2014 SN Diary: Post Mortem

This will be one monster grab-bag of a post. I’m mostly recovered from Summer Nationals—the hypnic twitching has subsided, my muscles have quit yelling at me, and I no longer feel as though I will drop off to sleep any minute, but my ability to focus on the work at hand is not yet what it should be. So I’m not even going to try—I’m just going to throw stuff up here as it comes to me.

This was for me the most difficult SN I’ve ever worked. That’s not to say that it was the worst SN I’ve ever been to—Columbus 2014 was not nearly the threat to Austin 2003, the all-time champion of  horrible SNs, that I’d expected it to be—but it was easily the most challenging SN I’ve worked as BC chair. Partly it was the run-up to the actual tournament. Six weeks out we had no idea whether we’d have as many referees as strips. At the point where referee hiring is usually all but done, we were looking at only about 50 refs for the first half and 40 for the second half.  This for a schedule based on 61 strips and a venue with 65 strips. (We use the extra pod mainly to minimize delays  when an early event is still on strips needed to start a later event.) There were more than the usual number of problems with entries and eligibility, and figuring out BC staffing for 12 days instead of 10 turned out to be trickier than I had expected.

Mostly it was the unknowns I stewed over: Would we finally have enough referees? Strong enough referees? How would coaches and parents cope with the less-experienced-than-usual referee crew? Would the new BC process even work for SN? Would the 25% of the BC staff who’d never worked a SN before be more help than hindrance? Would the projected schedules hold up? How bad were the odds against June 30 finishing at the projected end time? Would we maintain at least a minimal level of competence through the whole 12 days? Would there be enough coffee in Columbus to keep us all alert enough to avoid the worst errors?

So I began the tournament more tired than usual. Fortunately, the first half was the easier half, the Vet/Div half, with a schedule that exemplifies what all of SN should be like. This gave us a chance to get comfortable with the new BC process before we got into the second half horrors, and gave all those eager new referees a chance to get acclimated to the unique pressures of SN.

• Favorite newbie ref conversation:

Newbie Ref (to Sharon Everson): Uh, I think there’s been a mistake. I just checked my report time for tomorrow and it says I’m assigned to Div I. That can’t be right—I’m only a 7.

Sharon (checking Newbie Ref’s name): No, you’re a 5. We promoted you. You’ve done well these first few days.

Newbie Ref (flummoxed): Really? I’m not sure I’m ready for that.

Sharon: You’ll do fine. Don’t worry—we won’t use you too far into the DEs, but you’ll be fine for the pools.

Most of those new and unknown referees were terribly excited to be at SN. They were enthusiastic and hardworking and eager to do their best. It was just heartbreaking that many were out of their depth, and simply didn’t have enough experience for the events they were asked to work. They did their best, but because of the shortage of experienced referees, they did not get the mentoring they needed and deserved. Much to my surprise, there were very few black cards this year—only 4 or 5 over the entire 12 days. We had one black card that was voided because the referee erroneously believed that failure to sign a scoresheet was grounds for expulsion, and there were a couple of sore losers who said something inappropriate to their referee or did something inappropriate with equipment, but nothing much out of the ordinary. By the time we got to the second half, when I’d expected more than the usual number of spectator black cards because of the less-experienced referee crew, coaches and parents seem to have grasped the idea that our refs were doing the best they could under the circumstances. (Either that, or those referees didn’t realize they could do something about abuse directed at them. I choose to believe it was tolerance and understanding.)

World Cup photo break:

So why so much trouble hiring referees for SN? There are those who believe it’s due to a few disgruntled troublemakers attempting to foment some sort of referee rebellion, but any such vocal complainers are not the source of the trouble—they are one symptom of a systemic problem. Our volunteer corps—in all categories—is so overextended, stretched so thin, that we’ve not been able to establish and run the recruiting and mentoring programs we’ve needed for years. Our tournaments—especially but not only SN—are so large and tightly scheduled and the economizing of the past several years to get our finances into the black have resulted in consistently terrible working conditions—hotels remote from the venue, inadequate meal options (both variety and quantity), unconscionable hours on concrete floors, etc., etc. Mix that with high-demand referees running out of vacation days or opting to use those days at better-paying, more pleasant tournaments, add in a lack of significant change despite years of complaints and warnings, and it’s all too easy for many refs to perceive such continued poor conditions as a lack of respect—even contempt—for the volunteers who make our tournaments even possible. Some referees who feel this way become vocal complainers. Others simply opt to do something else with their time and energy.

