On the Need for a More Democratically Minded Board

I think the members of USA Fencing are pretty damn smart. Fencers are thinkers, fencers are pragmatic, and even Sabre fencers can be left to their own devices to make good decisions. One of the many reasons I’m running for Board is because I have faith in the will of membership, and as a community-oriented sport, I think it’s important that we have a Board that operates with an inherent trust of the people we represent (and I say “we” as a prospective Board member).

Every one of my opponents in this Board race probably has a watershed moment that made them submit their name for nomination in the upcoming elections— a moment that made them throw their hands up and say: “this isn’t working, and we need a new approach to leadership.”

For me, that moment came in the summer of 2021 when (then) President Peter Burchard called for an emergency meeting to address the prevailing issue of sexual violence in the sport of fencing. Such a meeting was necessary. In that moment, members who were victims of sexual violence were in pain and needed to speak their truth. Those victims were never extended that opportunity. Procedurally, that meeting was stifled (more on that below) and for reasons still befuddling to me, membership was told that sexual violence was not an emergency.

The moment the emergency meeting was voted to adjourn was the beginning of what I’ll call, “a Series of Undemocratic Events.” These were events that I felt were representative of a sentiment that the collective Board simply didn’t place trust in the people who elected them, and moments that I felt were representative of the need to pivot to a more democratic mindset on the Governance side of USA Fencing. 

As I’ve opined many times, the leadership on the Operations side under Executive Director Phil Andrews has been outstanding. Mr. Andrews has taken a member-centric approach to serving USA Fencing’s constituency. He has gone positively nuclear when it comes to addressing the issues of sexual violence in fencing while remaining within the heavy bureaucratic constraints placed upon him and the NGB by both the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) and the US Center for SafeSport (USCSS). His regular engagement with members on social media has provided an unprecedented level of transparency that has galvanized membership and helped restore faith in the NGB.

On the Governance side of the organization, with the upcoming elections, our organization is now at a crossroads with how to match the gains made by Operations. I believe that matching the momentum of Operations means shifting to the same member-services mindset on the Board that Phil has implemented within his own staff. To become a more member-centric Board, we must become a more democratic one. And while we can’t undue actions from the past, we can reflect on “a Series of Undemocratic Events” and learn from them to become a more democratic Board in the future.

I’d like to share with you a couple of watershed moments from the past few years that made me jump into these elections, and reflect on how I might have voted/acted here if I was on the Board. As a nominee in next month’s elections, I commit to a democratic mindset, placing the trust in you as a member to guide me with both your voice and your vote. I hope I can convince you not only for your vote, but at the minimum, that you as membership are the compass for the Board and that we work at your behest.

A Series of Undemocratic Events #1: “It’s not an emergency” (It was, though)

In July of 2021, a BuzzFeed article was published alleging sexual misconduct from a prominent athlete while also pointing out instances of the USA FenceSafe system and the USCSS system failing victims.

In that article, a female referee told of stalking allegations and that a man “cornered her in a bar and threatened to kill her dog if she didn’t have sex with him,” and months later, “…the man pressured her hotel roommate into giving him a copy of their room key ‘to assault me.’[1]” 

Others in the BuzzFeed article “described a climate in which some athletes say they’ve been told to sit on a coach’s lap, have been groped in hotel elevators at tournaments, or threatened with violence if they didn’t engage in sexual acts.”

Our own survey of women conducted by Annamaria Lu found a significant number of respondents who had been sexually harassed or sexually assaulted by someone in our sport.

Worse—victims who reported via official USA Fencing/US Center for SafeSport means were met with bureaucratic incompetence. Documents with proof submitted by victims were simply lost, leadership in the previous NGB’s administration simply failed to file—or in some cases, allegations were simply ignored. In their February 2023 audit, the USOPC noted that it took one complainant 394 days to receive a response[2].

This was an emergency, and yet, on the Operations side of the organization, this emergency was treated as an inconvenience. To the Governance side, it was treated with similar disdain.

I dialed into the emergency meeting thinking that the victims of sexual violence in fencing would be met with empathy. I dialed into the emergency meeting believing that the Board would listen with open ears from the people who elected them, and that the pain of these victims would be acknowledged. What a silly expectation I had. 7/9 members of the Board “voted against commencing a formal meeting, because, they argued…it didn’t constitute a true emergency.[3]

How I Believe This Should Have been Handled: The meeting had been positioned as a formal emergency meeting and thus was subject to the definitions outlined in the bylaws and procedures under Robert’s Rules of Order. In hindsight, it could have been presented to membership as a town hall/listening session with the intent of the Board to listen, learn, and act. Process and procedure are of course important—but in moments requiring empathy and compassion (especially for those who are victims of sexual violence), sometimes you’ve got to simply throw procedure feet first into a blender.

A Series of Undemocratic Events #2: the Removal of Peter Burchard as Chair

On October 16, 2021 the Board of Directors voted to remove Peter Burchard as Chair just one year into his four year term. Whether or not you agree with the “why” of Peter Burchard’s removal, the “how” remains an undemocratic event. The undemocratic nature of the removal came in the procedure used to oust him. Rather than place his removal on the agenda, it was added during new business without providing Mr. Burchard with the opportunity to defend himself.

