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.

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4 comments on “Ignition! (The Other Side of Louisville)

  1. The communication about debit cards was absolutely terrible, which isn’t far off from the rest of the communication we receive. We have to fix that before any of the trust is going to be restored.

  2. That 65-75% number really jumps out. Knowing that NACs are one of the major sources of income for USA Fencing, I find this figure very disturbing. While some people are happy saying that the market determines officials’ fees, I can’t think of many people who would argue that officials’ pay is in line with their workload. Putting those pieces of information together, you get the idea that NACs (and USA Fencing) are quite dependent on the goodwill of officials (a resource that the organization seems to have no problem burning through).

    Mary, I think, in delving so deeply into how officials (this time, refs) are frustrated with the NO and its administrative annoyances, you skip over the fact that a huge amount of the frustration is also with the FOC (lack of transparency about assignments, promotions, etc., lack of feedback and mentoring, annoyance baout the re-certification thing, feelings that the FOC is more beholden to high-level coaches than the cadre, etc. We’ve all read this list of concerns in a million different places.) It seems that the board or the NO would do very well to try to get the FOC to become more of an asset to both the NO and the cadre. Otherwise the quality of the cadre will decrease or the cost of the cadre will increase, both of which will have a very negative impact on the organization.

  3. Kate–yes, absolutely, a huge chunk of the problem is frustration with the FOC. One of the fascinating things about the whole weekend was how far down the list the meal and debit card issues were by the time of the referee meeting with Don Anthony on Sunday morning. At the same time, big issues and small, whether they were FOC or fiscal or structural, were all conflated into the huge cloud of outrage.

    Part of the trouble, too, is that the wear and tear is on everyone–and each subgroup is all too ready to ascribe malice to all the others instead of the same stress and overwork and frustration we’re all suffering from.

  4. Pingback: Referee pay debit cards - Page 3

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