It isn’t a farfetched conclusion to say that USFA referees are among the most underappreciated officials in organized sport. Between the long hours that require hyper-awareness from sunrise to sunset, the paltry pay, the forced consumption of hotdogs probably made of opossum meat, and the constant berating from both parents and coaches alike, it’s no surprise that we often see the referees throwing a few beers back after a long day of competition, or playing some of the most raucous games of “Cards Against Humanity” in order to let off steam.
Ask most referees why they’re doing what they do despite the lack of glamor, and most will provide a universal answer: what other opportunities are they going to have to reunite with their lifelong friends and be around a sport they love? Refereeing provides an avenue for the greatest fencing enthusiasts to be involved in fencing, minus the physical/emotional rigor of the tournament itself. For this reason, it’s no surprise that you can go to a NAC and still see the likes of Ivan Lee, David Sach, or the late great Ed Richards involved.
As athletes or coaches, when we set ambitious goals leading up to tournaments, it is often easy to get tunnel vision and forget why the referees are there. Conflict between fencer/coach and referee is commonplace given the potential factor of human error in our sport; but, for every five coaches or fencers who approach referees with tactful, cogent arguments identifying the (perceived) errors of the officials, you get one theatrical pissant who turns the piste into a crappily acted melodrama.
You know who I’m talking about: the guy who jumps the barrier at the NACs and waves his hands in the referee’s face and tries to intimidate. The guy who is drunk with temper, red-faced, and contesting every call not because he disagrees with the referee, but because he wants to get it in their head that he’s in charge. And in the worst case scenario: he’s the guy who loses control of his behavior to the point that he threatens violence to the referee, and/or his behavior ends in a black card. I’m talking about the bully coach.
While coaches are overwhelmingly chivalrous and well-natured, sprinkled into the mix are the bully coaches who attempt to channel their inner Bobby Knight to accomplish their goals of influencing a bout. Speaking to about ten referees, I was alarmed to find that the overwhelming majority of them replied “yes” when asked if they felt they had ever been bullied while presiding over the piste.
One story stood out in particular to me, and that was one of longtime Capitol division referee, Lewis Sloter. Sloter had presided over a controversial Y14ME bout at a previous Summer Nationals. Following the bout, Sloter was approached by an irate coach who called him a “motherf*****,” prompting an appropriate black card. Upon receiving his gift of shame, the coach proceeded to threaten Sloter with a punch until a spectator intervened. The coach yelled that he would “kill [Sloter] if they ever met on the strip.” Despite the threatening of a crime called “murder” with a side of physical violence, after an appeal of the card, the coach was back in the venue the next day, resuming his duties.
Similarly, during the Cleveland NAC, I paused in shock with a friend to observe the theater as a well-known coach put four fingers on a referee’s chest and got within six inches his face to bark his disagreement over what was clearly a correct “parry-riposte” call. The referee appeared flustered, and hesitated to continue calling the “parry-riposte” following the coach’s battery. Mission accomplished, you DoucheYoda.
In a sport that promotes the values of chivalry and sportsmanship, our community should not tolerate bullying behavior towards referees, athletes, or anyone for that matter. Jen Oldham, a USFA referee and the owner/head coach of Mid-South Fencer’s Club agrees. “The level of bullying we see should not be accepted,” Oldham said. “It’s both covert and overt, and there isn’t enough being done about it. It appears the FOC values this kind of coercive behavior, perhaps they think this is how it’s always been, and they know no other way – but who is going to step up and move our sport out of the Dark Ages?” Oldham added that the FOC needed to issue a strong policy with distinct guidelines on how to address bullying coaches with examples of what is acceptable behavior and a commitment from the FOC to uphold black cards for unacceptable behaviors. “It’s just not clear if we will be supported. Often, the coaches acting out have no clue their behavior is inappropriate, or they just don’t care because they can get away with it. It demeans the power of the referee and sends the message, ‘we don’t have faith in you and your ability.'”
Sloter and Oldham both agreed that there is a certain perversion of politics that causes the FOC to turn a blind eye to bullying. “The coaches are the driving engines of this sport,” Sloter said. “The parents are the money, but the coaches are both recruiter and drill sergeant. They do have a significant part in developing our athletes. Refs are not seen as part of the development, we are just a tournament apparatus. So the high-profile coaches have this ‘droit de seigneur’ sense of entitlement. Time and time again, referees have seen the USFA take the coach’s side.”
The custom of “droit de seigneur” is the same poisonous culture that penetrated the Miami Dolphins locker room, allowing a workplace where a veteran was encouraged to bully a second year player, calling him a “…half n***** piece of s***” and telling him that he would “kill him.” While such behavior is never directly encouraged by the FOC, their resistance to enforcing black cards for wanton bullying of officials speaks volumes in their unwillingness to put a stop to this culture.
The faction of the “bully coach” is small, isolated, and unrepresentative of the greater coaching community; yet its existence is wholly contrary to the values of fencing. Sloter agrees. “I’m happy to say that the bullies are the exception, not the rule. I remember from a job training video one time the phrase ‘behavior breeds behavior.’ That’s true. If the ref is professional, alert, and accepts that he is human and fallible, the coaches respect that.” Our referees deserve a workplace that protects them from coercion, violence (or the threat of), and allows them to operate without fear of retaliation. Our current tournament environment is not that place.