It will take us years to fix this.

The second half was what it was. There were occasional problems with the monitors, due to our original consumer-level equipment bought for proof-of-concept being overtaxed by the additional demands we put on it. (There’s a proposal for upgrading our equipment to handle the load.) By the time we got to the really ugly days, we were all in survival mode, focusing on getting through the next round, the next event, the rest of the day, hoping that meals would be palatable enough not to have to force ourselves to eat just for the fuel. (Hence the vacuum effect that occurred when candy or cookies or other treats were dumped onto tables in the referee corral.)

There was this:

JMETM checkin

This is what check-in for 65 teams looks like. (We’re still dazzled by how early the JME team check-in was done—especially considering it occurred while the JME individual event was in progress.)

Another favorite referee moment:

 Day 11, about 7:30 am. Most of the tables in the referee corral are filled with referees getting their morning coffee fix, waiting for their 8:00 assignments. Adam Brewer stands up.

“I have something to say,” he says. “How many of you have been here since the first day?”

Perhaps 60% of the referees there—along with half the BC staff facing the corral—raise their hands.

Adam proceeds through the corral, high-fiving every raised hand.

This is inexplicably encouraging.

Somehow we made it through. Eventually there was this:

The very last bout on the very last strip on the very last day.

The very last bout on the very last strip on the very last day.

And this:

The last bout slip of the 2014 SN.

The last bout slip of the 2014 SN.

Inevitably, there were travel problems due to Hurricane Arthur and other storms around the country. Too many people got stuck an extra day in Columbus or strange layover cities on their way home, but it sounds like we all made eventually made it.

And those BC staff who’d never worked a SN before? They rocked.

Oh, and there were carpets:

Update: One last item that I forgot to include: if you haven’t seen them yet, these 360-degree panoramas of the venue are amazing. Take a look!

Advertisements

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.

Wishful Thinking

I’m heading for Dallas in the morning, ready for what will be US Fencing’s largest tournament this season, outside of Summer Nationals. I’ve done all I can here at home to get ready, and will do more tomorrow afternoon when I get to the venue.

But there are far too many items I have no control over that could—and some undoubtedly will—affect the smooth running of events. So at least part of my flight time between attempts to nap will be indulging in wishful thinking, in hoping for random fate and intentional actions to combine to keep NAC C as not too awful as possible:

  • I hope the weather and air traffic control system allow all the referees and armorers and BC personnel (and even fencers!) to arrive when they’re supposed to arrive.
  • I hope all the fencers who are competing Friday morning and arrive early enough on Thursday get their gear checked on Thursday, so the Friday morning lines will be shorter than they would otherwise be.
  • I hope the download downloads properly and the BC computer crew doesn’t need to spend extra hours getting everything set up and functioning.
  • I hope the armorers have their systems for handling the long lines all figured out and working.
  • I hope the automated check-in systems work properly all weekend.
  • I hope all the referees have DART figured out so they all show up on time.
  • I hope that any lunch items meant to be hot are mostly warmer than room temperature and any lunch items meant to be cold are mostly cooler than room temperature.
  • I hope that fewer bouts than usual go to time in single digits.
  • I hope that grounding wires and scoring machines and body cords all work the ways they’re supposed to.
  • I hope the venue concessions have a decent selection and quantity of food available for officials to acquire with our little meal tickets on Friday and Saturday and Sunday nights.
  • I hope no loud drunk people run up and down the hotel hallway shouting and singing at 3:00 am any morning throughout this tournament.
  • I hope we finish up every night before the light rail schedule goes to only one train each hour.
  • I hope that the Dallas LOC will provide its usual healthy and helpful crew of volunteers for posting and other useful odds and ends.
  • I hope (probably forlornly) that every fencer has already checked that their seeding information is correct (and already had it fixed) and that all NCAA fencers have already made sure their affiliations are entered correctly.
  • I hope the head referees already have their crews sorted and grouped for assignments before they arrive at the venue each morning.
  • I hope that at least one night after we’re done that I won’t be too sleepy to be able to drink at least one beer.