The Referee: Friend, or Foe? (Guest Post by James A. Weiss, Editor, The Fencing Coach)

James Weiss (left), Michael El-Saleh (center), and Ira Schlosberg (right). We experienced many biased referees at the Maccabi games in Israel.
James Weiss (left), Michael El-Saleh (center), and Ira Schlosberg (right). We experienced many biased referees at the Maccabi games in Israel.

(Disclaimer: There are three roles that fencers and referees have assumed, or may assume during their relationship with fencing: the fencer, the official, and the spectator. It is important to note that none of these are, or should be thought of as, similar or interchangeable for the other two. And, not being able to realize which role an individual has personally assumed provides nothing less than an intellectual disservice when trying to comprehend the following discussion.)

Recently, I was talking with a fencing friend of mine about our respective experiences as both fencers and referees. We had both agreed that, oftentimes, our experiences as officials were infinitely harder than our experiences as competitors.

During our conversation, in which both of us had recounted instances of being “screwed”, as fencers, we began to debate what seems to be a very old question in our sport: Can a referee be blamed for a loss?

Our discussion was shallow at best, but I thought about it in detail a bit further. After playing devil’s advocate to my own submissions, the answer, it seemed, was a resounding, YES!!!

Side note: Before I continue, I need to make it abundantly clear the respect I have for all officials of every weapon, of every category. I have first-hand experience dealing with the feelings every referee is subjected to at some point in his or her career including, but not limited to: being unsure when making a call, lacking confidence in the call made, having to listen to screaming parents and coaches complain about supposed incompetency, failing to say “I don’t know” and awarding an unearned touch to the wrong fencer, etc. It takes a very strong individual to be able to analyze and declare actions at such a fast pace that, as a fencer/former referee, I am well aware of how tough both parties have it, especially in heated circumstances. And, this is where I enter as a critic.

Above all else, a good referee is honest – not with how, or to whom, they award touches, but with themselves. We have all been to a competition, seen someone in a suit, and thought, “Why the hell is that person here?! Are they really here to referee? I hope I don’t get him/her.” There is no written rule that says you must be at the top of the national points list in order to referee, just as there is no indication that a great fencer will undoubtedly be a great referee. But, there is a certain level of assumed (genuine) competency that I have found differentiates the excellent referees from the absolutely horrible ones.

When I talk about being honest with one’s self, I mean to say it is imperative that before someone decides to pursue becoming an official, they must truly contemplate whether or not they are the best person for the job; And therein lies the problem. According to my personal idol, British philosopher Bertrand Russell, personal reflection is, “an object of private experience”. If a standard of honesty has not been met within an individual himself, then that same standard will have a difficult time being upheld as he goes on to act as a referee. Individually determining whether or not one truly possesses the capabilities required to do the job effectively is a conclusion at which some referees arrive, oftentimes incorrectly. Just because a person may think he or she can referee, is not criterion enough to actually do it.

Here, the issue is with the ego of the potential referee, and the ego is really what makes the aforementioned distinction so meaningful. Case and point; This April, I competed at the Division 1 National Championships, and my pool had two referees: one legendary (in a good way), and the other whom I had never seen before. During a bout, an action happened that I knew was not mine despite the fact that both our colored lights had been illuminated. I walked backwards to the en garde line with my index finger raised, acknowledging that the touch belonged to my opponent. But, as I acknowledged the touch, a habit acquired through good sportsmanship and facilitating fair practice bouts, I was also incorrectly awarded the touch. The rules state that, even in instances when a bad call is made, where there is no option of replay, the call stands. My opponent’s coach was livid, and rightfully so. He began to scream at the referee with the justification that, “His finger was up!” I knew the touch was not mine, but I also was not about to turn down a free touch ordained to me by the rules. In an instant, my score was decreased by a single point, which reappeared in my opponent’s score.

More often than not, I consider myself to be a gentleman on the strip and hold everyone involved in my bouts with the utmost esteem, but there are just moments when you realize that there are protocols in place that have been completely ignored. Call it ignorance and naïveté, call it being an unseasoned referee, but situations like this should… not… happen. I immediately raised my mask, and consulted the referee asking why my opponent received the touch, to which she replied, “But, you said it wasn’t yours.” I’m confident that the look on my face, at that moment, was something akin to the famous Home Alone cover with McCaulay Culkin, as my opponent, a friend, looked at me, the referee, and then at me again with what I am assuming was equal bewilderment.

As we argued, my opponent’s coach called the other referee over to assess the situation and the touch was ultimately awarded back to me. My issue with the situation was not the bad call, nor the fact that I felt bad about getting a “free” touch, but with the referee and her justification for what she did. I remain a bit stunned by the entire situation mainly because I was left with unanswered questions, “What just happened? Did that really just happen? Why did I have to explain to the referee that she was wrong? How did she pass her exam? DID THAT SERIOUSLY JUST HAPPEN?!?!”

