Protecting Fencers from Abuse and Supporting Victims of Abuse
Fencing club owners, coaches, parents and athletes across the United States are feeling the impact of increased awareness of abuse in the sport of fencing and the reporting of it. As we ask ourselves, “What more can I do to help keep my athletes safe?”, WFencing offers ten practical steps and actions that any coach or club owner who is concerned can take today:
Hire for Diversity. Working to make sure you have the best club reflecting the values you want your team to embody can be a challenge. You want your staff to reflect the community you are serving in as many ways as possible, when possible. Differences can include less obvious things like accents, place of origin, type of school attended. Start with just paying attention to your thoughts and feelings about hiring something different than you. A diverse environment is a significant way to empower different voices and perspectives that work toward an accountable and open environment.
Acknowledge Mistakes Openly. When you mess up, thank the person who called you out for bringing the mistake to your attention. This starts at a very young age when a student corrects you for saying their name incorrectly or points out a misspelled word in your materials. Kids who feel safe expressing themselves to adults grow up feeling more comfortable talking about difficult subjects as they arise. Reward this behavior at every level of development with parents, athletes, and staff.
Interrupt Unfairness. Every fencer knows what unfairness feels like. Often we feel powerless to change the outcomes when a referee makes a bad call or as a coach you suspect a bias is being acted upon. Understand the difference between coaching for resilience (letting things go which impede performance) and being an advocate for fairness and justice (being vocal with a complaint to the tournament bout committee). Define how you will speak up and speak out in benefit of fair play.
Request Pronouns on Intake Forms. Gender identity is not rigid. Many people today are changing their names, redefining gender on their terms, openly, and with more confidence than previous generations. Why pronouns matter.
Ask permission to touch and explain what you are doing as you are correcting or helping. Often examples of this are found around helping a new fencer learn how to get on their equipment. After asking permission to help -- and waiting to hear the response -- explain, “I am going to reach and connect this strap behind your back.” When you notice a safety issue, ask, “Can you zip your jacket or do you need some extra help right now?” Facilitate as often as possible a choice for how they decide physical contact occurs.
Safesport Training for All. Normalize talking about abuse and reporting by making it part of your camps and regular programing. Identify other adults in your club who have had training (in addition to staff) on where anyone can go with suspicions or questions when something doesn't feel right or seems off. Such training should include minors themselves because so many minors are victims of abuse; see USAFencing’s guidance and training courses for minors, including a SafeSport Youth Athlete Training Course under the Parent resources page: https://www.usafencing.org/safe-sport
Grooming is a learned skill. Predators learn by practicing in different environments and learning what they can get away with. Sexual abuse can often be accompanided by other forms of abuse and, according to SafeSport, the most common abuse type is emotional abuse. Acting on thoughts or impulses are more likely to happen when professional boundaries, as such defined by the SafeSport Code, are ignored or dismissed. Click here to read more about the stages of grooming: https://www.d2l.org/child-grooming-signs-behavior-awareness/
Be observable and interruptible. As hard as you work to keep doors open, work just as hard to keep communication two-way and varied within your own sport communities. Ask for help from a wide variety of parents and adult members participating. Digital communication should be observable and interruptible as well, and always so with minors.
Educate yourself on guilt and shame. These feelings impede reporting, contribute to open secrets, and prevent speaking up and seeking help. Brene Brown is the leading expert on our understanding of these feelings today.
Consult. Consult. Consult. We are human. We love a fighting sport where we vie for power and control on the piste. When that quest for domination and innate desire for positive attention or sense of belonging/acceptance turn into abuse it requires the community to step and intercept. We need to develop new habits of consulting about behaviors with other coaches, parents, law enforcement, school officials and counselors - people in and/or outside the world of fencing - who can help us as individuals and communities make tough decisions. Sport fencing is unique, and wonderful. Let's grow ourselves stronger and make it more safe for everyone to participate in.
As competitive communities work to keep athletes safe, it is important to know there is not a checklist of items that must be completed in order to maintain safety. This will be an ongoing process the fencing community has to figure out and hold itself accountable for. No club is fully secure from a predator. We can work together as a USA Fencing community to reduce the chances of abuse by creating an open, inclusive and diverse environment where athletes, parents and coaches feel comfortable consulting and getting help when needed. Our sport deserves this level of attention to one another!
