The Problem

USA Fencing’s board of directors adopted a new SafeSport athlete protection policy in an emergency meeting on July 17, 2013. (SafeSport is an initiative of the U.S. Olympic Committee that is intended to help national governing bodies—NGBs—of Olympic sports like fencing to create policies that protect athletes from physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.)

The new policy, while well-intentioned, is draconian—even when compared with the SafeSport policies of NGBs of organizations like figure skating and swimming. The new policy:

  • Requires all adult coaches, administrative staff, officers, referees, and volunteers (including drivers, chaperones, and tournament volunteers) who have contact with minors to become “professional members” for $35-40 per year and submit to a background check. This requirement applies from the national level all the way down to local clubs. This can easily cost a club an extra $1,000-2,000 per year.
  • Makes all professional members mandatory reporters not just of suspected abuse, but of all policy violations, no matter how minor—including the failure of another person to report a policy violation. This reporting requirement is not limited to one’s own club, but applies to any USA Fencing activity, national, divisional, or local. This will encourage an environment of paranoia rather than collegiality.
  • Permits anonymous reporting of policy violations, creating a climate ripe for the pursuit of personal vendettas against clubs and individuals.
  • Interferes with the day-to-day activities of local clubs and coaches by imposing staffing requirements for classes and lessons and restricting routine communications with minor athletes (whether in-person or electronic). This requirement will escalate payroll costs and interfere with the mentoring that is such a vital part of youth coaching.
  • Gives the national office a veto in personnel decisions for both paid staff and volunteers at all levels, from local clubs all the way to the national office. The national office reviews background checks for everyone involved with minor athletes and issues a “red light” or “green light” with no input from the local club or division.
  • Applies to all clubs and coaches, whether they purchase insurance through USA Fencing or a third-party.
  • Does not apply equally to domestic and international situations—e.g. the travel policy only applies to domestic competition.

(For a more in-depth discussion of The Problem, see “Details of the Problem“.)

Clubs, coaches, athletes, divisions, parents, and volunteers must work together to find a solution, as this policy will force many clubs and individuals to either get out of fencing or become scofflaws—neither of which are good for the U.S. fencing community—with smaller clubs and clubs with large volunteer cadres getting hit the worst, followed closely by referees and tournament officials.

16 thoughts on “The Problem

  1. Robin

    My layman’s understanding is: The NO contracts out to a 3rd party provider that performs the BG check based on certain industry standard parameters. What those parameters are, I don’t know… but I think they are limited certain types of crime– sex based and violence based… maybe drugs too, maybe not– In any case, the 3rd party reports the Red/ Green light to the NO. The specifics of why any given red light was issued is not provided. The person failing the bg check can then appeal directly to the 3rd party without having to divulge personal information to US fencing. So… the statement above “The NO reviews background checks and issues…” doesn’t seem quite correct, and the differences are, I think, important.

    1. Avatar of MichaelHeggenMichaelHeggen Post author

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, the national office runs the screenings through NCIS, which returns either a “red light” or a “green light”. The parameters that will yield a “red light” are:

      Any felony (any crime punishable by confinement greater than one year)
      i. Defined on the basis of exposure to the offense for which the defendant was convicted, pled guilty, or pled nolo contendre. If pled down, then the crime to which the defendant ultimately pled.
      ii. Defined by all crimes punishable by greater than one year in jail or prison, regardless of how characterized by jurisdiction. If range, alternate sentencing, or indeterminate sentencing, outer range >one year.
      b. Any lesser crime involving force or threat of force against a person
      c. Any lesser crime in which sexual relations is an element, including “victimless” crimes of a sexual nature (including pornography).
      d. Any lesser crime involving controlled substances (not paraphernalia or alcohol).*
      e. Any crime involving cruelty to animals

      A person receiving a “red light” may appeal the determination to the “Athlete Protection Officer” (APO). As part of that appeal, the appellant must authorize NCIS to release the details of the screening to the APO and the Board of Directors (if needed). It is only at this point that anyone in USA Fencing becomes privy to the details of the screening. There is no provision for the applicant to appeal directly to NCIS. If the appellant is not satisfied with the APO’s decision, it can be appealed to the USA Fencing board of directors, and that can in turn be appealed to binding arbitration.