I could only take solace, somewhat, in the fact that she was there by mistake – not one made by the FOC, or the USFA, but by one of her own. A referee who was officiating a National Championship should not have made such a mistake. There is an assumed level of adequacy that I found was lacking in this person that I was trusting to run a (really, my) pool well, and because of that, it made it glaringly obvious that she saw in herself, wrongly I might add, the skills and understanding necessary to properly officiate. In this instance, it occurred to me that any excuses of “being new”, or “not knowing” would have been inconsequential as it is a basic rule of officiating, and fencing, and was free from defense from either perspective.

But, then, can a referee be blamed for a loss? The reason why the answer is undoubtedly affirmative is because the referee’s job description, first and foremost, is to maintain order on the strip, themselves included. If that first principle is not met, then it takes no stretch of the imagination to entertain the possibility that the answer is still, “yes”. Secondly, the role of the referee is to make calls – I say calls, and not “good calls” because being correct 100% of the time is not realistic. Humans are fallible, and the sooner fencers are able to realize that bad calls happen and are just a part of the game, the easier it is for them to progress with the mentality of a higher-level athlete.

I do not support the opinion that a referee’s “bad call(s)” are so emotionally disruptive that it makes a fencer lose. The fencer either has, or does not have, the ability to control his or her emotional state, and the referee has absolutely nothing to do with, “intervening in the emotional responses” of the fencer. Grow up!

If a referee continually makes incorrect calls that drastically alter the score of the bout, he or she is to blame. If a referee continually makes inconsistent, contradictory calls, he or she is to blame. If a referee attempts to right a wrong by awarding a touch to an undeserving fencer whom they have wronged earlier in the bout, he or she is to blame. If a referee takes suggestions from nearby coaches regarding a call, or acquiesces to a coach’s demands of checking replay without the fencer granting consent, he or she is to blame. If a referee grants bias on a fencer simply because of who the fencer is, or what he or she has done throughout his or her career, the referee is to blame. If the phrase “I don’t know” does not exist in a given referee’s lexicon, he or she is to blame. The ability to admit that a referee does not feel prepared enough to make a correct call is not only essential to the integrity of the bout, but the integrity of the official himself. Each of these examples prove that a referee has multiple opportunities to act in the fairest way possible, and by acting in accordance with any of these examples, the referee can be the reason why someone loses a bout. These are not imaginary instances of where a referee may act inappropriately, as I have seen each of these examples displayed multiple times throughout my career at every level of competition

Referees are not evil people who like making fencers lose; They are simply people who want to promote fencing in as fair an environment as possible. Don’t we all want that? Part of the issue is due in fact to just being human. When a bad call is made without its ability to be replayed, and he or she is aware of their mistake, a referee wishes nothing more than to overturn that call.

In order to reduce the likelihood of any bad officiating, the referee ought to remove his or her ego from the bout he or she has been asked to judge. To referees new and old: Divorce your point of view as a fencer from your point of view as a referee. Be mindful of both the separation, and when the two perspectives might begin to coincide.

Be a critic. The definition of “criticizing” is “reporting on”, not belittling, contrary to popular belief. Simply report on what is happening in the bout. Hold firm to what and how you call and your reasoning behind it, should your judgment be questioned. Additionally, refrain from showing the arguing fencer what happened. Instead, tell him or her. Remember: a good referee tells, and a poor one shows.

The USFA’s measures for granting a referee his or her license are a bit too lenient. A written test is not a high-enough standard. When someone passes the referee exam, where he or she must answer more than a majority of multiple-choice questions correctly, the new referee is awarded the lowest ranking available for an official. Could you imagine what the roads would be like if the DMV of every state allowed only the written test to count as a basis for driving legally?

The practical portion comes when a referee is already officiating at a competition, most likely locally, and a high-ranking referee comes to evaluate the low-level referee’s performance. In my opinion, the practical examination should be included with the written exam in order to permit a certain level of comprehension for competitions big and small. Failing to meet a standard determined by the USFA should result in failure to be granted a license to officiate.

What really matters is the perspective, or approach a referee brings with him or her to the strip. Arrogance will only create dysfunction, just as true confidence will facilitate the fencers’ trust. If fencing has taught anything, it is: “know your limits”, but that is certainly not an invitation to admit defeat; rather, it is a challenge to personally transcend that which presents any type of barrier. This can only be done through a necessary journey of personal evaluation if it is to genuinely leave us with the answers we desire. They may not be the ones you want, but at least your conscious will be clear.



One thought on “The Referee: Friend, or Foe? (Guest Post by James A. Weiss, Editor, The Fencing Coach)

  1. Interesting post.I agree referees should be ever critical of their own abilities. However, there is one fact in this post that is not correct. Practically speaking, in the absence of video replay or hand judges, the referee should not change their publicly stated decision before awarding a touch. However, there is no rule that prohibits them from doing so. It is ok for a confident ref to immediately realize that they have stated the phrase incorrectly then immediately restate it correctly and award the touch appropriately. Of course if this is happening more than rarely, or a referee changes their decision only after feedback from a coach/fencer/parent/etc., that would be poor officiating indeed.

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