THE BIG PICTURE: How USA Fencing & USA Track & Field sidelined their elected presidents, at the urging of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee

/Updated/One of the cornerstones of American democracy in the 21st Century is direct election of leaders at the local, regional and national level. But that’s not the way the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee wants its National Governing Bodies to be led.

In 2020 and 2021, two Olympic-medal-winning U.S. NGBs – USA Track & Field and USA Fencing – sidelined their member-elected Presidents through by-law changes demanded by the USOPC.

The first instance was at the December 2020 USA Track & Field Annual Meeting, where President Vin Lananna, elected in 2017, was demoted to Vice-Chair after the USATF Board bowed to USOPC demands for a change in its by-laws. A November notice to the membership explained:

“In February 2020, the USOPC sent a letter to USATF’s executive management in which they again outlined their concerns with our corporate governance. Citing the shift of the USOPC from NGB recognition to NGB certification, the letter noted that compliance with good corporate governance would be even more important for every NGB going forward.

“The USOPC mandates that good (or effective) governance means that the USATF Board 1) must be the final authority to adopt bylaws and regulations; 2) shall elect the Chair and the elected Chair should have appropriate appointment authority; 3) include more independent members and have additional athlete representation; and 4) ensure volunteers don’t make decisions which could impact the budgetary or operational aspects of the organization.”

The notice was a direct response to the new oversight interest from the U.S. Congress in light of the Nassar abuse scandal at USA Gymnastics. The USOPC is now being held responsible for the actions of the national federations and wants to be able to directly influence their operations without any input, delay or review from federation members.

A lengthy debate was held, with many elite athletes begging for the membership to give away control over the organization, lest any of the USOPC funding for athletes be reduced or eliminated. The measure failed, since it did not receive the 2/3rds majority needed for passage (but did get 57% of the vote).

Disregarding the member vote, the USATF Board then overrode the members and adopted the new by-law changes by itself! This can be changed again by the membership, but only at the 2021 Annual Meeting in December, with the changes already in place for a year.

With the Board able to decide on its leader, it immediately demoted Lananna to Vice Chair and installed 1992 Olympic Triple Jump winner Mike Conley as Chair, where he continues to serve as the unelected-by-members head of the federation.

Meanwhile, in late May of 2020, long-time referee and coach Peter Burchard won a surprise victory – after petitioning to be on the ballot – over two-term incumbent Don Anthony as President of USA Fencing, 1,367-1,154. Burchard began his term on 1 September, but almost exactly a year after his election – and with the USOPC’s help – the rest of the Board began the process of overturning the result:

● A “Governance Task Force” reported at the 26 May 2021 Board meeting a draft revision of the federation’s bylaws. The elegant watchdog site noted the changes would (1) immediately abolish the position of President and replace it with a Board Chair and (2) beginning in 2024, the position of Board Chair would be selected from the five at-large directors, as opposed to having a member-elected head of the federation.

This was supposed to be consistent with how “other NGB’s are structured.” But FencingParents noted that “The Task Force was, however, unable to recall which NGBs they modeled, but promised to make all data available to the membership once a recommendation was finalized.”

● At the 9 July Board meeting, the text of the new bylaws was posted, to be voted on on 31 August, after member comments were received. FencingParents reported:

“US Fencing proposes to make significant changes to its’ Bylaws based on the recommendations of the Governance Task Force (GTF) appointed by the Board back in December 2020. These proposed changes are apparently driven by a need to comply with requirements of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) for sports national governing bodies (NGBs) in order to bring their structures and governance into the 21st century. As such, the GTF included an USOPC advisor [David Patterson]. …

“We are chagrined that neither the US Fencing Board nor the GTF has clarified which of the proposed changes to the bylaws are directly connected to USOPC requirements as some of the proposed changes and the manner in which they will be made strike us as rather imperial.

“The GTF describes the change from President to Chairman of the Board as an innocuous retitling of the position. This is misleading. The proposed bylaw changes will eliminate the position of an elected President at US Fencing. This is a very substantive change.

“Going forward under the proposed changes, Chairman of the Board will not be selected by the membership, but will instead be selected by a simple majority of the 12 Board members from amongst the 5 elected at-large directors. This is a material change.

“Under Section 6.2a of the proposed bylaw changes, the Chairman of the Board can be removed at will by the Board members, a very drastic departure from the current situation where the Board cannot remove the President except for cause.”

● The bylaw changes were approved on 31 August and the FencingParents site lashed out:

“Perhaps August 31, 2021 should be remembered as the US Fencing’ Board’s day of infamy given the arrogance with which the Board dismissed strong member opposition to the bylaw changes. The Board passed the proposed bylaw changes with limited debate (strongly suggesting that a decision had been pre-determined before the meeting) on a vote of 9 to 1 with one abstention.”

The Governance Task Force which prepared the new by-laws was made up of six members, including former President Anthony and World Team Epee champion Kat Holmes as co-chairs, but also included Holmes’ mother, Washington D.C. attorney Lorrie Marcil Holmes – an obvious conflict of interest – plus three advisors, including USOPC Associate Director for NGB Governance Patterson.

The USOPC’s compliance staff was aware of the presence of the Holmes mother-and-daughter on the task force; astonishingly, the new by-law package extended the term of Lorrie Marcil Holmes by one year (without election) in another stark conflict of interest. The USA Fencing Board, after an initial motion to allow the term extension, agreed to vote on that section separately, at a later date.

● /Updated/At the 16 October Board meeting that began at 6 p.m., the bylaw amendment was proposed to extend Lorrie Marcil Holmes’s term from 2022 to 2023, without election. This will now be posted for public comment, with the Board to vote on it in January.

Then, under “Other New Business” and not previously announced, director Alan Kidd introduced a motion “To remove Mr. Burchard as Board Chair and appoint [Treasurer David] Arias as the new Chair.” Motion passed.

A news release announcing the change was posted on the USA Fencing Web site at 6:45 p.m. Central time; was the meeting even over at that point? Clearly, the release was pre-prepared as the outcome was already planned (with the Web site staff already instructed).

This is how the sausage is made, USA Fencing style. Burchard’s demotion would never have been possible without the USOPC’s push to change the bylaws for its own perceived benefit, not the benefit of USA Fencing. The USOPC is simply disenfranchising the membership of the national federations.

For USA Track & Field, membership contributions and fees are of little impact to the federation’s finances. Its 2019 financials showed $35.809 million in revenue, 61% of which comes from sponsorships (primarily Nike) and another $5.607 million (16%) from USOPC grants (mostly used for athlete payments).

For USA Fencing, it’s a lot different. It’s 2020 financials showed $8.487 million in revenues, with $3.101 million from registration fees and $1.955 million from membership dues. That’s $5.056 million or 59.6% from members; USOPC support was just $846,056 (10.0%).

But as one longtime observer of the sport noted the USOPC’s campaign to end membership voting rights in the NGBs, “maybe they think members don’t matter.”

What happens now?

There are those in the fencing community who are already working to reverse the actions of both the USOPC and the USA Fencing directors, and give Burchard his position back for the remainder of his term, through 2024. Whether they will be successful is anyone’s guess at this point.

We are coming up quickly on the 158th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s immortal “Gettysburg Address” on 19 November, where he ended by resolving that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Has anyone at the USOPC heard about this?

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