Why Lincoln-Douglas Debate needs the National Debate Coaches Association

by Chris Palmer.

LD right now is either Somalia or Switzerland.

Switzerland is a quiet and orderly federation whose lack of strong central authority enhances the individual freedoms of many local decision makers, leading to generally good government; that’s us, a lot of the time.

As a Switzerland, we’re doing a lot of things right; tournaments are for the most part improving over time, as they compete to adapt to new practices and tech to squeeze out inefficiencies.  We’ve been a lot more active online, so ideas and notions spread quickly.  We have a strong core of young coaches coming up through the ranks and having an impact; and numbers overall are strong.  All these are benefits of a lack of a central authority standing in the way and saying no, or being slow to adopt and adapt.

But we also have to admit that we have a faint whiff of a Hobbesian war of all against all about us too.

Few on the circuit dispute that neg bias is a real and palpable problem.  We have a proliferation of theory arguments that everyone hates and yet we keep running and voting for them because we don’t know how not to.  Everyone supports greater access and openness in debate, but nobody much acts towards it; debate is a rich kid’s game still.  We can’t even decide if mandatory disclosure is the great leveler for fairness and access to debate, or AT’s latest super-secret dastardly plot. (Plan text: Step 1: Steal all the case cites.  Step 3: Profit!).

What’s alarming about these issues is not their seriousness, but their persistence.  We feel the same pains year after year. Coin flips will determine a lot of tight elim rounds this year; like last year, like the year before.  Someone will vote on “He’s wearing a red bowtie and I find that harms fairness” or something.  But nothing is done about it.

Our inability to address these issues, despite a pretty good consensus that they’re issues (at least on the Aff/Neg front) points to a weakness in LD. The root cause, I think is that we lack a body where discussion on these issue can happen and consensus can be discovered.  A community doesn’t change easily when it has a rigid, controlling central authority, but it likewise doesn’t change if the members of the community have no means of finding out if their grievances and ideas are shared by others.

There’s a breed of problem that requires collective action.  Speech time adjustment is one. Improving and democratizing the topic selection process is another. To move, everyone has to move at once. It could be that 80% of us all think speech times should be changed the same way; if there’s that much consensus, then change they should.  But how would you find out? There’s no obvious place to even start the discussion.

We have organizations enough, but none that fill that gap for our circuit. The NCFL is clearly not our game; The NFL would like to serve, but is beholden to many other constituencies and can’t focus just on us.  The TOC has more legitimacy, but less desire; they want to run their tournament and are leery of casting too wide a shadow beyond it.  That’s probably appropriate, since they’re not appointed or elected by, and thus ultimately not responsible to, the debate community.  The other channels are largely for profit camps and tournaments, which have their place, but ultimately must cater to the students first; so curricular issues that need adult input will not be solved by them.

Policy has a organization that fills this niche, the National Debate Coaches Association.  The NDCA runs a tournament that in policy is comparable to (and larger than) the TOC, which it runs on a break-even basis; all the money goes back into the tournament.  It hosts town halls and discussions throughout the year, and maintains a mailing list with a pretty good critical mass of national policy coaches.  It runs the Open Evidence Project for policy summer camps.  It could always do more, but it does a lot for an all volunteer group.  It’s elected, and thus accountable to the community.  Policy faces fewer collective action problems than us, I think, but when they do, they know where to take them to discuss.

I believe the LD community needs its NDCA.  It needs a group for debate coaches who can bring recurring issues forward and try to address them, rather than letting them stew and fester forever. Fortunately, we don’t have to invent an NDCA; one already exists.  And the NDCA would welcome us.

The NDCA is policy-centric, for sure, but it would prefer to be simply debate-centric. It faces a chicken and egg problem; since most of their membership is policy folk, so is most of their board; it has 8 policy coaches, two of whom also coach LD, and one lone PF coach.  So we don’t see a lot of familiar faces there, and think it’s not for us.

However, we do share many issues and challenges.  The policy world is also concerned with accountability for college tournaments, dealing with travel expenses, needs room shares at tournament hotels, and so on.  They’d love to provide online evidence resources in LD to match their policy efforts.  And their voices on structural issues would be doubled if we were part of their group.  The NDCA powers that be, therefore, would love to see an active and vibrant LD presence among their membership ranks and the board itself.

Most importantly, the NDCA has demonstrated its ability to raise issues in exactly the way we need.  The NDCA elevated the discussion over last year’s Jan/Feb topic from aimless internet squabbling to a serious agenda item discussed by many tournament directors and the TOC LD committee.  The consensus emerged that the LD community didn’t like the Jan/Feb topic, but disliked a mid-season change even more; and so it was resolved by both the TOC and NDCA.  I thought that was a very healthy process, despite being disappointed at the outcome; at the end of it, everyone knew what the community consensus was, and why.  Folks were no longer passively ignoring the discussion; most were heavily engaged.  We need more of that.

I like LD a lot the way it is; I like that it differs year to year, and changes and moves up and down and left and right a lot.  I like that we don’t have conditionality theory and wildly implausible politics disads in every round. But I do think we could use an organization that caters to and focuses on us as coaches, in which our problems can be explored and either fixed or dismissed as non-issues.

So I encourage LD coaches to join the NDCA.  It’s just $30 a year.  If you’re feeling especially ambitious, there’s a Board election coming this fall, and the NDCA would seriously like at least one strong LD voice to be on the board.  If not enough of us join, that can’t happen.

(No, I’m not running.  But you should!)

The other option could be to roll our own; it may be that we do need an LD centric organization and Policy needs its own.  However, I doubt that; and by far the easier step is to just slide into the structure they’ve already created.  It’s worth a try and a few bucks, I think.

Become a member: http://www.debatecoaches.org/page/become-a-member

Join the NDCA listserv:  http://lists.debatecoaches.org/listinfo.cgi/ndca-l-debatecoaches.org

Meanwhile, I’ve also been given the job as LD tournament director; last year I didn’t do as much as I could have, for sure; and a family issue kept me from the tournament itself.  But this year I want to double down and work hard to make it bigger and better than before.  Please feel free to let me know how at palmer at tabroom dot com.  We’ll be in Nashville this year, hosted by Montgomery Bell Academy.  Please come!