Debate team brings a different kind of athlete into play
It’s Friday night in Tennessee, and the stage is set for a clash.
But it is not a high-school football game, and the competitors are not athletes in the literal sense.
They are debaters: athletes of the brain who fire words instead of Hail Mary passes.
The tournament these debaters are readying for is the first in roughly a decade for MTSU.
Hosted by the MTSU debate team, itself only in its second year of full revival, the tournament is thanks to the work of Patrick Richey, an MTSU professor and debate coach.
“It was dormant,” Richey said of the team in the years just prior to his arrival on campus. “Leadership problems and a lack of student interest. I was brought in to kick it back into gear because it was once one of the best teams in the nation.”
Richey invited eight colleges from around the Southeast to compete in team and individual debating events.
Members of the MTSU team – most of whom will not participate in the tournament – developed the topics to be debated in the tournament. Many of those topics have to do with politics, owing to the fast-approaching presidential election, but this debate is not the kind of thing Mitt Romney or Barack Obama will participate in anytime soon.
“If you watch the presidential debate, you’ll notice that they’ll ask a question, and then nobody will answer that question,” said Hailey Lawson, co-captain of MTSU’s debate team. “But in real collegiate debate, if it’s a topic about gun control, you are talking about gun control. Because it’s so centered and so focused, you can actually debate, whereas the presidential debate is just a lot of people talking but no actual what we call clash, which is hitting their opponent’s points.”
There are multiple styles of formal debate.
This tournament consists of a two-on-two team format, in which one topic is chosen and the teams have 15 minutes to prepare before competing in front of a judge who analyzes the arguments, points and counterpoints before marking on a ballot the team that won that round.
The individual competition involves whittling five topics down to one debate topic, which the competitors have 30 minutes to prepare for.
Like a sporting event, rounds advance through elimination until there is a team and individual champion.
Lucas Osborne and CJ Moore, who have less than a year of debating experience between them, were tapped to take on a two-man squad from Morehouse College.
Richey inserted the pair in the competition to allow them to gain more experience in debate and to help fill out the brackets in full. As a show of respect as the host team, MTSU competitors will not accumulate points toward the tournament standings.
The atmosphere is light as they prepare to take on the subject of limiting China’s telecommunication interests in the U.S.
Like shaking hands before a tough gridiron matchup, both teams thank the other for coming and even thank the judge.
Then it is time to joust.
The words and sentences deliver punches of point and fact — sharp, tumbling jabs meant to make the largest point in the least amount of time.
Each round is timed, and the debaters almost seem out of breath at times as they race to cover every possible angle.
In that moment of competition, a debater has only what exists in memory and the notes that might have been scribbled in haste as the opposition volleyed its argument.
While athletes seem to spend time trying to convince the world they are more than dumb jocks, debaters, whose brains are as valuable to them as a good arm is to a quarterback, labor to show the world that they are not just brainy whiz kids who debate.
Lawson is a psychology major who joined the team just because it sounded interesting and wanted to be involved on campus.
“Everyone for some reason thinks we’re snobby, and we’re really not,” she said. “We’re really laid back… Debate doesn’t have to be this big, strict thing.”
Others, like team captain Mary Choate, joined the team to prepare for a future career in law and to find rich social opportunities.
“I was kind of a loner in high school,” Choate said. “Debate team actually helped me open up, and it’s kind of prepared me to become a lawyer, so that’s always good.”
Other schools put a more serious face on debating though.
Richey said that Wake Forest is just one university that recruits debaters out of high school with scholarships.
The budget for that type of program can run into the six figures, Richey said.
MTSU’s team is made up purely of those who want to debate for the joy of doing it, and with 10 tournaments each academic year – most of them involving long road trips and almost all of them featuring two or three days of weekend competition – a love for the craft is essential.
“They all have different backgrounds,” Richey said. “They come and they do this because they like it, which to me makes them better debaters…but that proves to me that my debaters are loyal because they aren’t doing it for money.”
The Morehouse squad fire streams of facts at Osborne and Moore. Osborne and Moore attempt a counter, but Morehouse challenges their statements with specific questions.
Though the MTSU squad uses up all but 20 seconds of the allotted time, they know their lack of detailed facts cost them with the judge.
Although they won’t know how the judge voted until the end of the preliminary round, Osborne is already putting the best face on it, like a slick coach under the glare of the press-conference lights.
“Well that was good considering there was no research,” he said, later adding, “They clearly won the round.”
But Osborne and Moore can add that to their growing experience.
After all, it’s only for fun.
Photo Credit: AJ Netherland