Last night, I had the pleasure of taking part in the first USA Fencing candidate debate. That video should be published shortly. We only had an hour and six of us on stage, and a lot of great questions got asked that we didn’t have time to get to.
At the end of the debate, I did a quick copy/paste of the questions that came up in Q&A. As a continued commitment to being transparent/honest, I’ve answered every question from our members below.
There were a few questions that were directed at specific candidates. Those questions I obviously omitted (with one exception).
As always, if anyone has any questions about my positions below, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment below. Thanks!
Damien – if elected, at what level do you continue to be involved in your social media page? Secondly, sometimes you have personal non-fencing posts (related to politics, etc.) on your public page. What are your thoughts on greater public/private separation as a potential representative of the entire organization and membership?
I believe my social media presence to be a value differentiator compared to my peers in this election. One of the key values of my election platform is “Transparency.” I have made a commitment to our membership to publish a blog post documenting every single vote I make and the rationale behind it. As many of you know, I am engaging with our members multiple times per day on my own platforms, Reddit, and other channels, and always willing to have a spirited discussion with those I agree with and those I disagree with.
I have also committed to operating out in the open and not using procedural loopholes to circumvent the will of membership. You will know what is on the mind of Damien Lehfeldt at every point in time.
Now, that said, it’s important as a leader in this community to recognize my flaws. My biggest asset is also my greatest liability: I lead with my heart, and my heart can sometimes make my mouth say stupid things. It’s something I’m continuing to work on, and all I can say is that as a representative of the organization, that trumps anything I put on social media and I’ll be hyper-cognizant of that.
Lastly, this idea that I put “politics” on my page, I would respectfully disagree. I do not think advocating for women’s reproductive rights, or transgender athlete participation is “politics.” A lot of people are hurting out there. When trans or LGBTQ people see that a leader in their sport is pounding the table for their right to participate (and hell, their right to exist), I think it’s an affirmation they need to see so they feel a sense of inclusivity and belonging.
If my platform can be used to speak out on injustice in the world around us, I believe it’s a platform well-used.
What is your position on allowing trans fencers to compete?
I wish this question came up last night. They should absolutely be allowed to compete in the gender they identify with so long as they meet the requirements laid out by USA Fencing and the IOC. Period.
I will fight tooth and nail as a member of the Board to ensure gender equity for all participants in our sport. I do not make a distinction between cisgender athletes and transgender ones. The year is 2023. Let’s make sure we keep modern science and medicine at the forefront of our decisions as a Board and not “do our own Facebook research” on topics like vaccines and transgender athlete participation.
What are your plans to expand college fencing? I’m going to give an answer laser-focused on what the Governance part of our organization can do to expand college fencing, because it’s important that your Board remain respectful of the demarcation with Operations (the national office). When it comes to creating the national governing body’s (NGB’s) next strategic plan, expansion of college fencing must be included as one of our objectives. I believe for college fencing to continue to thrive, a few things must occur:
- Expansion of new programs. Already, we’re seeing a huge boom in recently added NCAA programs such as Wagner, LIU, UIW, and Wheaton. That’s awesome for our sport. More programs mean more pathways for continuing in our sport beyond youth fencing, and opening up doors for our athletes to quality education, often paid for with an athletic scholarship. And let’s also prioritize getting fencing programs in Historically Black Colleges and Universities!
- Increasing Gender Equity. There is almost no scenario in which a women’s only team can win an NCAA Fencing Championship, because as of right now, the NCAA only recognizes a combined title. It would be great to get a men’s title and a women’s title. Additionally, we have a limitless reservoir of qualified and capable female coaches in fencing, but only six lead NCAA programs at this time. More women in leadership in all levels of fencing is good for fencing as a whole.
Donald – When you proposed to cancel youth from the March NAC you indicated that your term was ending and implied that you would not run again. Why are you now running again? For the last time folks—DONALD ALPERSTEIN NEVER ONCE PROPOSED TO CANCEL YOUTH FENCING FROM ANY NAC’S! I urge anyone to peruse recent agendas and minutes and find any document that says Alperstein tried to do this. Spoiler alert: you will not find anything. I have disagreed with Mr. Alperstein on a number of things over the years, but this urban myth has become this election’s equivalent of Dominion Voting Machines. It’s patently false and it’s an assault on an honorable man’s character. I’ll quote Christopher Hitchens here: “what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” Come on, man.
