Providing Clarity to Confusion: a Veteran Referee’s Perspective (Guest Post)

Mary Frye

This is a guest post from Mary Frye, a seasoned referee and member of the FOC. Mary notes that “this isn’t from the FOC as a body per se, but from myself, as a member of the Domestic Assignments Committee  (DAC) of the FOC.  I suppose I’m splitting hairs a bit here, since a lot of this is explanatory in nature, but there are some bits that are my personal opinion, and not the opinion of the FOC.”

Damien has been providing a forum for a number of referees to offer their perspectives on being a referee, and for that I thank him.  For those who don’t know me, my name is Mary Frye; I’m a referee, a member of the Fencing Officials Commission, and one of four people on the Domestic Assignments Committee (DAC) of the FOC, whose main job is to hire referees for NACs and Summer Nationals.  It’s from the viewpoint of being a member of the DAC, and responsible for hiring referees for national tournaments, that I want to talk about some of the points made by Annamaria Lu in her guest post.

 It’s been a while since I was a new referee, and the whole process of becoming a referee, working conditions for referees, and getting hired for tournaments was very different when I started out.  Since I don’t want this to be a “back in my day…” kind of post, suffice it to say that while a lot was different, referees still had to negotiate what seemed to be the shifting sands of the hiring policy.  In many ways, I think the current way we hire is better, so it’s an eye-opener to read about her experiences.

 If one is interested, I’ve gone into more detail later on in this post regarding the process used by DAC members to hire for NACs, and an explanation of just what the heck is a “walk-on referee,” but I want to briefly respond to some of the things she wrote.

“Walk-On Referees”

 For starters, one of the reasons the term “walk-on” can’t be found on the FOC web site is that the term has been replaced by “part-time”.  That’s the short version, the longer explanation can be found at the end.

 Yes, new referees almost always work their first NAC as a part-time referee, the proverbial “foot-in-the-door” experience.  But we usually suggest referees work at this status only if they’re going to be at the tournament as a competitor or a spectator and they have an available day or two, or if they live in the immediate area of the tournament.   That way, experience and exposure can be gained, without incurring the cost of travel just to referee.

 Clearly, it didn’t work out that way at the March 2014 NAC.  It was a special tournament in so many ways, which I’ll elaborate on later in this post.

 Unknown Fees

 I wish I could say I knew what all the fees were for, but I don’t.  I do know that the National Office will deduct certain expenses from the referee’s payment.  For example, in my case, I almost always ask for a single room, which means I’ll owe USA Fencing ½ the cost of the room.  That expense is deducted from my honorarium and per diem payment.  Some referees ask that their membership renewal cost be deducted, or tournament entry fees.  All I can say is, I encourage anyone who thinks they’ve had costs erroneously deducted, to contact the National Office and politely ask for an explanation.  Send your questions to Kate Drummey, National Events Manager, at

Mentoring Process

 This is one where I agree with Annamaria whole-heartedly; we need to mentor our referees as much as we can, so that everyone has the opportunity to improve. We want to hire more high-level referees to act as mentors.  That can’t always happen, either because of financial constraints, or unavailability of the high-level referees, so peer-to-peer referee mentoring is definitely encouraged.

 FOC members are interested in being mentors at tournaments, but keep in mind there are only 12 FOC members, and at any given tournament only 5 to 7 of them may be in attendance.  With three of them assigning referees, that’s only 2 to 4 FOC members out on the floor, and that doesn’t provide a lot of opportunities for direct mentoring.  It’s why we delegate the mentoring to senior referees; they’re part of the cadre, they have more opportunities to watch the other referees’ work, and they can spend some quality time in discussions with the less-experienced referees.

 The Referee Evaluation Forms are part of the mentoring process; not only do they track a referee’s performance, but they provide a base set of data for mentoring by the evaluator.  We ask the person doing the evaluation to go over the form with the referee, so that the observed referee can benefit from the feedback.  We then give a copy of the evaluation form to the observed referee, so they can review it at their leisure.  But she’s right, mentoring does sometimes get lost in the pressures of trying to keep the tournament running smoothly.  After all, running the tournament is why we’re all there.


 What can I say?  She’s right again, it’s not great.  The only thing we’ve really got going for us is that if referees want to get to the level where they work the top, tough (fun) bouts, they have to come to the NACs for the experiences, observation, and mentoring.

 We know that the 3’s, 4’s, and 5’s are frequently the hardest working referees in the room.  We’ve even had discussions about changing the pay to better reflect work performed, while still preserving a tangible incentive to improve.  We haven’t gotten there yet.  Perhaps some combination of hours worked plus rating level is the way to go; I don’t pretend to know the answer.

 But hey, keep the good ideas coming, we may be able to adopt one or two of them.

What does the DAC do, anyway?

 Now for the part of the post where I explain what goes into hiring for a NAC, and just what is a “walk-on referee” anyway?

 It would be difficult to explain all the variables that go into deciding whether to hire any particular referee for a NAC and still make this post something that won’t put every reader to sleep, so I’m going to summarize.  Like all rules of thumb, there are always exceptions, but here are the general guidelines for hiring for a NAC:

 Hire qualified referees who can work all four days.

  1. If the cadre cannot be filled with four-day referees, hire selected referees for three days.
  2. Preferably, hire referees who are qualified in more than one weapon.
  3. Hire referees with a minimum rating of a 5 in at least one weapon.