      I will grant you the technicality that the NO does not actually issue a “red light” or “green light”—they merely pass the determination on, except in the case of an appeal.

      But the issue of divulging personal information to the NO isn’t the point we are trying to make. The point is that the NO is in complete control of the background screening process, including the parameters of the screening, the appeal, and the outcome of the appeal. The local club or division has no say in the matter and is given no information about the entire process—including any appeals—other than “red light” or “green light”, thus involving the NO in the hiring/selection process for every club employee and volunteer with access to minors (which is generally every employee and volunteer in a club) in every fencing club in the U.S. That is the issue.

      * Note also that these parameters will “red light” a 50-something-year-old coach who was busted for smoking pot in college 25 years ago, but will “green light” a volunteer driver who had a misdemeanor DUII conviction last year, even though in many states someone with even a misdemeanor conviction for DUII will most likely have been arrested at least once before for DUII and sent to a diversion program.

  2. Robin

    My bad…
    I’ve found that my statement above contains incorrect information in it. Page 22 of the policy explains what criteria prompts a red light and how the not_at_all_private appeal process works.

    Still, the 3rd party provider issues the Red Lights, not the NO.

  3. Jay Choi

    I am a fencing coach with medal successes at national and international level. I own and operate a very successful club that has a reputation for an amazing “little village” like atmosphere. We are very proud of the phenomenal work ethics and team culture that we have fostered.

    Just tonight, I had a MAJOR, life-changing, breakthrough after fencing practice. Something a particular kid’s parents and I have been working towards for YEARS. Slow, yet steady recovery for a child that survived abusive environment. The damage still remains — it will probably take many more years of progress before we feel truly safe for the child. Had this new policy been in place for those years, and had we followed it to the letter, tonight’s breakthrough would have been absolutely impossible. Or for that matter, even the progress we had made all this time probably would have never taken place.

    All the small and big success stories during my time as a coach, as an athlete, as a teammate, etc… Many of the most important relationships I had built and benefited everyone involved would have never formed in a “Best Practice™” aseptic environments touting professionalism. This is a sport. This is a challenging sport. This is a combat sport. More so in elite sport environments where trust and relationships need to be built over time, through countless challenges and pain. Some of the most significant personal and professional breakthroughs that shaped who I am would not have been possible, had my mentors not stuck their necks out for me and taken chances on my potential.

    Go after the real bad guys, please. Rather than muzzling and cuffing good people from doing their jobs to the best of their abilities.

  4. Avatar of MichaelHeggenMichaelHeggen Post author

    Jay, thanks for your post. I don’t think I have had an experience quite like the one you described happening to you tonight, but I have had some excellent mentoring relationships with my students over the years.

    Numerous times, a parent of a student has come to me to try to gain insight into their kid. I would not have been able to give them that insight without having that mentoring relationship. In many cases, that mentoring relationship would not have been possible unless these kids knew they could talk to me in confidence about whatever was on their mind. Among other things, USA Fencing’s SafeSport policy makes it impossible for me to provide confidentiality to a minor athlete.

    I love it when my students win. I love it when my students learn. I love it when my students show signs of progress. But I really love it when my students come back to me years later and say, “Thank you for being there that time. Thank you for listening to me. You really made a difference.”

    I want my current and future students to have those same opportunities for ethical, healthy mentorship with me as my past students have had. USA Fencing’s SafeSport does not take this into account, even though it is far more important than any Olympic medal.

  5. Bill Ward

    A few random thoughts:

    1. Given USA Fencing’s abysmal record at handling internal affairs complaints in any kind of timely fashion, (even though they only get a small number per year) what leads any of us to believe that they would have the infrastructure and the institutional fortitude to properly handle a deluge of anonymous “Coach A was in the hall with Fencer B alone last night” complaints? Or a thousand “I heard Referee A saw something and he didn’t report it as required” complaints right after Summer Nationals?

