Did WGI Make A Mistake By Eliminating Age-Outs In The World Class?

debaseinstallWinter Guard

It is proposal season for winter guard. Guard instructors from all over the country will submit proposals to their local circuits and to WGI in the hopes of changing some rule that will help the future of the activity. Many of the proposals will have legitimacy in their intent and some will be veiled  by statements of the greater good, but are really selfish in nature to serve only a few. Many of the proposals won’t make a difference at all, while others will change the face of our activity forever. When those game changing proposals are voted on and accepted, then there should be a mechanism in place for an independent panel of reviewers to evaluate the effectiveness of the proposal and bring recommendations back to the Board after implementation and after an acceptable period of implementation has passed.

To my knowledge this doesn’t usually happen and if it does, it doesn’t usually include the majority of the key stakeholders in the activity as well as their opinions and if it does, it isn’t usually independent in nature.

Now, I realize this post is controversial and I’m o.k. with that. We need to talk about more than whether or not the seeding order at championships is correct (how many times can we discuss that) or whether or not there should be a black curtain at all shows. We need to be discussing ideas and concepts that impact the financial stability of the organization and the stability of the organizations that pay their dues to be a part of it.

There were two rules passed in the last decade that have changed the face of the activity. The first was the elimination of the age out rule and the second was the approval of world guards to be able to add an extra ten members, thus extending the maximum performers on the floor from 30 to 40. This post will focus on the first one. Both however, have had significant impact that have financially effected guards, but also how the shows are written, performed, and judged.

Age outs. We have gone from 21 to 22 to 23 to infinity. Because of judging, I get the opportunity to meet a lot of people from all over the country throughout the course of a season. I have heard many opinions on this throughout the years and regardless of where you stand on it, one thing is for sure and that is that everyone seems to have an opinion on the topic.

I, along with most of my friends come from a time when we were forced out of the activity at the age of 21 or 22. When I marched Pride, I went through the entire season for what I thought was my “age out” year. I was 21 and for the entire season I prepared for it to be my last. When WGI that year passed the rule that extended the age out to 22, I thought long and hard about marching again. My parents however, made the final decision for me. I think it went something like this, “You are going back to college and you will graduate. If you choose to march again, then we pull your college tuition and you are on your own.” I didn’t question whether they were bluffing or not. I was not about to dare, thus ending my marching career forever. A year and a half later I graduated college and started a career.

As a long time instructor in Florida and for much of that time at the world class level, I have had many conversations with older performers about wanting to march. Many of them talked about giving up careers, stalling their career, quitting college, putting college on hold, or in one situation threatening a spouse with divorce if they didn’t get to march again. Now, I love colorguard. I wouldn’t give it up for anything, but I’ll be damned if I advise a young person to go in the direction of the activity at the risk of their financial future, long after their time should have ended. Maybe I’m old school or maybe I’ve got too much of my parents in me, but I can’t in good conscience in this economy and with the state of the youth job market being the worst in any industrial country, tell someone to choose colorguard over their career. As a director I’m taking a risk by doing that, because I potentially loose a potential paying member. I do however, believe it’s a personal decision for every person to march after a certain age, but I think many people reading this post will be able to say that they have known one or two performers who are hiding in the activity, staying stalled in youth while their futures unfold without career ambition or the building of a legitimate resume. So I ask the activity this, are we risking the future of our young people to keep our world class momentum moving further into an artistic future? Are we risking the future of our performers while we collect dues that should be going into a retirement fund, to pay student loans, or to start a family? Are the directors of the world class guards asking these future performers if they have really thought through the decision and are in a place in their life where they wouldn’t jeopardize their future for some short term gain of colorguard?

Here are some of the reasons I’ve been given for someone who is 26, 30, and even 40 march:

