The rarest and most serious penalty in fencing is the black card.
Novice fencers might not understand the consequences of a black card. For instance, if a fencer gets a black card for acting out after a match that they lost anyway, what does it matter? First off, it matters because points are an issue. When a fencer leaves on a black card, they forfeit any points that they might have gotten for that tournament. That’s going to affect their standings and their potential qualification for other competitions.
A black card doesn’t just affect the match either – if a fencer gets black carded in a medal round then they lose their medal. So if you’re competing in the gold medal match, you’d get a silver if you lost. But not if you get black carded! The important thing to emphasize here is that a black card does NOT just affect the one match, it affects the whole competition and even beyond!
Fencing card basics
Let’s talk about cards in general. Cards are fencing penalties, and they’re handed out by referees during matches in recompense for infractions. There are three penalty cards in fencing:
Think of a yellow card as a yellow traffic light. It means check yourself, it’s a warning.
There’s actually a penalty for fencers who get a red card, and that penalty is a touch lost against them.
Now we come to the big one, the black card. When a fencer does something terrible, horrible, no good, and very bad, they are rewarded with the dreaded black card. A black card expels the fencer from the event. That’s not all though – a fencer doesn’t just walk away. In most cases a fencer will have their name stricken from the record by replacing it with the words “fencer excluded”. But in some really severe offences the consequences might be much more severe as well.
Yellow and red cards are things that you’re going to see fairly often in fencing competition, and you most probably experienced them as well. Because they happen often does not mean that they’re minor. A red card penalty could very well cost a fencer the bout and competition! It happens all the time.
Black cards are of course not commonly given, but if you’re on the competition circuit then you’re going to see one given at one point or another. They are uncommon but hardly unheard of! If you ask a coach or a longtime fencer for some “black card stories”, then they’ll likely pour out some war stories about fencers getting this penalty and sometimes the controversies that went with them.
What Warrants a Black Card?
Now that we know what a black card is, what kind of offence can cause a fencer to get a black card? Some of these might really surprise you – not all black card offenses are what you’d expect! Also, keep in mind that referees have a good deal of latitude in their ability to give something like this. There are certainly offences that aren’t on this list that could get you black carded, but for the most part anything you see will fall into these categories.
The black card covers a lot of different aspects of severe offences. Some of these are rarely seen in fencing, and definitely not in youth fencing, for example, electronic communication with coach during the bout or the use of performance enhancing drugs, while others are very common.
The two most common reasons that a fencers get black card during competition are:
- Unsportsmanlike behavior
- Unsportsmanlike behavior in a non-fencer (e.g., a coach or a parent)
Let’s admit, losing is not fun. Oftentimes fencers are filled with emotions when they lose, especially if they lose in the DE bouts which eliminate them from further rounds in this event. That kind of emotion runs away with a fencer and can cause them to lose control and show bad behavior. Of course the referee is going to punish bad behavior.
The most common and universal expression of these kinds of behaviors is throwing things. How many times have you seen a fencer throwing their mask or their weapon aggressively onto the strip after losing a bout? If you’ve been around for any length of time in fencing then you’ve probably seen this. That kind of behavior is a huge no-no because, and it’s the number 1 reason for the black card. More often than not, a referee is going to punish that fencer, particularly if the fencer started to show signs of unsportsmanlike behavior during the bout.
Oftentimes, fencers (especially young fencers) don’t even realize that they’ve crossed into the realm of a black card behavior, especially when it happens after a loss. For example, it is a regulation that fencers must shake hands and salute after the bout. Some referees will go an extra mile with young fencers to explain them that they must properly finish their bout by stepping behind the en guard lines and saluting, then shaking hands. However kids are sometimes preoccupied with their feelings and are unwilling to salute or to shake hands. Generally, the referee will explain why these things are important and try to use it as a teaching moment. But referees naturally have limits on what they are willing to do if the fencers are hardline in their refusal to finish the match with good sportsmanship.