If you are struggling when reading this post, reach out to someone in your community you trust:
Jen Oldham is a practicing fencing coach and club owner in Durham, NC who has a Masters in Counseling Psychology and is a Fencing Master. Coach Jen has been the Head Coach of Mid-South Fencers club for 13 years and is a Co-Founder of WFencing. Her latest project is Forge Teams in order to assist in building leaders and fostering equity within competitive sport environments. Coach Jen can be emailed at email@example.com
A Letter From WFencing's President
On Friday, August 13th Peter Burchard, President of USA Fencing, called a Board of Directors Emergency Meeting. WFencing applauds President Burchard for setting an emergency meeting to put forth proposals to address SafeSport concerns and on going media attention regarding sexual abuse in fencing. As a result, USA Fencing recently responded by announcing it is expanding SafeSport resources. This initial step from USA Fencing is a move in the right direction to foster eradicating sexual assault and harrassment.
USA Fencing’s announcement also begins to demonstrate that their board and officers acknowledge and understand the hostile environment members of our community are navigating and puts women and children at greater risk of abuse.
While we are encouraged by recent efforts, WFencing is concerned about the Board’s claims of lack of familiarity with the SafeSport issues that have undermined fencing’s credibility both before the Olympics and during the Olympics. Here, we do not reference the conduct of individuals. We refer to the process of addressing complaints.
As raised by members on the call, by the time of the emergency meeting, there had been several complaints made public, including the one involving Mr. Hadzic leading up to the Olympics. During the 21 days between when Hadzic first made the national news and the emergency meeting, what proactive steps could have been taken to get the Board educated and up to speed on SafeSport? What fiduciary responsibility do members of the Board have as officers of USA Fencing? As representatives of the fencing community? Could there have been outreach to the experts at SafeSport? Could that time have been used to get legal opinions on potential policy prescriptions?
The Board has prioritized significant changes to the Bylaws. See link here: Proposed Changes to USA Fencing Bylaws.
One of the major changes is the elimination of the office of “President” whereby the USA Fencing membership will no longer have a role in electing a person directly to that position. Instead, this responsibility will be given to the Board to select a “Chair.” Given that the membership just voted in a president and then a board member who were not slated but obtained write-in voting status. Given the membership has expressed engagement regarding board choices, given that engagement and the voting contemplated for President, should the bylaws be submitted directly to the membership for voting? Given the leadership needed on critical matters such as SafeSport, how does changing the role of President from membership-elected to board-selected truly benefit the membership? Additionally, outside of the July 9th meeting to receive the report from the Governance Task Force on the proposed Bylaw changes, there has not been much transparency provided to the membership. There have been no virtual meetings to educate the membership on the nature of these changes and why they are needed at this time. There has been no proactive effort to encourage feedback and comment from the membership on these sweeping organizational changes. In fact, the link to submit comments is not easily found on the USA Fencing website, and the comments are not then made public to the membership for broad membership consideration but are emailed to an internal email box. For governance matters of such consequence and significance, why is there a lack of transparency and clarity? With this issue, why not allow the new Board, to be seated September 1, 2021, to have a chance to weigh in on the changes? What is the urgency? Members new to the Board, or those re-elected, ran on a platform of transparency --where is evidence of that transparency?
Based on the above-referenced concerns, WFencing advocates for the following actions;
Support President Burchard’s SafeSport proposals including calling on other National Governing Bodies (NGBs) to join forces with USA Fencing.
Call on the USA Fencing Board to table the Bylaws changes until after the new Board takes office on September 1, 2021.
Support calls for polling of the USA Fencing membership on the specific change to the office of the President.
Have the national office or USA Fencing Board give a full presentation at the August 31 meeting on the Board’s position and action plan regarding SafeSport, including ways that the organization will improve to exceed SafeSport standards.
Use the August 31 USA Fencing Board meeting to directly address membership concerns about both the proposed by-laws and about SafeSport.
WFencing asks interested fencing community members to submit your support for these action items to firstname.lastname@example.org and copy USA Fencing Board members at https://www.usafencing.org/board-members . We also invite community members to send feedback to WFencing, join as a member and donate to support our efforts.
Vickie Miller, President
It is abundantly clear that SafeSport is not equipped to handle cases of sexual violence and harassment in an effective manner. We have heard of, and reported, abuses in treatment of referees, athletes, and other fencing professionals, particularly women and persons of color. Throughout, the situation remains: those who may suffer from a power imbalance have no or little voice to control their circumstances.
WFencing asks that USA Fencing make efforts with SafeSport to review the process because we as a community do not feel it is effective.
The decision to allow Mr. Alen Hadzic to participate as an alternate on the US Olympic Team stands as a case in point. Although we affirm due process for all, including the accused, the decision to allow Mr. Hadzic to participate in the upcoming team event under the cloud of significant suspicion, while other Olympic hopefuls with charges of non-criminal behavior, were denied the opportunity is, at the very least, confusing.
