Competing At Home: The History (and Future) of the TOC’s “Rule 13”

by Dave McGinnis

TOC director Andrea Reed informs me that the TOC directorship are reevaluating the rule that prohibits a team from receiving a TOC bid at its own home tournament, and are likely to eliminate it.

It is a well-established norm on the national debate circuit that teams rarely enter their home tournaments. The basis of this community norm is Item #13 on the Tournament of Champions invitation, which in 2011 read:

“13.  HOST SCHOOLS MAY NOT EARN QUALIFYING LEGS:  Students may not earn qualifying legs at tournaments hosted by their own school, unless special exceptions have been made by the respective advisory committee for the event.”

The rule doesn’t prohibit teams from entering their home tournaments; it only prohibits them from receiving a bid. The norm against a team entering its own tournament has built up over time in response to the rule, probably because a host team wouldn’t want to see a bid go to waste if they entered their top competitors and made it to the bid round.


History of the Rule

No one I spoke with could tell me the exact year that the rule went into effect, but it’s pretty easy to narrow down. During the 1996-97 season, there was at least one debater who attended, and received a bid at, their home tournament. By the 1999-2000 season, the first year that I attended the TOC as a coach, the norm or expectation that teams did not enter or receive bids at their home tournaments was in place.

Prior to the implementation of this rule by the TOC, it was common for debaters to compete at and qualify through their home tournaments.


Justification of the Rule

Justifications offered for the rule vary depending on who you talk to. Greenhill’s Aaron Timmons recalls that the rule was created to check schools using their ability to determine judges in tab to effect results in their favor — as he put it, the fear was that “there could be some home cooking” in the tab room.

Lexy Green of College Prep suggested some additional reasons underlying the norm: “To me, as a tournament host, I just see it as a question of manners. If TOC bids are this very limited commodity that everybody wants, and if one of the reasons that people come to my tournament is to get a TOC bid, I don’t think it’s good manners (for my own students to compete).”

Lexy also pointed out that a tournament’s hired judges might feel pressure to preference a host school’s debaters if they were in the competition pool.

I would guess that many teams like the rule viscerally because they understand that it makes a bid marginally easier to achieve at many tournaments. Knowing that you won’t have to face the top Apple Valley or Greenhill team to make it to octofinals makes the bid seem that much closer when you roll to Minneapolis or Dallas.


Exceptions to the Rule

There have historically been exceptions to both the rule and to the norm underlying it. For example, a number of schools have permitted their younger debaters to compete at the home tournament, with some directors prohibiting their own students from clearing, but others permitting it. As Lexy put it: “If you can’t beat my sophomores, you probably don’t deserve a TOC bid.”

Some schools have also requested and received waivers to the rule. Lexy points out that Alta High School in Utah has traditionally competed at its own event, because the Alta tournament is the only TOC-bidded event in the state and Utah schools are severely restricted from out-of-state travel.

Some tournaments are hosted by a proxy organization closely related to a particular school’s coaching staff. For example, Head Royce attends Stanford, though the Head Royce and Stanford program staffs are closely related. Harvard Westlake attends VBT.


Reasons to Reject the Rule

This rule is dated and ought to be rejected.

(1) The rule doesn’t stop “incestuous” tabulation

If the purpose of the rule is to prevent someone who is running the tabulation program from preferencing their own students, then this is the wrong rule.

First, tournaments are often tabulated by someone not associated with the host school. And second, coaches often tab tournaments other than their own — even when their own students are competing. Examples abound: Lexy Green, Tim Case (of Presentation) and I all tabbed St. Mark’s this year. Ernie Rose of University School has tabbed the Valley tournament for years. Steve Schappaugh tabs Dowling. Joe Vaughan tabs Harvard. No concerns are raised in these instances because in most cases the tab staff are simply the best for the job, and we aren’t worried about tabroom shenanigans because those are trustworthy folks.

The TOC definitely does not have a rule prohibiting a coach from tabulating a tournament where their students compete. Such a rule would be terrible for debate. Usually, the best tab staff in the building are people that have kids in the pool. Requiring non-attending tab staff would force tournaments to use people with less TRPC experience, and would result in much lower-quality tournaments. I’m sure we can all think of tournaments in recent history that have had non-coach tab staffs and run behind as a result.

These days, the vast majority of tournaments are cooperative affairs with coaches of many schools chipping in to run tab and manage sites. It just doesn’t make sense for the host school to be absolutely excluded from competition.

(2) MJP and Warm Room check abuse

Tournament tabulation has become much more transparent since the late 1990s. In those days, tab rooms were almost universally closed, and one could easily imagine tab staffs crouching over computers (or, more likely, index cards), twirling their mustaches while they chuckled evilly about the awesome judges they were giving to their own students. Schedules had codes instead of names, packets were not routinely distributed, so it was unlikely that anyone would ever be aware of their dastardly deeds.

That caricature is much harder to imagine today. Tab rooms are usually open. Warm Room and TRPC ensure that we all know who is judging whom round-by-round, and we can (if we wish) conduct detailed analysis of judge distribution using the tournament packet as a handy guide. If I want to assign my students “Tarsney, Tarsney, Liu, Liu, Rose” while everyone else gets “Random, Parent, Bus Driver, Groundskeeper, Ari Parker” — it is going to be impossible to hide.

(3) Coaches and tournament directors can generally be trusted

I’m sure not everyone will agree with me on this, but I generally trust coaches and tournament directors. Hosting a tournament is a big job. There is so much that goes into providing a tournament as a service to the community that honestly, it seems like the last thing on any coach’s mind would be stacking the deck for their own students.

(4) Punishes schools for hosting bidded tournaments

There is a limited supply of bid opportunities. Under the current rule, a team that agrees to host a bidded tournament loses an opportunity for their students. Granted, there’s a trade-off: hosting a TOC bid is both prestigious and potentially profitable. But if you set aside concerns about tabroom tomfoolery, it’s hard to imagine why a school whose coaches, parents and students are willing to put in the work of hosting a large event should see its students penalized for the effort.

In some cases, the lost opportunity can be serious. Not every student can afford to travel the country in search of competitive opportunities. Forcing those students to sit out a nationally or regionally competitive event that takes place in their home town seems unnecessary.

Aaron Timmons points out that the rule can be particularly challenging for teams that host octofinals bids. The NDCA’s annual excellence awards — the Baker in policy and the Dukes & Bailey in LD — are based on a team’s overall performance through the course of the season. Schools who host major bid tournaments are at an automatic disadvantage in the competition for such awards because they are prevented from attending their home tournaments.


Future of the Rule

If rule 13 is abolished, then next year, students will be able to receive TOC bids at their home tournaments, if coaches choose to enter them.

I expect the norm against this will hold to some degree. This has been “the way it is” for so long that many teams will just think it’s weird or wrong to enter and compete at their own events, even if no rule prohibits it.

I doubt that we would enter our top teams in the Valley tournament. But I might consider entering our sophomores.

I’m very curious to find what people think about this. Please share your view in the comments section.