In a previous post, I quipped about “Tales of Epic Black Cards,” which was a collection of horror stories from various referees where they had to resort to pulling out the dreaded black card (my favorite from my friend Kevin Shanahan, who shared with me a scoresheet signed “this ref stinks”).
To everyone not named Diego Occhiuzzi, a black card is fencing’s scarlet letter, an offense reserved only for the most grievous transgressions in the sport. They’re serious, they lead to shocked silence to spectators witnessing them, and they are often permanently tarnishing to the personal brand of the recipient. They should always be a last resort.
After a recent ROC I refereed, I joined a few of my friends for a few pints, and naturally, we began to share “battle stories.” At one point, I turned to Mary Frye and asked her what her most crazy black card story was. “I’ve never given one,” she replied. Those of us at the bar were shocked.
Mary has (and continues to be) one of the country’s best referees and organizers, and someone I’ve always considered a mentor. No black cards in a decades-long career as a ref? None? Mary explained her belief that almost every tense situation could be deescalated, and if the referee established control of his/her piste, s/he needn’t worry about the tomfoolery that can lead to these kinds of cards.
That’s not to say every black card is unavoidable. Temper can explode in the heat of a narrow loss, and with a loss of temper, even the best of fencers can lose control of their emotions in a way that referees can’t proactively nip in the bud. There are often times when there really is no other option but to draw the dreaded card.
However, sifting through the comments on my page and forums (and when I occasionally visit the den of trolls that is FNet), budding referees will view the black card as an antagonistic defense mechanism like lawmen with their fingers on the trigger of a gun. One of my readers recently wrote: “I usually don’t allow parents to even approach me…Let alone question me.” Another reader responded: “That parent better watch out. I may have my fingers on a black card.”
I use these examples not to single these readers out, but to provide an illustration of the broader mentality some referees may have when it comes to black cards, as well as the referee’s relationship with spectators, coaches, and athlete. The referee is expected to be an invisible and objective arbiter of the piste who maintains order and enforcement of the rules throughout the bout. To operate with a card-first, ask questions later mentality is to make the referee a third player in the bout, when it is intended to be about the two men/women in combat on the piste.
All referees may experience a time when the black card must be shown. It may even happen for someone like Mary one day. But if and when she pulls one out, all other avenues will have been exhausted. It’s a standard we should all follow.