  • “I just want to be in finals just one more time.”
  • “I just want one good season.”
  • “I love performing. I could do it forever.”
  • “I need to lose weight.” (I asked that person if they had ever heard of a gym, because it was much cheaper.)
Another consideration we have to take into account is that we are in a different economy than when this proposal originally passed. Jobs are not a dime a dozen and the cost of college has skyrocketed. This is not a time for a young person to play around with their financial future. Some would say, “It’s only one season. What’s the big deal?” True…to a point. Anyone of us who have gone through a season at the competitive level knows that the toll it takes on the mind is intense. One given season drains your energy and sometimes your spirit. I personally have found myself in the midst of a season not completely focused on my job and being slow in doing things that most would consider “real life.” I however, am in a financial position to manage that. I have time built up at work that allows me to take off days when I’m tired from the toils of colorguard. I have health benefits and if for whatever reason lose my job, have a lifetime of work history to recover from it. 
The second issue I hear come up often regarding the elimination of the age out rule, is that it has changed the face of design forever. The top ten world class guards this year had skills in them that could never have been imagined 10 years ago. Many of the kids who were bringing these shows to life and attempting the skills and challenges given to them were not kids. Their bodies and their hands were the bodies and hands of an adult who had seen many a drum corps field and winter guard floor. This in and of itself changes the dynamics of the shows. Is this bad? Not necessarily. Because of the maturity of the performers we have been able to add a word called, “risk” to the Independent World sheet and the artistry of the shows border on something you would see on a stage. Onyx this year, was something I never thought I would see in Dayton. It looked more like something I would see in New York. It was beautiful and arguably one of the best things I’ve ever seen live in Dayton. However, the maturity of the performers ability to bring it to life was beyond the comprehension of many in the audience. We’ve changed world class. We made it look professional. We’ve made it professional in all levels that the arts can be professional except for one factor…we don’t pay the performers and they aren’t unionized. They pay us and sometimes they are paying us with their student loans. I wonder how many parents out there realize their kids are paying for the colorguard and drum corps dues with college loan money? How much interest is being paid over a lifetime of student loan debt to cover colorguard dues?
I can hear the argument now. “Olympians don’t get paid to go to the Olympics and college football players aren’t paid to play.” True, except that to be a part of the NCAA you have to be in college and there is a hope albeit a minimal hope of going professional and Olympians are offered endorsements if they are good enough. You just don’t hear about many world class colorguard stars signing endorsement deals with Nike or Wheaties.
We  also have to consider the fact that our younger guards are seeing the world class guards and trying to emulate them. This has always been an age old problem. “A” guards for years have been trying to do what they shouldn’t. Kids who have just left a World guard attempts the fete of replication. We all know how that story turns out and the story hasn’t changed. What concerns me though, is I wonder if those newly minted instructors understand that they were doing something only meant for a professional and as a professional they came into the WGI World Class as a performer with professional skills and the kids they are getting at the high school level who are really kids, aren’t anywhere close. Is this a risk management issue coming down the pike for local circuits? Maybe.

Should we consider the possibility of a 30 year old in a guard with minors as a risk management issue for everyone from the guard they perform in to the local circuit to WGI? Possibly.

What about in this post Penn State era? Independent World Guard “X” performs back to back with Scholastic World Guard “Y.” Both are at the show in the locker room changing clothes. A 30 year old in the locker room changing clothes with a 14 year old. Is there impropriety? How would we know? Does it matter?

As a world class instructor I’ve had to dig into my conscience and find how I feel about this. Have I taken advantage of the rule? Yes I have. The program or a performers future? It’s a hard one to grapple with. Should I care? The answer is yes I should. We cannot continue to call ourselves a youth activity without looking at the risk of the youth who we are guiding. Even for the kids who are still in that window that is considered “traditional age of marching” we have to look at the impact the activity is having on them. Things are different now. The economy is different. College expectations are different. Hell, even high school expectations are different. Our kids are being tested to death and their academic expectations are vastly different from what they were 20 years ago. So what is the solution?  I have three:
  1. Study this. Put an independent panel together of educators, researchers, non profit experts, and financial analysts and look at the cost it’s having on our kids and our programs.
  2. Create a tiered world class. Change the mold and create an arm of WGI that focuses on the artistic future of the activity that gives those who are more mature an avenue of performance that doesn’t jeopardize the future of a performer. Ice Skating and Gymnastics have already done it. We can too…it just takes some work and re visioning of the activity.
  3. Put the young people first. Do what other national organizations do and take an interest in the people who are putting their futures on hold to perform at a professional level. Put them in a data base and educate them on their options. Monitor just a little closer how we are using our talented young people.

Let’s actually discuss and debate this in an open forum. Make sure that stakeholders from all parts of the activity are at the table for the discussion. Bring in consultants while we are at it who are completely divorced from the issue.  Why does this matter? Aren’t we really just talking about a few kids? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the answer to that question is no. We aren’t just talking about a few kids. We are talking about an evolving activity that not many people are grasping right now. I had a conversation with an instructor this past winter in critique who is 32 years old. He said that he didn’t understand how to be successful anymore. Now mind you, his guard is good. They just weren’t in the top. He told me that he was thinking about going back to march again to gain new knowledge. Something inside me during that conversation felt that every level of his thought process was wrong, because if for whatever reason Bella Koroli looses the graces of the gymnastics world, he isn’t going to go get on a balance beam to try to understand the new skills of gymnastics. He will look for other means of education. I’m fairly certain of that one. So why would we do it in colorguard? Have we even considered internship and apprentice programs that don’t include marching again?

Paradigm started this blog to talk about issues that have been floating around the gyms, the bars, and the critiques for years. My hope as a writer to this blog is that we can start a dialog. My hope is to stop the phrase, “It’s just flags in a gym,” because as I’ve stated in other posts…it most certainly isn’t just flags in a gym. People are structuring their lives around this activity. There is too much passion and way too much money and for those reasons alone the dialog needs to be moved up a notch. I still don’t know whether it was right or wrong, I can see the good and the bad, I just hope we can look at the issue objectively and make decisions that are best for the performers.
Next up…”From 30 to 40. Did it hurt the A class?”