submit our poor ancient obsolete XSeed to the FIE for approval right when we were getting ready to drop it in favor of the new FencingTime.)

Scheduled DEs do usually keep tournaments from running long. But they don’t allow you to finish faster than the schedule when some bouts don’t use all their allotted time. One of the main reasons we’ve adopted the pod system we currently use for DEs is that it virtually eliminates single strips or quadrants running behind, and allows us to take advantage of small gains in time from those bouts that run quickly, to the point that we can save as much as an hour or two over our original projections. Scheduled DEs would slow us down and make our competition days even longer.

Didn’t Need the Hat Anyway

Last month when I received the USFA Nominating Committee’s invitation to apply for nominations for election to the Board I realized I was seriously considering putting in for the Volunteer Director slot. Not being completely insane, I immediately contacted a few friends and family members and asked them to talk me down from the idea.

None of them were much help–the responses I got ranged from “Why wouldn’t you?” and “That’s a good idea–you should do it” to “If you don’t do it, I will hunt you down!” The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea, and within a couple of days, I’d sent in my application materials as directed.

Yesterday I received a note from the Nominating Committee thanking me for my application but explaining that because of the large number of excellent applications, they were unable to include my name among the nominees.

Here’s what I’d told the Nominating Committee in my cover letter:

In 2001, unhappy with the conduct of recent sectional tournaments, I attended my first section meeting and ran for section chair against the incumbent. Unknown to anyone outside my daughters’ fencing club, I lost, of course, but because Paul Soter said that anyone crazy enough to run for section office should be put to good use and nominated me, I was elected as Vice Chair for Juniors of the Pacific Coast Section.

I’d already begun working bout committee both locally and nationally, and found that I enjoyed running fencing tournaments, but my year as a section vice chair began my education in the governance and politics of the United States Fencing Association. In the dozen years since then, I’ve served in elected offices (division chair and Congress representative), appointed positions (Tournament Committee Chair, ROC/NOC Advisory Group Chair), and more informally (tournament schedule reviewer, occasional proofreader for American Fencing, Athlete Handbook revisions, and other national documents). While my experience has been frequently rewarding, it has just as often felt frustrating and futile.

Val Belmonte, our new CEO, has said that he sees his job as to transform USA Fencing from an amateur association into a professional organization, one dedicated to serving its #1 customers, our fencers. That is a view I share, and one that requires us to look at who those fencers are and what they need from their national governing body. For too long, we have operated as we have always done, without seriously addressing whether our classification and points systems and our tournament calendar and structure still meet the needs of our fencing population. Our financial struggles over the past two Olympic quadrennials have only exacerbated our situation and left us even less able to deal with our growth and changing demographics.

Here are what I see as important priorities for us:

Get our finances under control. In the short term, this means reducing and eliminating the deficit, which the current administration has made a good start on. Over the longer term, it means establishing a viable revenue model less dependent on tournament income, so that tournaments can be managed for the good of our athletes and team selection instead of for income maximization. Our increased entry numbers have kept us in survival mode to the extent that the fencer experience–let alone any spectator experience–is hardly considered in tournament management.

Create a tournament calendar and structure appropriate to our fencer demographics. Continue to develop our regional circuits at all age levels, including the addition of regional tournaments for Junior and Cadet fencers. Replace the outmoded divisional qualifying tournaments with a unified system of point standings for qualification to national championships.# Over the next quad, develop a national tournament calendar that can adjust to our continuing growth, fulfill—without being driven by—our team selection mission, and serve our entire athlete pipeline.

Create and manage an appropriate and effective USA Fencing identity. The new website, giving us more options and control over our public face, is a huge improvement in this direction, as is the improvement in our publicity operations. We should make our visual image and print identity more consistent and recognizable with the creation of an official house style, and should ensure that all licensed merchandise conforms to the image we want to project.

None of this will be easy. Some of it will be extremely difficult and will require discussion and debate and ideas that have not yet occurred to us. But I believe that my experience, particularly with tournament operations, will provide a perspective that has been missing from the board, and that I can make useful contributions to solving these puzzles.

One final note: as much as I support the direction of the new administration this quad, I take the fiduciary duties of the board very seriously. During the last quad, I believe the board was too trusting of the information provided to it by the national office and failed to perform its due diligence both by asking enough of the right questions and insisting on answers to those questions when asked. That I approve of the goals of the national office staff would not relieve me of the responsibility to ensure that USA Fencing is being managed effectively according to its mission.

I appreciate your consideration for nomination as Volunteer Staff Director. If you need any further information or have questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Sincerely, Mary Griffith

I thought a bit more, and consulted those same friends and family, and concluded that I wasn’t ready to give up yet. So I’ve decided to pursue a petition nomination, which requires that I collect signatures of at least 25 voting members from among at least four different USFA clubs.

I’ll be in Louisville with my petition, so if you’re willing to help me get on the ballot, I’d appreciate your autograph.

# When 60% of our possible qualifying events do not need to be fenced because they have 3 or fewer entries, our championship qualification process is broken. (Plus, I persist in believing that one should have to actually fence and win at least one bout to qualify for a national championship.)


UPDATE: OK, I thought it would be easier just to wait until after Louisville to send out extra petitions if I still needed signatures then, but so many people are asking… marypetition