What are you going to do differently as far as communication & outreach to grow this sport? While I don’t think we’re going to be the NFL by any means, it seems silly that professional darts gets TV time, my town has a curling program, and fencing gets nothing but local YouTube streams that may or may not work. What we’ve been doing needs supplementation, so what are you each going to do differently? As far as communication, as mentioned above, I commit to regularly engaging with my constituents, soliciting feedback, and justifying any and every decision I make as a Board member. I believe communication to be one of my strongest suits, and using The Fencing Coach, I have written hundreds of articles over the last decade that seek to not only make fencing more simple, but make it more accessible and understandable. Let’s face it—governance isn’t always at the forefront of our membership’s mind, and our lower election participation numbers tend to be indicative of that. But what I hope to accomplish is to get people more excited and engaged about our Board, and draw in our members to be more passionate.
The second part of my answer here probably won’t make me many friends—but I think the age-old discussion of “how do we make fencing more spectator friendly” is the wrong discussion. I believe what we need to do is get our existing members more fired up about the sport. Find fencers that inspire them and that they can look up to. I’d like to see more frequent content from our clubs on social media. Cool lessons, highlight touches, blog posts, group drills, humor—these things all put a spotlight on our sport in the best way and engage/inspire our members with new ideas.
This question is for all the candidates – in your view, do you believe that the interests and wellbeing of fencing families are adequately represented in USA Fencing given that minor aged fencers have no vote in Board elections and their parents have to pay to become Access members in order to vote. At this time, I do not feel that members are adequately represented. For reasons I pointed out in a previous blog post, we’ve really got to do a better job as a Board in ensuring we’re tapped into the wants and needs of members. And more importantly—when we as a Board are in disagreement with membership, we either respect membership’s will or we operate transparently with them to justify the “why” of a decision made.
I do not feel that giving minors a vote in the Board elections, however, is necessarily the solution. Despite our youth fencers representing the largest bloc of the membership population, I believe that having minors vote would shift governance priorities in such a way that only the largest clubs (or shall we say, “big fencing”) would be prioritized and not the growth of our sport as a whole.
The expectation should be that the Board will represent our youth fencers and work to ensure that group has a healthy and wonderful experience in our sport. If Board member fails to accomplish that objective, they can be voted out.
What I’d really like to see is for 90% or more of our members to vote in elections. We only get about 10% turnout right now. We can do better! The decisions our Board makes impact each and every member.
That said, I believe there are other ways our youth fencers can better participate in our sport’s democratic processes. As a member of the Board, I will propose a motion that gives all members regardless of age a vote in our Hall of Fame elections. You don’t need to be 18 years old to vote to preserve and eternalize the legends of our sport.
A big problem with disruptive parents seems to be bout committees not supporting referees black carding coaches and parents. I know of one person who fully quit the sport over one such incident. What are the candidates’ thoughts on that? Are my concerns on the issue overblown, and if not, how would you recommend going about addressing that issue.
First of all—no, your concerns on the issue are not overblown. Respect for all must continue to remain at the forefront of our sport’s culture. Respect from ref to athlete, from athlete to ref, from coach to ref, coach to athlete, etc.
At the very first NAC I ever refereed, a parent called me a cheater. I black carded them. I was immediately told “woah there cowboy, you took that a little too far!” and I was urged to rescind it. It’s the only black card I ever gave, and hopefully the last. You say you know one ref who quit over this, I could probably name you twenty.
Very few referees fetishize the idea of drawing a black card. When that card comes out, it’s usually for good reason and I’m inclined to give the ref the benefit of the doubt.
We have got to change this culture of gaslighting referees to back down from disciplining unruly participants and spectators. We shouldn’t need a black card group, but with increasing toxicity towards referees in all sports (not just fencing), it’s a necessary disciplinary body to ensure that referees can do their jobs without being called “c*nts” for asking a parent to put on a mask during the pandemic (and then sends a ref a threatening Facebook message after). By the way, that’s not a hypothetical. That happened.
In a perfect world, USA Fencing and NCAA Fencing would have a truly symbiotic relationship that would also benefit and promote the well-being of collegiate student-athletes. In reality, significant conflicts of interest, and a lack of coordination/shared goals between this NGB and the NCAA have resulted in a situation where the well-being of student athletes is more often secondary to the goals and aspirations of Div. 1 NCAA head coaches, National Team coaches, and elite club coaches. If elected, what will you do to mitigate and eliminate such conflicts of interest to safeguard the well-being of student-athletes? I don’t think there is a lot the Board should do here to mitigate these conflicts you speak of, nor do I think the Board really has jurisdictional authority to resolve them.
