The  Battle in Seattle Heats Up

by George S. Rossano

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(April 28, 2014)  The election for U.S. Figure Skating president has generated an e-mail storm in the last week, as the 2014 Governing Council meeting in Seattle, WA, approaches.  Our in-box has been besieged by position papers, manifestos, editorials, endorsements and commentaries addressing the contested election for U.S. Figure Skating president in which Ron Pfenning is running against the nominating committee candidate, Sam Auxier.

Most of this e-mail traffic concerns Ron Pfenning and why one should or should not vote for him.  Following his nomination in March, Auxier released an e-mail blast on his candidacy, and another earlier today.  Beyond that, his campaign has been low key, no doubt with the knowledge that being the candidate of the nominating committee, even for an open office, is as good as running as a favored incumbent.

The e-mail traffic on Pfenning has ranged from endorsements such as from past U.S. Figure Skating president Ben Wright and from figure skating luminary Dick Button, to scathing criticism.  While there has been no third party commentary on Auxier's candidacy that has made it into my in-box, there are ample opinions circulating why Pfenning should not be elected.  The same has been true in private discussion in the skating community.  So while supporters of Pfenning advance reasons why delegates should vote for Pfenning, the most vocal supporters for Auxier have been focusing, as far as I am aware, exclusively on why delegates should vote against Pfenning.  These arguments center entirely on how the ISU would react to his election.

Many opponents of Pfenning view his involvement with the WSF over ten years ago, in an attempt to separate the international governance of figure skating from speed skating, as an unforgivable betrayal of the ISU.  Perhaps it was a betrayal, perhaps it wasn't, but not being emotionally invested in the ISU myself, I do not care one way or the other.  The ISU may care -- or at least some individuals within the ISU who will be gone in two years may care -- but as someone working solely within U.S. Figure Skating I do not care.  I only care how Pfenning has treated U.S. Figure Skating, and on that score I don't have any heartburn.

A more relevant criticism put forward is that the ISU will somehow punish U.S. Figure Skating, or U.S. Figure Skating will be stripped of influence within the ISU, if Pfenning is elected.  But these claims are vague and no one has yet to come out and say if Pfenning is elected then the ISU will do this or that, so this argument so far remains in the realm of fear mongering.

If Pfenning is elected, some say, it will harm our skaters within the ISU.  Since U.S. skaters do not get financial support from the ISU, the only leverage the ISU has on the skaters would be to punish them in competition.  If that is the claim, then supporters of the ISU are making a far more damning criticism of the ISU than the likes of me have ever made.  I simply cannot believe that the ISU would fix the results of a competition to get back at Pfenning.

If Pfenning is elected, some say, it will harm the ability of U.S. officials to obtain positions within the ISU.  Again, this is more another damning criticism of the ISU than of Pfenning, and I do not believe the ISU would punish third parties to get back at Pfenning.

If Pfenning is elected, some say,  it will be impossible for U.S. Figure Skating to have an effective relationship with the ISU, and this (in some unspecified way) will cause harm to U.S. Figure Skating, because Pfenning will not be able to represent U.S. Figure Skating at the ISU due to his ineligible status, and because of the grudges some may hold against him.  That may well be true to a limited extent, but the relationship between U.S. Figure Skating and the ISU is determined by more than the president.  Clearly, though, there is a risk here, but is it as significant risk?

Recently I saw a comment that seeks to place the U.S. Figure Skating's lack of influence within the ISU on damage caused by Pfenning and the WSF.  The realty is, U.S. Figure Skating has never had significant political influence within the ISU for the more than 30 years I have followed the sport, and until U.S. Figure Skating plays hardball within the ISU the way the Canadians, French and Russians do, U.S. Figure Skating will continue to have little influence within the ISU.

Bottom line, the election for president, for me, is not about the ISU.  It is about how the next president will lead U.S. Figure Skating domestically.  What ails figure skating in the U.S. and the challenges within the Association are only to a very very minor extent caused by the ISU (despite what fans think), and the solution to what ails us for sure is not to be found at the ISU.  We are the masters of our fate.

So the main questions delegates should be asking themselves, in my opinion, is which candidate will best be able to marshal the resources within U.S. Figure Skating to meet the challenges that face us, and which candidate has the best approach to do that.

My take on the candidates is that Auxier represents a continuation of the increasingly top-down approach to managing figure skating we have seen over many years now -- an approach where all clubs are being pushed towards doing all things the exact same way under the guidance of Association management, and a small group of office holders who know everything about everything and let their wisdom flow downstream.  Pfenning, to my mind, represents a return to the bottom-up approach to management that was the approach within the Association for most of its life, and produced a strong and vibrant Association, with numerous medalists and medal contending skaters.

Clubs need the freedom and flexibility to innovate, and to respond to their individual and local needs.  The Association needs to broaden the voices it listens to and get away from the "group think" mentality than possesses us more and more.  You will not get that from a top-down approach.

The Side Show

A second office will be contested at the Governing Council, which has received virtually no attention.  This is the election for Athlete Services Group Coordinator (which is a Board of Directors position), where Doug Williams is running against the nominating committee selection Robert Rosenbluth.

When it comes to skating experience and knowledge of the sport both candidates have similar resumes.  Both are former skaters who went into judging and both are now National and ISU judges. Both are also technical specialists and controllers.

In the areas of management and governance experience, however, Williams has the edge, as a former club president and long time board member of a successful club, former U.S. Figure Skating committee chair, and very long time Governing Council delegate within the Athlete Advisory Committee and subsequently as a delegate from his club.

In terms of experience, temperament, maturity of judgment, and management experience, Williams is far and away the superior choice.