Another typical reason for the black card has nothing to do with the fencer themselves, but with other people who root for fencer, for instance a coach or a parent. That’s right, a coach or a parent or anyone can get a black card and find themselves kicked out of a fencing competition! It’s not just fencers who are subject to getting expelled from matches. Any kind of violent behavior, like knocking over a chair or throwing down a clipboard, can result in someone getting thrown out of a fencing tournament. This is might be unusual, but it’s hardly unheard of.
Can a black card be good?
The answer is that YES a black card can be a very good teaching tool! If a fencer consistently behaves out of bounds after a loss, then a black card can be a powerful way to teach a lesson. Sometimes a black card is the only way to teach a young fencer that their behavior has serious consequences! This kind of black card offense can actually be used by a referee if a novice fencer has not responded to other forms of instruction. Sometimes a tough lesson is a good lesson.
No matter what the circumstances or the card given, penalties should always be used as teaching moments for young fencers. The point here is not to force a young fencer to do what they’re told, but to teach them how to navigate these situations.
Coaches and parents can get ejected from the venue and the competition for disturbing the bouts. This might include yelling or accosting the referee, coming onto the strip, insulting an opponent or their coach, or gesticulating inappropriately. A referee has the right to issue a yellow card to people other than fencers as a warning, then to issue a black card and eject them from even watching the competition. Fencing is supposed to be about the fencers, not the people watching. A black card in fencing for a very disruptive observer with inappropriate behavior is a very good thing.
One other note here – if a fencer does get a black card, they can challenge it just like any fencing referee’s ruling can be challenged. Black cards affect points in competition, erasing any that might have been earned during that competition. That’s why it’s important to advocate for fencers who get a black card if it’s thought to be unjustified. However if there’s a clear violation, there’s no reason to fight it. It’s often better to allow the fencer to absorb those consequences.
Black card in fencing stories
The best thing of course is to not get into this position in the first place. Young fencers especially may not realize that things are against the rules, especially when it happens after a bout. The more that young fencers can learn about things that will get them a black card, the easier time they’ll have in avoiding getting one! We really encourage you to talk to young fencers about these rules and to share with them stories of black card offenses.
I’ve seen people get black cards for throwing their mask or weapon on the ground after losing a bout or a touch. At one competition a young lady foilist of about nine years old competing in a DE bout found herself on the other end of a black card. She’d tied and just at the end of the match goes for it, but gets a point scored against her instead. As she’s walking over to her coach, she gets very frustrated and throws her foil, but not in the direction of a person, and starts to yell at her coach. The referee gives her a black card and ejects her from the competition. The girl was of course totally mortified at this, because she didn’t realize that she could get thrown out for this kind of behavior, even if she did know it was wrong.
Sometimes things get a bit more heated and offenses are more evident. Once at Nationals I was witness to a sabre fencer violently break his sabre in a very advanced DE stage, which of course he got a black card for. The larger the competition, the more heated things can get. There feels like there’s a lot on the line at a big competition like this, it feels like there’s so much that’s been put into this one moment. That emotion then gets away with some fencers. It’s important for young fencers to learn to channel their emotion in positive ways and to let go of it when possible.
In another instance, I saw a coach kicking over the strip divider line after a heated argument with a referee about a touch. This coach had been repeatedly given warnings about his lack of self control, and he finally got a black card for the behavior.
Black cards don’t just happen to young fencers though! I’ve heard a story about a veteran fencer at a regional competition who was about to make it to the podium. Right as the end of the match is called, the veteran’s opponent scores a touch and is declared the winner. The losing fencer got very angry and clearly used a rude hand gesture towards the coach while yelling an expletive. The veteran was ejected from the tournament and lost his medal!
Another thing that happens in competition is that a fencer will get a black card for missing their match. If your fencer is called for repeatedly and doesn’t answer, then they can very well get black carded for missing the match. This can happen to anyone! Even though these kinds of black cards are not for violent or emotional infractions, they probably feel even worse.
These are just a few examples based on real world incidents where fencers have gotten the black card. The absolute best way to prevent this kind of infraction from happening is to be vigilant about knowing the rules, and especially to educate young fencers about the rules BEFORE something bad happens.