So, let me respond here with how I think this relationship should exist in reality, with or without the involvement of the Board: it’s important that any NCAA program allow athletes to prioritize their physical and mental wellness above all else. A clear, transparent dialogue should occur between coach and athlete both before and after the athlete’s commitment to a university. If an athlete has Olympic aspirations, it’s critical that the athlete understands the coach’s expectations of them (in terms of prioritizing NCAA meets or World Cups), and the coach is aligned to their goals as well.
We all want to win, but when conflicts arise between NCAA and USA Fencing, the athlete’s needs should be prioritized above all else.
It’s great to make better accessibility to fencing a goal. However, creating accessibility requires resources, how will USA fencing gather those resources given that current imperatives like referee training remain unfunded. Beyond referee training and continuing education, we have to take a step back and re-evaluate performance management of referees as a whole. I think the RC’s recommendations to streamline the ratings system was an excellent first step in simplifying the performance ladder.
In any company I’ve ever worked for, however, none of them only look at your previous year of performance when considering a promotion. They look at your growth over time. But that’s not how things are right now.
As you may know, referee performance ratings and pay grades are determined based on the performance of the previous season alone. Though not explicitly stated in the referee performance criteria, referees are expected to show up at multiple events per season to be promoted, requiring them to be away from their families and often use valuable vacation time to do so.
Let us assume for a moment that a referee on the verge of being promoted to an “N1” rating becomes pregnant and does not want to risk being exposed to Covid or other viruses during their pregnancy. Or perhaps, that referee wants to take a year off from competition following the birth of their child to bond and fulfill the child’s needs. If the Referees Commission (RC) is only looking at the performance of that referee in the previous year, then that promising referee on the verge of promotion is more likely to be left behind.
If elected, I will propose a three-year performance management window so that “demonstrated competency” as stated in the performance management criteria measures referee performance and growth over an extended period of time and allows for working parents on a solid refereeing trajectory to prioritize family, mental health, or other extenuating circumstances that may take them away from the sport.
Further, there is a lot of inherent bias in this current process where referees are evaluated on mostly subjective criteria. I will be proposing a system that tracks the number of high-level bouts refereed during the theoretical three-year performance window so that performance management becomes more quantitative and less qualitative.
Lastly, continuing education for all in our sport is hugely important. I continue to post “Tough Calls in Epee” on my YouTube channel to promote alignment to FIE standards and share information with my referee colleagues on how calls are being made internationally.
Such videos should be regularly shared as part of referee morning meetings in order to ensure referees are all aligned.
I also appreciate the RC’s continued investment in video feedback, which I think is important in providing continuous evaluation to all of our hard-working refs.
With the reduction of already limited division II/III events, do adult recreational fencers have a place in USA Fencing moving forward? I urge you to read the recent events review group recommendations. They present a number of fantastic ideas to expand more local + div II/III events.
Question for everyone – There are so many candidates – what do you think differentiates you and makes you stand out from the others? Beyond some of the things I mentioned above—you know me. If you need to get a hold of me, it’s even easier than putting the bat symbol in the sky. I am at your service and more than willing to sit at the table with any of my constituents, any time. This sport means so much to me, and the people I will (potentially) represent aren’t just my community, they’re family.
I also think I’ve distinguished myself when it comes to battling injustices in fencing with the ferocity of a rabid pitbull. I think at this point I’ve established that I am committed to fighting racism, transphobia, gender inequity, and sexual harassment/sexual violence in our sport.
The other thing I did that my opponents did not was I took down the ProtonMailer [spikes football].
This year fencers from east coast had to travel westward for all NAC events. Do you have any thoughts on how to lower the travel expenses for fencing families in the future. Again, here’s an answer you probably won’t like—but NAC selection is a function of Operations, and any Board candidate that pledges to “make more east coast NAC’s” probably doesn’t understand the difference between Governance and Operations. I live on the East Coast. In a perfect world, I would be able to drive or directly fly to each NAC. But as a Board member, I would give full autonomy to the National Office to select NAC sites based on the best pricing that fulfills the requirements of the event. I also appreciate the fact the National Office recently instituted sourcing guidelines to prioritize NAC’s in states that do not have regressive LGBT, anti-trans policies, and states that are not restrictive to women’s reproductive rights.
Do you support expanding fencing at HBCUs? If so, what is your approach or strategy to do so? Absofrickinlutely. As previously mentioned, I believe expansion of NCAA programs must be part of our NGB’s next strategic plan. And as one of the sub-objectives of that goal, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) should be included there. It would be amazing to see NCAA programs in HBCU’s. From a non-Governance lens, I live in the vicinity of Howard University. Ms. Miller, please reach out to me, I’d love to help establish a program there and am more than willing to work to get that off the ground!