[eDebate] Finally some decent press

Zompetti, Joseph jpzompe
Sat Aug 16 11:11:15 CDT 2008

How is this positive?  Hester says that tension, "even among friendly teams" can lead to fights.  This sounds like the behavior found on the YouTube video is not only not uncommon, but expected.
That doesn't seem to help the situation.
Hester -- stop doing interviews if you're going to make comments like this.


From: edebate-bounces at www.ndtceda.com on behalf of Joe Koehle
Sent: Sat 8/16/2008 7:41 AM
To: edebate at ndtceda.com
Subject: [eDebate] Finally some decent press

By Jamie Gumbrecht <mailto:jgumbrecht at ajc.com> 

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Saturday, August 16, 2008

A 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 community.

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 pretty.

"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 says.)

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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