    2. Not sure in a quick perusal (that document is some heavy sledding) but do I understand it correctly that even with the background check and Professional Membership, behavior items like “two adults present when a minor is around” still applys to folks who have been greenlighted? Because there are many coaches, some of them just to your North, Michael, who routinely give private lessons by themselves with a minor in an empty building. How confident are we that these coaches will dutifully toe the line every single time after August 1st? Or will National and high level coaches believe they are to be judged by a different standard?

    3. How would this SafeSport policy deal with international travel issues, like shoving 3 cadet/JR female fencers into a cab in Rome, and hoping they arrive safely at the hotel…or sending a group of minors out unescorted to find their dinner in an Eastern European city, while the team officials and cadre stay in the hotel and drink?

    4. I agree that the anonymous reporting provision is rife for abuse, especially in a sport that has a significant population, of shall we say, “backstabbers and manipulators with long memories?” I would suggest that if the violation happened to the reporter, especially of an abuse or sexual contact nature, then anonymity is appropriate. All other complainants should be on the record.

    1. Avatar of MichaelHeggenMichaelHeggen Post author

      Thanks for your post, Bill. Re: #1…. Yup.

      Re: #2…. Your understanding is correct. A green-lighted background check does NOT provide a professional member with any exceptions to policy. So, your example of a coach giving a lesson to a minor in an otherwise empty building will definitely NOT be okay after August 1—if you’re a professional member.

      Re: #3…. Well, now that is a very interesting point. I had previously assumed that the SafeSport travel policy was uniform, but re-reading it, I see that I was mistaken. The SafeSport travel policy only applies to domestic travel. Well, that makes Problem #11!

      Re: #4…. Agreed.

  6. Ariana klinkov

    Given that the board of us fencing and team captains have ignored verified reports of drinking by team members at events, is fencing is in no place to issue this requirement. Athletes at a certain level of performance have no fear of disciplin fro
    The very people trying to impose this requirement. They should clean their own house before trying to clean mine.

  7. Bill Ward

    Agreed. When cadre members are so inebriated they fall out of their chairs in front of fencers at international events, or heavily drinking members of international teams engage in incoherent, profanity laced threats against other team members, in front of witnesses, and nothing is done…not a lot of moral high ground by the sport’s governing body.

    Or a lot of confidence earned….

  8. Zoran Djurisic


    We applaud your raising the voice against the policy that may further damage the organization. We wholeheartedly support the effort. For the reference, when we first started the club, few short years ago, we proudly joined the USFA. These days we train some 50 fencers, with names on the points list and on the US Pentathlon team. The insurance membership requirement from last summer, however, gets in our way of introducing new people – young and not-so-young – to the sport; we are not scofflaws, and, with heavy harts, we have not renewed the Club’s USFA membership last season. The SafeSport policy, the way it is written, is plain scary to us, especially the parts about emotional abuse, which seem wide open to freestyle swings; we agree with your notion regarding the reporting parts of the policy, too. We are the most stricken by the attempts of the policy to define some forms of abuse above the word of law, which may be wanted probably only by a bored lawyer… This policy made us decide not to renew coaches professional membership for the next season. I have refereed National Div I finals and youth gold medal bouts. The repeated abuse by (some of the) the bout committee made me decline Sharon’s invitation for the first time this year (hi Jay). None of this gets in our way – we love fencing, we follow the Rules, we go to coaching clinics as the money allows, and this summer we introduced 27 kids to the sport. As much as it is our place, we’ll help in taking drunken sailor home (as soon as he lets go of the bottle).

    Maja and Zoran, Coaches and Owners, Delta Fencing Center

  9. Craig Van De Vooren

    “Security Theater” is the problem.

    The Fencing Community could take a stand and say no. But most of you out there are gutless cowards who can never say no to Authority.

    Fencing used to be fun, before the “professionals” got involved.

    1. Craig Van De Vooren

      Thanks for being, umm, diplomatic, in your responses.

      and Thank You very much for, at least, taking a stand and presenting your thoughts.

      Too many of us are chasing the shiny things and not looking at the big picture.


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