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!

  • Cypher19

    Good article – a lot of (if not all) the problems raised and commented upon are very valid. However, I feel that there are alternatives to joining the NDCA that are much better.
    While I am by no means deeply associated with the inner circles of debate conversation, I feel that I know enough to formulate rational and reasonable ideas regarding the nature of the current problems haunting LD debate. (Read: if you want to flame me, go ahead, I’m not implying I have any degree of legitimacy whatsoever.)
    The main problem I see is that the NDCA is still being wagged by the tail of the NFL, to a certain degree. The NDCA has taken no decisive stances on any issues plaguing debate, and while they ARE primarily a CX organization, Policy debate has its own unresolved problems that the NDCA has sat idly by and watched play out. Simply having raised the discussion regarding the Jan/Feb topic is not reason enough to cling to their coattails, in my personal opinion.
    Do we really think that they’re going to solve time skew? That they’re going to implement comprehensive metatheory rules? (I’m not in favour of this, but it seems to be a problem many people have.) Do people believe that the NDCA is going to take a stance on topic selection? Of course not. The NDCA board is just as skewed and declawed as the topic selection committees for the NFL or other various organizations who decide how the game is played. Furthermore, I doubt the current members of the board would be willing to listen to the complaints of any LD coach who was elected, favouring to deal with CX issues instead. I feel the inclusion of an LD coach on the board would turn out to be a token addition. Additionally, there’s no doubt someone completely sterile and inoffensive would be chosen, since small coaches generally see no problem with the NFL and would choose to elect a moderate to the board.
    Beyond that, even if the NDCA was WILLING to deal with the LD problems and stand decisively against the NFL, what power do they have? They mandate no rules, no particular practices – the best they could do would be to boycott Nationals or something to that degree, and in all honesty, what would that do? The organization has no power whatsoever, and without that power, nothing will get done.
    Although Mr. Palmer does suggest forming an LD version of the NDCA as a potential alternative, the same problems would likely plague it, in addition to others. First, it would take years to get off the ground, and while LD is no ticking time bomb, by the time the LDNDCA had any power whatsoever, the current issues would be different, and the members elected to the board would be wholly out of touch. Next, with the inclusion of any coach into the organization, moderates would be elected to the board and, again, no change would occur. Lastly, the LDNDCA would likely have no power to control league practices, if it is anything like the NDCA.
    The solution, as I see it, is to completely break from the NFL and form a separate league. With such a radical solution and the completely new rules involved in the creation of a new league, any reform issues could be solved swiftly and easily. While this hypothetical league would obviously have to submit to the TOC’s topic, other tournaments could exclusively run topics selected by the new league’s board. At the risk of sounding like a fascist, by including only national circuit coaches, we could ensure that the most pressing problems facing LD are dealt with, rather than more inaction and backwoodsian insanity of North Korean-style NFL worship.
    While it is true that it could take a new league a while to get off the ground, immediate endorsement by notable coaches and by notable camps (hint hint) would speed up this process, and with a completely new league, not much time is necessary before it becomes effective – simply join the league and use its topics if you like, or choose not to join the league.
    My ideas are vague for a reason – the idea of a new league is a very radical one and we should not be relying on specifics right away to push us forward. And, again, I don’t claim to have any fraction of legitimacy, so tear me apart if you wish. I simply feel that creating something completely new is the only way to effectively deal with the problems currently facing LD.
    Again, thanks to Mr. Palmer for his great article. I feel that the NDCA certainly has its merits, but that there are better solutions available.

    • I dunno, founding a whole league is a lot more central control than the LD circuit is used to, and may be counterproductive in the other direction. I don’t think the NFL holds much sway in circuit LD either through the NDCA or otherwise really; they set the topics, but that’s about all. They put forth a set of rules which our circuit promptly ignored. I don’t think they’re that much of a shadowy presence either benign or malignant; and I’m pretty sure an alternate formal league would be subject to the same problems.

      Plus, even if there were room and ambition for setting up a whole new league, that’s a lot of effort and overhead to sustain for something of limited value. What I’m more after is a forum, not control; a place where we can together act on issues that are some of them a decade old.