Ron Pfenning Runs for USFSA President -- The Sky is Falling!

Since the announcement that six founding members of the defunct World Skating Federation lost their ISU eligibility there has been a great deal of discussion about the ISU's motivation for this.  Was this payback for the discomfort caused the ISU by their role in revealing the Salt Lake judging scandal and their subsequent outspoken belief that the ISU was not committed to truly cleaning house. Or was it about what the ISU says it is about, a loss of eligibility for failing to provide "adequate protection of the economic and other interests of the ISU?"

A case can be made on both sides, and the controversy is unlikely to die soon because of the process the ISU uses to decide these matters.  As Sonia Bianchetti has recently written,

"It must not be forgotten that in the ISU, the administration of justice is like a homemade cake. The Council makes the accusation, carries out its own investigation, evaluates the defense statements, and takes the final decision! All remains within the family; no outside independent and "super partes" committees are involved."

In a dispute between the ISU and some of its former officials, how can one be sure justice has been done when justice is administered by one of the parties involved in the dispute?

The published decision of the Council discusses in great detail the particulars of the formation of the WSF and the timing of that.  But most of that is irrelevant.  The mere existence of the WSF does not necessarily constitute a violation of Rule 102.

So questions remain.  What constitutes a failure to protect the economic and other interests of the ISU?  What are those "other" interests?  What were the overt acts that failed to protect the interests of the ISU?  Apparently a violation of Rule 102 is anything the Council says is a violation of Rule 102, which is not a recipe for justice and the rule of law.

Defenders of the ISU decision point to two acts, a letter written to the IOC by Pfenning as acting president of the WSF and the ant-trust lawsuit brought by the WSF against the ISU, as justifying the loss of eligibility.

The letter has been described by some as a request to the IOC that the ISU be decertified as the international governing body for figure skating.  The ISU decision described it as a letter that expressed the hope that at sometime in the future the WSF would replace the ISU as the governing body for figure skating.  Two distinctly different things. Which was it?  The letter has not been published.

The lawsuit, which was dismissed as frivolous, was a restrain of trade suit whose ultimate goal was to create the situation where the WSF could hold events in economic competition with the ISU.  Had the WSF prevailed, it might have led to WSF activities that worked against the economic interests of the ISU in the future, but up until its demise, the WSF and its founders had not engaged in any activity that was in economic competition with the ISU.  As far as is currently known, it had not even asked any ISU member to leave the ISU and join the WSF.

Given the vagueness of Rule 102, the inherent unfairness in the process, and the questions of fact that remain, there is certainly room to question whether justice was done in this matter.

Ron Pfenning's loss of ISU eligibility is also a subject of great interest within the U.S. since Pfenning is now running for USFSA president.  His opponents are making a lot of his loss of eligibility and what it means for U.S. Figure Skating should Pfenning be elected.

Morry Stillwell, former USFSA president, has written,

"We now know that Ron Pfenning is campaigning for the office of US Figure Skating president.  It is difficult to see how electing Ron Pfenning could possibly benefit our organization.  How can anyone with a history of breaking the trust and failing to live up to the duties of an ISU Office holder be trusted with our fortunes?  If we should happen to elect Ron Pfenning, we would never know if some new and secret conspiracies were being secretly formulated. By electing Ron Pfenning as USFS President we would be sacrificing much of our ability to influence ISU General Regulations and Special Regulations for Figure Skating.  Ron Pfenning will not be credentialed to any function or event conducted by the ISU, including our own Skate America.  Persons sent to represent US Figure Skating after such an election, would be treated with suspicion and would not be welcomed with open arms.  Our skaters would be the first to suffer without a creditable advocate at the next ISU Congress.  We must have a president that can attend ISU functions and be accepted by other ISU Federations."