 There’s more, and for those interested, a longer version of this can be found on the FOC Website,

 The minimum rating a referee needs to be considered for hiring can vary depending on the competitions being contested in the NAC.  A “mix” percentage is set up for each NAC; so many 5’s, 4’s, 3’s, etc., but in general the “slots” available for referees whose highest rating is less than 5 are very limited, and almost non-existent for a Div 1 NAC.

 Since the “mix” of competitions for the March NAC was a new combination, one with which the DAC had no experience, we made the decision to set the minimum rating for hire at 6.  What that meant for Annamaria, was that without the 6 rating going in to the March NAC, she needed a recommendation from a senior referee to be considered at all.

 Should we have done things differently?  With hindsight, perhaps so.  As it was, since one of the requirements was that referees hired for full-time work must have a minimum rating of a 6, anyone whose highest rating was less than that was likely to be hired as a part-time (or walk-on – more on this term later) referee instead.

 Please understand, we’re trying to hire the best referees we can for each and every tournament.  As a result, we’re very hesitant to invest the money for travel and housing in a referee unknown to us; what if the referee just isn’t qualified to officiate at the tournament?  No one will be happy in that case, not the fencers, the coaches, the referee, or the assigners.

 So when a referee unknown to us says they’re available to work a tournament, we ask around; we get recommendations from experienced referees who’ve seen the new referee.  Once we’ve gathered all the information we can, we decide whether we want to hire them or not.  Unfortunately, as Annamaria pointed out, from the new referee’s point of view, it looks like pay-to-play if they’re hired as a part-time referee, when what we’re really trying to do is balance the needs of all concerned.

 I’d like to think we learned from the difficulties we had hiring for the March NAC, and that the hiring process for the April 2015 NAC will go much better.

“Walk-On Referees,” Part Two

Now I’d like to clear up some of the confusion about the terms “walk-on referee,” “full-time referee,” and “part-time referee”.  Bear with me, this is going to get involved, and I might end up indulging my tendency to lecture, but hopefully it’ll be informative in the end.

 For a number of years, for purposes of payment, referees fell into one of two categories; one was either a Volunteer Official, or a Walk-on Volunteer Official.  Here’s the definition of those terms, from the 2012-2013 season’s version of the USA Fencing Domestic Expense Form:

 “A “Volunteer Official” is a USA FENCING member in good standing who has been formally invited to serve the organization in an official capacity other than as an officer or committee member. A “Walk-on Volunteer Official” is a USA FENCING member in good standing who is asked at an event venue to serve the organization in an official capacity.”

 The form then went on to enumerate what each type of official could expect in the way of honorarium, per diem, travel, hotel expenses, and ground costs reimbursement.  In short, Volunteer Officials qualified for all or some proportion of all of the above, while Walk-on Volunteer Officials received only honorarium and per diem for service days.

 Since those were the only two types of officials listed on the expense form, everyone got used to referring to referees who were only working one or two days of a NAC, and who weren’t getting hotel, airfare, or expense reimbursement, as walk-on referees.

 The problem was, some referees didn’t really fit in either category.  What type of official is a person who contacts the DAC before the event, and says they can work for one or two days of the tournament?  As a general rule, I’d only hire a referee as a Volunteer Official if they could work at least 3, and preferably 4, days of a NAC, because I was trying to be fiscally responsible regarding the travel costs.  Because a Walk-on Volunteer Official was defined as someone asked at the event to serve, this referee who has contacted me beforehand doesn’t really fit the definition; but I want to make use of their services; but I also don’t want to hire them as a Volunteer Official either. So what to do?

 I solved the problem by thinking of Volunteer Officials as “those for whom we’ll pay for travel and hotel”, and Walk-on Volunteer Officials as “those for whom we’ll only pay honorarium and per diem”. Anyone who contacted me before the tournament, saying they could work one or two days, I would explain I couldn’t provide hotel or travel, but if that was acceptable to them, I would put them down on the list as a Walk-on Referee.  If they showed up (and they almost always did, because our referees really are very dedicated), great!  If not, the organization wasn’t out anything.

 This may have been a bad decision on my part, but in most cases I wasn’t willing to hire someone as a Volunteer Official for only one or two days, and my only other option would be to tell them “thanks, but no thanks”.  Since we can use all the qualified referees we can get, I thought turning down the offer was a bad option, and mostly I didn’t choose it.

 To resolve this conundrum, the DAC and the National Office decided to revise the reimbursement policy last summer, so that starting in the 2013-2014 season, officials would be referred to as either Full-Time Tournament Officials, or Part-Time Tournament Officials; no more Walk-Ons.

 The general policy itself didn’t much change, but we did change the names of the official’s categories; from “Volunteer Official” to “Full-time Tournament Official”, and from “Walk-on Volunteer Official” to “Part-Time Tournament Official”.  We also tried to come up with a more comprehensive definition for each type.  And that’s why the term “Walk-on” cannot be found on the FOC website; it’s obsolete.

 Of course, since this information is on page 2 of the expense form, few of the referees were aware of the change in terminology.  All the experienced referees know what their honorarium is and what the reimbursement policies are, so there’s very little need for them to look at page 2.  And since they all knew what being a “walk-on” meant, the term has persisted, even amongst FOC members.  Such is the ways of language, especially since the change in terms wasn’t publicized.  Which doesn’t help the new referee trying to figure things out, but hopefully this explains the term.

The End (really!)

 Thanks for sticking with me to the end of the post. I know that it’s way too long, but I hope it’s explained some of the oddities of the hiring process.

Mary Frye

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