Despite claims that the removal was “unplanned,” the announcement and public statement from the new Chair just nine minutes after the conclusion of the October 16 meeting suggested that it was in fact, planned. Witnesses who testified in the USOPC’s December 2022 report called the removal “shady” and a “coup.[4]

How I Believe This Should Have been Handled: Article X of USA Fencing’s bylaws outlines removal reasons and procedures for Directors, committee members, and other members of the Board. In the event an Officer is up for removal, a formal resolution stating the grounds for removal is to be presented to the accused, and the accused is then given 30 days to address the charges and present testimony[5].

A democratic Board must outline these charges transparently to membership and allow membership the opportunity to weigh in, provide feedback, and understand the gravity of the accusations against the people they elect. This is the process that should have been extended to Mr. Burchard rather than a clandestine removal that wasn’t present on any agenda.

A Series of Undemocratic Events #3: Ignoring Member Votes in the Hall of Fame Elections

Again—full disclosure: I am a member of the Hall of Fame Committee. The following statement is representative only of my own opinions and not (necessarily) those of my colleagues on the Committee. Normally I would not publicly opine on these proceedings, but as a Board candidate that has “transparency” as one of his listed core tenets, it’s important I lay these things out so membership can see the mindset of a person they might be voting for.

For better or for worse, Hall of Fame elections in any sport tend to be a popularity contest by nature. In the NFL, for instance, Terrell Owens, the #3 all-time receiver in statistical production had to wait multiple years of eligibility before being inducted into the Hall. Why? Because Terrell Owens was a mercurial jackass that had an extremely antagonistic relationship with the media. His production should have made him a slam-dunk 1st ballot; instead, he had to wait for years as the media he ostracized found every reason to not elect him.

So, when USA Fencing places the faith in membership to elect its Hall of Fame members, there is an inherent acceptance that despite the flaws that exist in a popularity contest, the members will elect our Hall inductees in good faith.

In the past three Hall of Fame Elections, Sam Cheris had been nominated in the “Contributor” category, but in each election, he failed to amass more than 38% of the membership’s vote. In my book, Sam Cheris is a Hall of Famer, and if you were to make a “Mount Rushmore” of influential figures in American Fencing, Sam’s face would without a doubt be on it. You simply cannot tell the history of American Fencing without the contributions Sam has made. Membership felt otherwise.

Earlier this year, the Hall of Fame Committee was approached by the Board and asked to support a motion to induct Mr. Cheris outside of the standard membership election process. The Committee unanimously voted “no,” not as a slight to Mr. Cheris, but as an admonishment for circumvention of the established process. The Board proceeded to elect Mr. Cheris into the Hall of Fame despite the protest of the Hall of Fame Committee and the multiple “no” votes in the Contributor category from membership.

An anonymous individual filed a complaint to the USOPC protesting the procedures used to elect Mr. Cheris. In their response to the complaint, the USOPC acknowledged the Board’s authority to “oversee the management and operation of the organization” and that there is “no prohibition on the Board’s ability to assume the duties entrusted to the Committee,” but the USOPC admonished the Board for acting “unilaterally to induct Mr. Cheris to the Hall of Fame” and noted the risks for undermining trust in the organization that “previously voted against this action.”

How I Believe This Should Have been Handled: The votes of membership should have been respected by the Board here, first and foremost. But the USOPC also noted that the Committee needed more formal processes outlined in the bylaws. In their letter to USA Fencing, the USOPC called for USA Fencing to “amend the bylaws or otherwise create a written procedure that outlines the role and responsibilities of the Hall of Fame Committee.” If I am elected, I will propose amendments to the bylaws that enhance the independence of the Hall of Fame Committee and codify membership’s ability to elect candidates to the Hall of Fame without any political influence from the Board.

Membership, in my opinion was “wrong” with its rejections of Mr. Cheris, but what I perceive as “wrong” shouldn’t matter—democracy is flawed, and when we place the faith in membership to elect candidates to the Hall, we must be willing to accept that membership might not always align with the interests of the Board. We must acknowledge that the At-Large Directors—the largest bloc of the Board is elected by you, the membership. We represent you, and while we cannot always align 1:1 with the needs and wants of membership, we must always be willing to face our constituents and be accountable for decisions made whether popular or not.

My Commitment to You

As a nominee in next month’s Board elections, I commit the following to membership:

  1. I will always act transparently and out in the open. Decisions I vote on will be justified publicly with accompanying rationale. Even in disagreement, I will always be willing to listen to your feedback.
  2. I will never use procedural loopholes to conduct business.
  3. I will respect the will of membership and I will work as a partner with all fencers, coaches, athletes, parents, and volunteers I represent.

I would appreciate your vote next month. Please feel free to comment or email me at damien@thefencingcoach.com.

[1] https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/briannasacks/olympics-fencers-safesport-abuse

[2] https://www.teamusa.org/-/media/TeamUSA/NGB-Audit/USA-Fencing-Audit-Report-2022-FINALua.pdf

[3] https://www.sportsbusinessjournal.com/Daily/Issues/2021/10/04/Olympics/USA-Fencing

[4] https://cdn1.sportngin.com/attachments/document/d990-2843817/Ltr._to_USFA_Community_Members_12.14.22.pdf

[5] https://cdn1.sportngin.com/attachments/document/60a7-2640816/Fencing_Bylaws_Final_01_05_2022.pdf?_gl=1*7h3mzy*_ga*Mzk1MTM1OTgxLjE2ODE3NDYwMzg.

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