As awful as the circumstances surrounding the allegations against Mr. Hadzic appear to be (based on public information), what is the most distressing with this current situation is that it is not an anomaly but an example of the type of behavior that has been allowed to thrive in the sport. Sexual violence and harassment is a systemic issue and in order to root it out, specific, intentional treatment is needed.
Although the SafeSport complaint process is new, it appears to have failed our community and needs more work. That work must be taken up by those with the power to make it so.
WFencing calls for:
Revision of the SafeSport process
More funding for SafeSport
Greater leadership support for SafeSport, and better direction in clarifying the SafeSport process for those reporting
Strengthening and enforcement of the USA Fencing Code of Conduct
Full policy evaluation/review conducted by USA Fencing to make recommendations on sustainable change
Wfencing President Vickie Miller
WFencing encourages our current USA Fencing President and Board Members to stand and take action. We hope the sweeping changes to the Bylaws currently under membership review (WFencing will issue separate comment on the proposed changes) provides an opportunity for the sport to further address this issue in a substantive way that leads to cultural change and equity.
WFencing understands that governing decisions are difficult. We also recognize that there are various parties and entities involved in the decision-making process. To that end, WFencing stands ready to assist and support any and all who seek to help eliminate sexual violence, harassment, and inequitable treatment in the sport. We encourage women and men to come forward with reports of abuse no matter at what point in time the abuse happened so they can receive the support they deserve.
All of us must work to fully understand the sport culture issues at hand and create an action plan to move forward.
Vickie Miller, President
Dear WFencing Members and Enthusiasts,
In 2019 I gave a TEDx TALK called Opening Closed Doors to Women in Sport. Later that summer I conducted a seminar called Barriers to Women Fencing Coaches. These two events were the impetus for the formation of WFencing. It has not been easy to start a new national organization, particularly one whose core mission is to overcome systemic sexism and racism, but that’s what we’ve done and now we are celebrating our one year anniversary!!
In one year’s time, WFencing has established a constitution and bylaws and has an acting board of directors. By the end of the summer official elections will be conducted and we will have a formal board of directors. (See the notice about board elections in this newsletter or on the website.)
The current and acting board has also launched a website, established a quarterly newsletter, created a consolidated information page for prospective student athletes, scheduled a series of diversity training opportunities for members, connected the entire USA Fencing community with RISE anti-racism training, responded to racism and sexism reported by fencing referees, and launched a series of fencing coaching development opportunities we called Learning Pods. WFencing also created a process for members to vet USA Fencing Board candidates. Whew!
Although we are off and running, it is not enough. There is so much more to do and we need everyone in WFencing to consider actively serving the cause. It is an organization that cherishes diversity, new ideas, and different approaches. WFencing is looking to expand its programs, leadership opportunities and we are especially looking for diversity -- all kinds. If you would like to serve on any of the following committees, please send an email to the committee organizer:
Advocacy and Voice - Vickie Miller
Marketing and Advertising - Julie Seal
Fundraising - Jen Oldham
Referee Development Committee/ USA Fencing Task Force - Tasha Martin
Governance Committee - Sue Borgos
Professional Development - Jennifer Salmon
Program Ideas and Board Elections - Laszlo Szabo
I have been fighting sexism in fencing my whole life. When I was a young woman (in the '60s, '70s, '80s) in the throes of my fencing career I often felt alone in my quest to gain equal access to the sport I loved. I wasn’t allowed to fence epee or saber, I wasn’t respected for my athleticism or my fencing skill. Later, as a fencing coach I continued to experience "the good ole boy system" and for the longest time felt alone in my fight to gain equal access. With the formation of WFencing I now realize I have never been alone in this quest. There are many other women, people of color, and folk who identify as LGBTQ who want equal access and fair treatment in the fencing world and who also have felt alone in their fight. With the formation of WFencing none of us have to be alone in their quest anymore!
Vincent "Vinnie" Bradford
WFencing co-founder Vincent Bradford, Olympian, Professor
Coach and Community Leader.
WFencing is a nonprofit organization committed to uphold the mission of the Olympic dream as it extends to the American professional sport fencing community. We work to achieve diversity, unity and equity among all fencing professionals no matter race, gender, or geographic location in the United States.
Who are we?
We are coaches, fencing professionals, parents and athletes who believe increasing diversity among fencing professionals will greater unify Team USA, reduce SafeSport complaints, and increase participation in collegiate and club fencing nationwide. Through creating clear pathways for professional development we will accelerate our competitive sport environment. Tomorrow we will be bigger, better and stronger.
WFencing organized as a response to overt disparities of leadership heavily tilted towards one gender.
WFencing is creating best practices, consultative groups, organizational transparency models, and collaboration platforms through this crisis of Covid-19. We need unifiers to support each other today, so we can produce better fencing tomorrow.