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    A Modest Proposal Involving The National Debate Tournament


    NDT Second Rounds went out recently. This has restarted the perennial discussion about their utility and fairness, as well as the health of the NDT. This time it seems like there are two camps that are extra aggrieved:

    - A camp that thinks that deserving third teams from a number of schools got the shaft by not getting an invite, thanks in large part due to the cap on third teams.

    - A camp that implies, heavily, that certain teams that were accepted to the NDT as second rounds were not competitively justified to be allowed.

    I think the second camp represents a aggrieved petulance that is unworthy of discussion at length, but the first camp (even with its tinge of the latter opinion) represents a real grievance that should be recognized. I want to briefly explore this, its history, and a modest proposal to fix the problem:


    This isn’t the place for a proper history of the NDT’s eligibility rules. Suffice to say that the NDT has always dealt with a problem of declining participation year over year. Originally the NDT only invited one team per school, but over time it started including second teams, and then a limited number of third teams so as to make sure it could fill out the pool. We’ve even been in this position before, where the number of second rounds and third teams was barely enough to make the NDT happen according to the rules, in the nineties. The result of that crisis was the merger between CEDA and the NDT which drastically inflated the pool of eligible teams by letting CEDA schools into the mix.


    I don’t want to rehash something that has been basically accepted by the community writ large at this point, but I think it can take at least a brief repeating: the elitism of the NDT intrinsically drives schools out of the activity. Partially because of the frustration that results from the exclusion of not being able to qualify, and partially because of the sheer costs that are required to be able to overcome that exclusion.


    I will, personally, place a lion's share of that blame directly at the feet of the Second Round At Large process: National Circuit tournaments have always existed, and potential first round teams coupled with the existence of well-financed teams will always make a pseudo-national circuit emerge as top level teams travel across the country to debate each other. Theoretically this should be fine as teams that aren’t at the very top of debate should feel comfortable simply debating in local and regional circuits and not travelling to national tournaments, unless they want to. However, teams that fear that they won’t get out of districts need to protect their second round chances, and that requires repeated outings on the national circuit to prove competitive viability. That costs way more than local travel (the cost to fly two teams from the mid-west to the Cali Swings more than equals bringing multiple teams to two or three local tournaments) and these costs directly trade off with both local tournament attendance and team size.  This has real consequences both in terms of the viability of local tournaments, novice participation, etc. as well as in terms of participation in the community itself: Once those costs pile up it becomes harder and harder to justify having a debate team both internally to students who deal first hand with the questions of competitive inequity, and to administrators trying to track return on investment in a debate program when these factors don't exist in parli formats.*


    The result has been the community losing teams year over year, with long-time stalwart programs either disappearing or going off to the ‘other side’ of parli debate. (See, most recently, Vanderbilt). Herein lies the real pain of the first camp I outlined: the limits placed on the number of third teams allowed in was designed to protect a broadly diverse mixture of competitive schools who felt like they were being locked out, the decline in participation means that those schools no longer exist, which means that they are now being excluded in what appears to be an act for exclusion’s sake while competitively inferior teams are being let in because _someone has to be let in_ to make the tournament happen.



    While I don’t think their pain should necessarily be prioritized over the joy of inclusion that the included second round teams have, I do think that this reveals an underlying question of how we should balance the elitist demand of the NDT** with declining participation and other concerns. In that regard, I propose the following solution as a framework to look at:


    -       As a premise I imagine keeping the NDT, but increasing the number of participating teams. The actual number can be fluid, but I think a pool of around 90 sounds perfectly workable.

    -       Then maintain the first round process for sixteen teams. Let as many teams who are voted in via the first round, even third or fourth teams from schools, into the NDT in the initial stage.

    -       At this point let every subscriber school nominate one team to the NDT. I’m inclined to put some barebones requirements on this team (a minimum number of rounds during the year, let each district nominate a ‘district’ tournament during the year and require these teams to have attended at least two of those tournaments, a winning record in Open, etc.), but nothing too strenuous. These teams should be allowed in if they clear those requirements.

    -       This should fill up a majority of the slots to the NDT. To fill out the rest I propose having a National Qualifying Tournament. A tournament held in February that is open to every school and is run like present day district tournaments, except open to every team in the country. (We can rotate the hosting duties of the NQT between the schools every year). Every school can bring as many teams as they’d like to the NQT, and the top qualifiers will be let into the NDT to fill out the numbers.



    Obviously, this is not a perfect system, but I think it allows a baseline of compromise between the exclusionary demands that underlie the NDT’s focus on elitism with the real need to open the NDT up to more schools and participants and break the hold of the national circuit on schools***.


    There are also problems with this system that may make particular parts of it unworkable. For instance, the intra-squad discussion of which team to nominate to the NDT will probably be heart-rending and divisive. I also know that some schools would absolutely opt to use their nomination for a ‘B’ team while choosing to send their ‘A’ team to the NQT, which is less than ideal. 


    But, this is a starting point and not a final product and I think that there are many things that recommend it over our current system which is fundamentally broken, and has been since the 70s. At a core level, if we want to preserve the activity we need to come up with a fix that allows more schools in, there isn’t another parallel debate league to merge with a-la CEDA  in the mid-90s, and if we don’t do something soon to fix the structural problems in the activity it might be too late to actually right the ship.


     Rob Glass is the Editor in Chief of Policydb8 and debate coach for the University of Houston, before this he has worked for schools like Binghamton University, the University of Rochester, and Stuyvesant High School. 



    If we were to abolish the second round and simply give those bids to the districts, either as part of the district tournament or as a second round bid to be given out by them, I think we would be in a far better place.


    ** I will gladly flag here that the response of “elitism bad” is a fair one. Abolishing the NDT as a poisoned relic and embracing CEDA as the end of year championship is something that should absolutely be on the table for the community. 

    *** One of the great shames of this year is that the splitter movement that fled the Cali swings for the Miami Georgetown tournament weren't called out for the damage that that move did to community cohesion. The spirit of the PRL still haunts the activity and we are all worse for it. 

    Edited by RobGlass

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