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.

  • Anonymous

    I think that regardless of whether kids can compete at their own tournaments, the TOC should mandate that judges hired by the Tournament Director be conflicted from students of that person. This would preclude students of the host school from being judged by hireds if Rule 13 were repealed, and it would also apply to institution-run tournaments (like VBT, or perhaps the Stanford example mentioned earlier), where the Tournament Directors’ students are able to compete even with Rule 13 in place.

    I do not mean to cast doubt upon the trustworthiness of the Tournament Directors or judges whom they hire. From my perspective, though, it’s too easy for a conflict to subconsciously emerge, where the judge feels that their being rehired for future years might be contingent on them voting a certain way. (EXAMPLE: A judge thinks that their being hired is contingent on the TD seeing them as a good, competent judge. Dropping the TD’s students could lead the TD to question the judge’s competence or whether they want to pay to fly out said judge to a tournament where they proceed to make “questionable” decisions.)

    Regardless of whether the above would happen–and I certainly do trust TDs and hired judges to try to be impartial–I think the mere appearance of a conflict in this case is enough to justify the rule. For example, what happens if a TD happens to hire a few judges who happen to be particularly suited for their debaters’ styles, and then MJP happens to assign those judges to the TD’s students repeatedly? It’s entirely possible that this could happen by coincidence, but I know I wouldn’t feel very comfortable facing those kids in those rounds. To me that means a conflict should be imposed.

    I really hope the Advisory Committee considers implementing such a rule. I think this could shore up any potential appearance of conflict, while achieving some of the participatory ends that the Committee seems to be seeking in repealing Rule 13.

  • I have an alternate proposal that would allow teams that host TOC-bidded tournaments an opportunity to earn bids and would also eliminate any and all risk of impropriety on the part of the tab or tournament staff:
    TOC bid tournaments should be comprised ONLY of debaters from the host school. 

    So, for example, the Greenhill tournament should feature a field of exclusively Greenhill debaters. Since the field would be entirely homogeneous, there would be no one to be biased for or against. This would eliminate bias on the part of the tournament staff, as well as the judges, and would also likely eliminate the need for a complex MPJ system. I think it’s a great idea!

  • I’m surprised that one of the few “oh, duh” rules is on the verge of being altered, but I know who’s leading the charge: Someone who intends to advantage their own students. Of course, advantaging one’s own students isn’t mutually exclusive with what benefits the community – they can go hand-in-hand in fact – but it seems that our community is becoming increasingly dominated by elite schools and powerful coaches, Whitman included, that play by whatever rules they want, to the detriment of our community and students from small programs or no program at all. Real talk: This isn’t about Alta or a one-off exception; it’s about major national circuit tournaments.

    Ultimately, if we want the national circuit to be defined as 10-15 already successful programs, we’re well on the way. Just read Travis’s post (first one) on this thread: Think about this example (I’ll pick on Dave): If I made my parents drive 350 miles each way from Chicago to attend the Valley tournament, and I was prevented from clearing by losing to a Valley debater, I’d be upset and wish I’d hit someone other than that up-and-coming Valley sophomore. (That these critical debates sometimes involve students whose coaches are politically connected doesn’t make it fair play.) Psychologically, losing to the host school debater is materially different than losing to anyone else at the tournament, even local schools 10-15 miles away from the host site. Perhaps that’s because we adhere to Rule 13 and it’s just customary, but it’s still something I’d consider as both a tournament host and educator. This isn’t to pick on coaches that intend to enter students at their own tournament if Rule 13 is eliminated, but it is something to consider, even when the host school students are only there to “get experience”. 

    And, one more thing: Ideally, tournaments wouldn’t be tabulated by someone who also has students in the field, but it’s often a necessary evil. The reason is simple: It avoids the appearance of impropriety. For example, Steve has Ernie, a coach at USchool, tab The Sunvitational to avoid this problem, and more tournaments should strive to do the same, even if it’s oftentimes not possible.

    • Rebar Niemi

      I think Ari made my points in a far more reasonable and succinct way. I also concur with Steven, TD’s should not be able to have hired judges judge their debaters (The view from tab handled this last year and I definitely think they were right).

