[eDebate] Finally some decent press

Joe Koehle joe_koehle
Sat Aug 16 07:41:18 CDT 2008

By Jamie Gumbrecht
	The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
	Saturday, August 16, 2008






YouTube video of two college debate coaches in a screaming argument
exploded in popularity this week, shoving aside outsiders? notions of
civilized policy debate in a matter of eight minutes and 55 seconds.		
The fight was old news and hardly a big deal to the debate
community, made up of top-notch students and dedicated coaches who
spend months and years preparing lengthy arguments about Supreme Court
rulings and foreign policy. In a competition of smart, passionate
people, such an argument was unusual, but not unexpected.


It was the outside world that was shocked by what the video showed:
Fort Hays State University coach William Shanahan and University of
Pittsburgh coach Shanara Reid-Brinkley screaming obscenities and
pointing fingers. Shanahan drops his loose khaki shorts. A debater
sobbing and others pushing the professors apart. Shanahan, in bare feet
and a ponytail, railing: ?Sometimes people care so much that it bubbles
over. I?m not ashamed of my behavior.? 		
Michael Hester was at that March debate competition. In the video,
he?s the red-headed judge who laughs as the fight begins. He?s the
director of debate at University of West Georgia and judged the
two-hour match that Shanahan?s team lost to Towson University.		
Even among friendly teams, Hester says, the tension can lead to
fights. There are fewer than when he started debating in 1989, and
they?re usually less dramatic than Shanahan and Reid-Brinkley?s, but he
wasn?t surprised. And since the argument was personal, not directed at
students, judges or other spectators, he wasn?t worried. People who
tried to break up the fight didn?t know the ?hotheads? well enough to
see that they were venting, Hester says.		
?It?s like if there was a conflict at the family reunion, Aunt Jane
would say, ?Y?all stop, we?re supposed to love each other,? and others
would say, ?It?s because we?re family, we can fight,? ? Hester says.		
But by Friday afternoon, the video had more than 160,000 views and a
YouTube rating of four-and-a-half stars out of five. It spawned
hundreds of bitter, divisive online comments, spread misinformation and
details without context and spurred reaction far outside the debate
Intensely competitive		
The incident is under investigation by universities. Shanahan and
Reid-Brinkely did not return calls or e-mails to their offices, but
other debaters and coaches defended them and debate competition:
Tension can lead to outbursts, but it doesn?t usually look like the
professors? ballroom scrap.		
Consider the activity: It?s intensely competitive, more sport than extracurricular, and it?s based on arguing.		
During the eight-month competition season, debaters travel almost
every weekend. About 200 colleges and universities have competitive
teams that spend an entire year researching millions of pages on the
same topic. In competition, they speak fast, sometimes 300 words a
minute, to form the most thorough, persuasive argument, or to tear down
the evidence of another team, often made of longtime friends from
another school. A debate takes about two hours, and judging can take
one hour; all the time, anticipation builds, and sometimes it?s not
?It?s just a game,? says Aimi Hamraie, who won the National Debate
Tournament while at Emory in 2007. ?Most of the things we debate about
are not things we?ve really made up our minds about. Most people don?t
make it very personal.?		
?People love to overreact?		
The infamous YouTube video is like a fan fight at a baseball game,
debaters say; it?s an occasional row that gets a lot of attention, but
doesn?t represent the entire sport. It?s also proof that even
hyper-educated, savvy people with a talent for debate can get caught up
in emotion.		
?The best arguments they could make were one person using an
expletive, the other showing their butt,? Hester says. ?This was an
argument in the schoolyard sense.?		
The public reaction unsettles the relatively small community of
debate competitors and alumni; they know each other, and call the
feuding professors by their first names, Bill and Shanara. Within the
community, the behavior seems juvenile, but there?s no talk of forcing
the professors out of their jobs.		
?It says something unfortunate about our culture. People love to
overreact, and then it?s 10 minutes later,? says Kevin Rabinowitz, a
former University of Georgia debater and a 2006-07 winner of one of its
highest honors, the Copeland Award. ?People get their kicks, then it?s
on to the next story.?		
Melissa Wade, the director of forensics at Emory, says the video and the reaction to it offer a chance for self-reflection.		
?You watch them grow and make mistakes and be overly invested in an
argument and realize it?s short-sighted,? she said. ?It?s more than
competition. There is a passion there that is profound.?		
Passion that sometimes bubbles over.		
Among about 200 competitive collegiate debate programs, some of the
strongest come from Emory, Georgia, West Georgia and Georgia State
universities, says Melissa Wade, Emory?s director of forensics and a
director of the National Debate Project. 		
After months of research on a single topic (this year?s involves
agricultural policy), the teams travel to tournaments where they can be
asked to argue for or against an issue.		
The research is exhaustive. Undergraduates must often cite eight to
10 sources for a paper. A debate team just starting its research will
have 3,000 to 5,000 sources. (?Professors really enjoy debaters,? Wade
Using research, delivery and the rules of the game, they try to persuade a panel of judges to agree with their arguments.		
It?s nothing like the uptight debate of history classes, or even the
presidential debates, says Aimi Hamraie, who had a full debate
scholarship at Emory and won the National Debate Tournament with her
partner in 2007.		
Upcoming presidential debates will likely see each side build itself
up, then tear the other down by appealing to emotion and ideology.
?Pretty funny,? Hamraie calls them.		


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