By: Mariana López Rodríguez
Last month I refereed for the first time in the USA. I had refereed before in Mexico, but it had been a while since that happened. I was slightly nervous, yet since I´ve been judging for so long and on such a regular basis I was confident I could do it. And I did it, and I got an unexpected response. Not only did I give more red and yellow cards than I’ve ever seen any other ref give during the initial pools, people, including some of those who were carded, thanked me for it. (Some others, not so much.)
Now, if you don’t want to read this entire (long) blog, here is the abstract( and going forward just read the sentences in bold): Giving penalty cards should be normal, it should happen often, and without mercy. Regardless of the intentions of the fighter, rules are rules and you stick to them. Whether the foul was intentional or not, whether you’re a famously nice fencer, or the dark lord himself is irrelevant. Because that’s how rules work.
As a ref I did not discriminate. I yelled at absolutely everyone on an equal standard, to men and women, to new fencers and experienced, to known popular people and to fencers I had never seen before in my life. I got hated and loved for it, and people called me the “meanest ref” and made comments to me like “I made very clear who was in charge” (which shows that, in fact, refs can be overpowered). This attitude of mine came from the following self-awareness:
1.- I’m 1.53 meters (4”ll) tall, and I weight about 43 kilos (96 pounds). I was, and still am not willing to let a fight go past the point in which I can control it, and by that I mean, before I need more than a stick to separate them. How to do that? If you reach the point of having to use the stick, that’s a clear verbal warning. If it happens again, or even if you feel the first time was out of line, that’s a yellow card (or whatever warning system you use).
For those worried that someone as small as me shouldn’t ref as a safety measure: my judges (who were specially selected for me due to their size and strength) had the instructions to just drop the batons and help me tackle them if the situation came to that. To be honest, the fact that we can easily imagine that happening (because it IS happening at events) is embarrassing and unacceptable. What we do is an inherently dangerous activity. I’m unwilling to put other people at any further risk, so again, my first goal is, to not let things get there.
“BUT BIG GUYS PLAY HARD” Honestly? Controlling your anger, blows, and yourself in general is a better display of skill than showing how creative in the field you can get with the displays of intimidation, strength, desperation or piñata blows, and if you can’t control yourself either deal with the consequences, or don’t fight.
2.- If it feels wrong, it’s wrong. If during a fight something happens that gives you an adrenaline rush, and you have a moment of panic then you should pay attention to those alert bells. Don’t just exhale thankful nothing happened, it is your task to do something that exact second, or else something WILL happen. There is a very bad habit of rushing against the other opponent like we are playing rugby, to force them out of the ring, and or intimidate them. This not only is dangerous to the opponent, is dangerous to the public. There was a fencer who barely avoided running into the spectators. The second time, yellow card. Third time, red card and loss of the match. I heard he did that again in other pools… in mine? He stopped. And while I know that fighter probably hates me for life. I don’t care, I have in my conscience that the public was and is still with their faces intact.
This specific habit is not that uncommon and yet almost everyone recognizes it as dangerous. Why do we keep seeing it? Because we let it go, and we keep awarding the points for it. Give them their well-deserved yellow or red card for rushing (intentionally or not) and let´s see if they keep doing it.
3.- It’s not my problem that they didn’t read the rules. A lot of people either don’t read the rules, or “test” breaking them at least once per fight as they only get a “reminder” before they get carded, while also getting the score. Verbal warnings should be given when something is borderline and there’s no definitive way to do the call. Yellow cards should be given at the first incident of breaking rules, regardless of how intentional or accidental it was. If you didn’t read the rules? Not my problem. You forgot? Not my problem. You got too excited and couldn’t control yourself? Not my problem. Can’t hear out of adrenaline? Well, you better calm down, because: not my problem, you still get a card. (Heck, I can even tell you right now I know I’ve earned a card or two for forgetting to stop after the halt)
4.- All of a sudden an event is full of people who got yellow carded? CONGRATULATIONS, YOU ARE DOING IT RIGHT! We shouldn’t be scared to give cards, giving cards should be a habit, regardless of you looking at tournaments as test for a martial art, or as a pure sport, the fact is that the competitive environment gets to everyone, and all of us will and have made mistakes and stupid decisions at tournaments. Everyone gets mad at some point during their HEMA career. It is nearly impossible to find someone who hasn’t lost it at some point in a fight, including all those fighters you admire. In fact, let me repeat: DO NOT HESITATE TO GIVE A YELLOW CARD TO A FIGHTER JUST BECAUSE THEY HAVE A GOOD REPUTATION. If their reputation is real, they will deal with their mistake and move forward.
“But refs will abuse this! And it will get out of control! And they will manipulate results!” And blah blah blah. If a ref is going to manipulate a fight, they will do it with or without cards. “IT´S TOO SPORTY! IT ENDANGERS THE ART! THIS IS FIGHTING NOT SOCCER! YOU´RE ALL A BUNCH OF SISSIES!”: No! Part of martial arts is supposed to be about self-control and discipline: It endangers the art and peoples lives that you don’t learn to behave like a decent human being and have the self-control to stop when you are fighting dangerously.
We have to face it, carding is a common and regular practice in any kind of competitive activity for a reason, and the truth is that we won’t be able to grow as a healthy (larger) community if we don’t have the pants and skirts to tell someone they are going overboard. Carding and calling out people for misbehaving won’t break the community/family environment HEMA has; allowing people to fight unsafely and unjustly while getting away with it will.