  • Rebar Niemi

    i have mixed feelings about this. on the one hand i am vehemently against even the possibility of “home cooking.” the only way to make tab advantage/disadvantage a non-issue is if it can’t be an issue. this change puts it back into play.

    on the other hand, there are so many small instances of impropriety (you don’t have to actively manipulate results/pairings to give your team an advantage if you’re running tab) that i can somewhat understand the justification behind this rule, which seems to be:

    “Either impropriety is inevitable or not an issue so therefore we have no obligation to put in place restrictions designed to prevent impropriety, especially when those restrictions marginally harm those who might be accused of impropriety.” 

    the exceptions listed are for the most part legitimate. however, if I personally ran a TOC bid tournament, I wouldn’t enter my students even if I were allowed to.

    In my opinion there aren’t really good reasons that this rule shouldn’t be changed, except that it feels wrong, disgusting, slimy, and dishonorable. I empathize with Utah, I empathize with wanting to get sophmores who don’t travel often some quality rounds. I still think that it is ignoble and pretty low to have your own kids seriously compete at your tournament. The issue is not impropriety happening. The issue is the appearance of impropriety and the fact that when impropriety does occur it is either impossible to prove or goes unpunished. 

    I think that the real thing is not that “the rule is unnecessary” and more that “the rule CHANGE is unnecessary.”

    In order to change this, you shouldn’t just have to demonstrate that it wouldn’t harm anything. You should have to demonstrate a proactive reason schools are being harmed. With the exception of perhaps Alta, there are very few schools who are being actively harmed by not being able to compete in their own tournaments.

    Like I said, I don’t have particularly solid objections, but it just feels wrong to me. I really really disagree that coaches and TD’s should be allowed to police themselves. I’m not saying they can’t be trusted or that they aren’t competent – I’m saying that sportsmanship demands that you don’t compete in your own tournament. It’s like how the fine print on lottery tickets or coke bottles says that contests can’t be won by relatives of people who work for the company. 

    AND A NOTHER THING: this rewards teams way too much for hosting a bid. i think that ultimately it wouldn’t affect bigger bid tournaments, but will have a disproportionate affect on smaller ones. For instance, imagine if Meadows competed in the battle for the belt. or if whitman competed in the beltway. I just think it makes everything way too personal and complicated.

    i just don’t buy that this rule disadvantages anyone unequally. except maybe the top 1% of bid hosting schools. but do they really need another advantage?

    • Dave McGinnis

      “In my opinion there aren’t really good reasons that this rule shouldn’t be changed, except that it feels wrong, disgusting, slimy, and dishonorable.”

      Those are some pretty heavy bricks to throw if “there aren’t really good reasons that this rule shouldn’t be changed.”

      Your “analysis” ignores the points that (A) in the squo, coaches routinely tab their own students at “away” meets, and (B) host schools rarely staff their own tab rooms. 

      Given that I don’t see how this change would add any complications.

      • Rebar Niemi

        dave, that’s just my personal take on it. i would never ever do this even if i were to have the opportunity (which let’s face it is unlikely). i don’t even necessarily condemn people who do this, but for me personally something about it just feels wrong. some of the justifications listed above seem pretty legitimate to me in a logical sense, but this is an instance where the spirit of the rule seems to be about sportsmanship and honorable competition. my interpretation of those values is that an honorable competitor wouldn’t have their varsity debaters compete at their own TOC bid in an attempt to get the bid. i think that having younger kids compete or situations like the Stanford one where there is a linkage between a HS and college team are almost entirely unproblematic. but when you get to varsity competition, this seems wrong to me. 
        i don’t ignore your A point, i include that under “impropriety is inevitable” rubric. i don’t think that’s a good reason to change the rule, i think that’s a good reason to get more people involved in tabbing tournaments. and it doesn’t respond to my point that even if no impropriety happens or if impropriety is inevitable, it would still be preferable for this type of impropriety to be a non-issue by being impossible.i don’t ignore your B, because it doesn’t respond to me. i say pretty explicitly that you don’t need to be actively tabbing a tournament to gain a competitive advantage. and my point about this advantaging home teams is not just that there is a risk that they will cook the books so much as they wouldn’t have to travel/would be staying at home/have access to their entire coaching staff and squad/and other intangible benefits.i think the fact that home teams don’t have to travel is big here. the rule can exist or not exist in the abstract, but under concrete conditions it means that schools with a TOC bid tournament can have an extra bid tourney without actually traveling. that seems like it puts more money to travel/hire assistants/etc in the pockets of the teams with those tournaments, while travel is still a cost on the teams without those tournaments. on the other hand maybe the savings would go into hiring judges and the like for the bid tournaments the schools run, which would be good. i also think that perceptually this would be bad for business in the sense that it would increase the appearance of TOC level competition as being corrupt and in-crowd-y. if natsir LD is losing competitors because the content of debate seems esoteric, wait until it seems to be oligarchic too. 