A great deal has been made by some within USFSA over the secrecy involved in the initial formation of the WSF.  It was a major theme in the USFSA grievance against Pfenning and Jon Jackson, first filed by Stillwell.  For some, this initial secrecy was deceitful, and is indicative of a major character flaw.  But we live in a competitive world where control of information now exists everywhere.  New businesses and organizations frequently form in private and are not announced until later when they are ready to go into operation.  Businesses frequently develop new products in secret, even giving them code names, and do not announce them until they feel it best.  Organizations, USFSA and the ISU included, regularly control the flow of information, revealing what they want to reveal when they want to reveal it, denying that which they wish to deny, spinning what they wish to spin.  The new judging system, for example, was developed in secret, without the knowledge of the technical committees, know only to a select few associates of the ISU president!  The Figure Skating Technical Committee and its Chair only found out about it in a press conference two months after the initiative began.  If the actions of Pfenning et. al. are to be considered deceitful then so should the actions of Ottavio Cinquanta and others in the initial development of the new judging system, as well as any number of other ISU and USFSA committees that from time to time initially develop new initiatives and policies in secret, and do not reveal them until they are ready.

It is also inconsistent for critics of Pfenning et. al. to say that because of their involvement with the WSF they can never be trusted again, when some of these same critics also say that dishonest judges who have served their suspensions should be accepted back as judges and should be trusted to judge honestly.  Well, which is it?  If the ISU can welcome back into the fold judges who have cheated in the past, if the ISU can welcome back Donald McKnight who was also involved in the formation of the WSF and later left that group, then there is no reason for skating not to welcome the involvement of Pfenning et. al. who disbanded the WSF months ago and have since accepted the rule of the ISU as the international governing body for skating.  The WSF/ISU conflict is now as dead as the WSF itself, and its time for all to move on.

Some would also now paint Pfenning's removal as a Referee at the 2003 World Championships as the result of an unwillingness to accept the decisions of the 2002 Congress.  But a reading of the Ron/Ottavio letters (which were published on the internet at the time) shows that the issue centered on the fact new rules relating to event reviews were created at the Congress, and after by Communication, that were in conflict with prior existing rules that were never repealed.  Pfenning took the position that the prior rules that had not been repealed still had to be followed, while Cinquanta insisted that they be ignored.  If anything, Pfenning's position at that time was to defend the rule of law in the ISU, the opposite of what he is criticized for.

The two candidates for USFSA president, Ron Pfenning and Ron Hershberger, have devoted many years of their lives to figure skating.  They are both talented men, capable of leading the organization.  They offer different choices for the direction U.S. Figure Skating should take.  The focus for this election should be on those choices.  It should be on the domestic challenges that face U.S. Figure Skating today.  It should be about the basic question often asked in elections, "is USFSA heading in the right direction or the wrong direction?"  It should not be about the ISU.

Making the election about the ISU, and the ISU's opinion of Pfenning, is a calculated distraction that deflects the discussion from where it needs to be.  USFSA and U.S. skaters do not depend financially on the ISU.  The development of new skaters in the U.S. and the health of USFSA clubs does not depend on the ISU.  The governance structure of USFSA, and whether delegates should be charged a "poll tax" is not about the ISU.  The USFSA budget and TV contract in not about the ISU, except to the extent the ISU has so turned-off the public about skating that USFSA has become a victim of problems created by the ISU.  No, there are plenty of issues closer to home the next USFSA president will have to deal with that will keep him fully occupied, and which should be the primary topics of discussion in the upcoming election, without worrying about the ISU.  It may be hard to believe, but the universe does not revolve around the ISU -- and as a Ph.D. astronomer I can say with 100% certainty that it does not!

Sadly, the U.S. has had little impact on the rules and activities of the ISU for decades.  About the only positive thing one can point to is that Stillwell was able to get Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski grandfathered when the ISU changed age requirements in 1994.  And that's it!  Not an impressive track record.  At the 2004 Congress there were, by some counts, 23 countries ready to vote against the new judging system, if only they had a strong leader to call the charge.  The U.S. did not lead, however, it followed; and then long afterwards had second thoughts about the wisdom of its vote.  Bottom line: the U.S. has no influence to lose in the ISU and will have no real influence within the ISU for the foreseeable future, whoever is elected USFSA president.  It is true that a small number of ISU members would not welcome Pfenning's election, but as many more would, and the largest group probably just doesn't care.

There is no legitimate way the ISU can harm U.S. Figure Skating should Pfenning be elected, and no justification for it to do so.  There are of course, any number of illegitimate ways and reasons, but if anyone in USFSA seriously believes the ISU would seek retribution on U.S. skaters due to Pfenning's election, then things are even worse at the ISU than its most vocal critics claim, in which case cowering in fear is not the answer.

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Copyright 2005 by George S. Rossano