Be very, very skeptical of Judge Academy

For the non-Magic: the Gathering audience, some tournament judges filed a lawsuit alleging that they should have been classified as employees.  IANAL, and a lot of the issues are beyond the scope of what a non-expert can discuss at all with any confidence, but one aspect- that for-profit companies cannot accept volunteer labor- is one, that by a plain English reading (again, IANAL) they clearly violated thousands of times in the past, including with me personally.  Of course, I was “volunteering” with the implicit understanding that I was going to get “gifted” promotional cards and game product worth well into the hundreds of dollars afterwards, and I did.

That’s shady enough domestically with US citizens, but when US citizens went abroad to “work as a volunteer”, and WotC brought foreigners to the US to “work as volunteers”, they were almost certainly running afoul of various labor laws, and on at least one occasion, a judge made the mistake of saying “work” at the border and despite further explanation still wasn’t allowed in the country.  So when there’s talk about WotC playing fast and loose with legal obligations around labor.. it’s because they clearly did.  And still might, I don’t know.

To avoid these headaches, WotC (purportedly) ditched its judge program and there is a new organization to replace it, Judge Academy.  JA held an AMA on Reddit and while it isn’t worth reading the whole thing, they were incredibly evasive on a large number of questions, said they couldn’t disclose financials (for no actual legal reason), and their responses included some gems like (in response to why they aren’t a non-profit), “We also felt it was import not to compete with organizations like the Red Cross for the charitable support being given by these companies.”  Really.  That happened.  So the whole thing looks.. uh.. shady AF.

Looking into the incentives of all those involved and the methods of leverage that can be exercised makes it look even worse than just a shady money grab. Going down the line of what each party wants:

WotC: be free from the legal headache, still effectively control the judge program, spend as little money as possible

Major tournament organizers: still have a competent potential staff pool without spending any new money to train it, keep judges from organizing to ask for more money

High-level judges: still have paying jobs, improve the pay-to-mentoring/training ratio, not have to spend infinite time on the logistics of certification

Now, JA provides certification testing and foils for $100.  Without the foils, effectively nobody- and certainly not enough people to bother running a business with staff- would pay $100 to certify.  Major tournament organizers would have to pick up the slack and do it at no cost to the trainees.  So JA’s business is *entirely* dependent on WotC providing foils that can be resold for over $100 on the secondary market, and they have *zero* recourse if WotC decides they don’t want to do that anymore, either by stopping the foil supply altogether or intentionally sending them garbage to distribute.  If WotC does, JA disappears instantly, and both sides are well aware of that.  There’s also no chance (for various reasons outside the scope of this post) that JA actually has a contract stipulating a minimum resale value of foils.

So JA *cannot cause trouble for WotC* or WotC just kills it.  JA *cannot disobey WotC* or WotC just kills it.  Despite being legally separate entities, JA is 100% WotC’s butt muppet.  JA has less wiggle room than if they were actually all WotC employees because at least then they’d have some workplace protections, which is kind of ironic given the whole context.

Big TOs will be happy with this for several reasons. The first is that they don’t have to put more of their own resources into maintaining a qualified staff pool around their regions. The second is that because JA is essentially existentially forbidden from causing any trouble, it’s not going to agitate for better working conditions/compensation, and any energy directed at lobbying JA, or any misunderstanding that JA might ever do that is less energy directed at anything that could affect TO bottom line.

There’s not going to be any elected representation for obvious reasons. JA cant cause trouble, so they’re going to vet staff carefully and only work with people who “get it”. And by “get it”, I mean understand that JA is not an organization for judges, it’s an organization that exists to be WotC’s butt muppet, keep big TOs staffed and happy, and get Tim and some high-level judges paid.

There’s no financial transparency- and some combination of incompetence/misrepresentations/blatant lies whenever financials are discussed- because the whole arrangement is shady AF on every level. There’s no way they’re going to go from “shady and opaque” to providing a line by line accounting of their revenue and expenditures that shows everybody exactly how messed up the whole situation is. If JA were an organization for judges, they’d be happy to prove it with financials- and if they were legally registered as one of several types of organizations for judges, they would HAVE TO prove it with financials- but again, they’re not an organization for judges and they’re simply choosing not to be transparent.

When an organization is de facto funded by somebody else (by foils laundered to cash through subscriptions), is incentivized to act in somebody else’s interests, has denied to enter into any obligation to act in your interests, has refused to allow you any ability to determine that it is acting in your interests, and has dodged/obfuscated/misrepresented/outright lied to you repeatedly when these issues are raised, you have to be an absolute fool to trust that it really is going to act in your interests and not somebody else’s.


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