        • Dave McGinnis

          The point about travel advantages doesn’t make sense. Any team that operates in an area where bid tournaments take place gains an advantage by virtue of that. Allowing the host team to participate doesn’t give them an advantage — it removes the disadvantage of being shut out of their own event.

          You keep using these charged words like “honorable” — I imagine that coaches who do enter their own kids in home events might be a little insulted by that. More importantly, assuming that a coach either farms out tab duties to someone else or, you know, tabs honestly, there is nothing “dishonorable” about attending a home tournament. 

          All of the advantages that accrue to a team due to the geography of bid distribution — ie, having access to the whole coaching staff — are advantages that in the squo accrue to local teams that don’t host. Why should the hosts be punished? SLP benefits from having an octos and a quarters bid on its doorstep. Why put Apple Valley or Blake at a disadvantage?

          The only way to avoid the fact that some teams benefit from having competitions be local would be to hold everything in Hawaii. Which I am down with in the abstract. But seriously, it makes no sense as a reason to prohibit the home team from competing.

          • Anonymous

            I was under the impression that hosting large tournaments is typically a very good fundraiser for the team. So while Apple Valley and Blake may be inconvienced that weekend, the money that their team makes would be able to send them to other tournaments wouldnt it?

          • Rebar Niemi

            Again, all pretty reasonable points. I’ve never been to Hawaii but I guess that would be nice considering its closer to WA than most states.

            I still feel pretty entitled to my opinions on honor though.

  • Dave, was this change requested by someone on the LD TOC Advisory Committee, or was it initially put forth by someone in a different event but the change will have consequences for TOC bid tournaments across all events?

  • Wow – this is very interesting – I wonder how teams will respond to this.  I fielded novices this year in our novice division and was happy they got the rounds – it was awesome for their development.  One of the hardest parts of holding a tournament with bids, especially in January, is that we lose out on competitive rounds on the TOC topic.  I don’t know that I’d enter my students, though, in the Sunvite if they were TOC-caliber debaters.  I agree with Dave that I might be tempted to put in my sophomores for the experience.  However, if a debater has a bid and needs a second then I can see the temptation to enter them into the tournament – probably more true for later tournaments.  And it’s hard to look at a kid who needs a bid and not let them have that opportunity when it’s completely allowable. 

    In terms of the MJP checks – I agree – but there are times when MJP isn’t 100% honored so it’s not perfect.  One thing to consider is printing the schedule with the MJP on it – it was done at Whitman last year and I thought it was cool – not sure what others thought of it.  Perhaps people don’t want to know how they’re ranked … I know I’m not the highest ranked judge and am fine with that, but some others may not be.  Not only that, but I don’t know that a rule exists from the TOC to require the use of MJP — there are some who understandably feel that a larger number of strikes is a better system than MJP — so if a tournament went that direction it wouldn’t solve.  The ultimate check would be people coming back to the tournament or not …VBT had entries from Bietz’s school (not sure about the school Victor coached) and that to me is pretty much like entering your own tournament.  People keep going there so they must not be too bothered by it.

    • Dave McGinnis

      You’re always a “1” for us, Steve. 🙂

    • Rebar Niemi

      just curious what it looks like to print MJP. do you print everyone’s rankings from every school or their cumulative rankings or what?