The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect official positions of Premier Debate.
“We will not accept independent entries.” Those words are written across many tournament info pages in the national circuit. To name a few: Apple Valley, Glenbrooks, Greenhill, and St Marks. This article invites tournament directors to explain why the plight of independent debaters have been largely ignored. The first section will explain away the common concerns of tournament directors including a process that would allow independent debaters to compete without substantial liability problems. The second section will demonstrate why status quo norms on independents are exclusionary and elitist.
“But tournaments face liability issues”
Most tournament directors do not want independents competing because of liability fears. My solution is twofold. First, require that independent entries travel with parents or a chaperone approved in writing and sent to tournament directors well in advance of the tournament. Second, require that independent entries send a signed liability waiver to the tournament director that acknowledges risks and removes legal liability from the tournament and host institution. This creates two separate layers of protection for schools: an adult who is liable and a waiver so the tournament is never liable.
“But debate will be run by private companies”
Some have worried that debate will become overrun by private club programs as debaters increasingly elect not to debate for their school. This slippery slope argument is unjustified because most independent entries debate independent because they have no choice, not because they want to be a part of some club team. These debaters attend public schools that support debate very minimally if at all. Many schools face budget cuts (like my district) and lack the luxury of a debate coaching staff. Lastly, what is the impact? Debate is already privatized because of the private schooling system. Private schools have the resources to devote thousands of dollars to a debate program, whereas public school debate programs often struggle to exist in the first place.
“But the TOC doesn’t accept independent bids”
First, debate is not just about qualifying to the Tournament of Champions. Even if it’s a priority for your team, it’s not for the vast majority of debaters. Second, the TOC does accept independent entries. The only restriction is these students must be on good terms with their school administration – the TOC is not going to override a school’s decision to prevent a student from competing. Recently, a student from Stuyvesant was not allowed to compete because his principal did not approve of it. In the same year, a student from Torrey Pines attended the TOC as an independent entry with approval from his school.
“But it’s a hassle for me”
A kid is willing to arrange a trip himself, a parent is willing to chaperone, and the family pays thousands of dollars in travel fees and it’s too much of a hassle for you? Presumably, if coaches devote their careers to debate then they should agree that it’s an inherently educational and beneficial activity. Yes, accommodating independent entries will require some effort, but considering the amount of effort independent students give to be able to compete, they should be met with openness, not exclusion. These students love debate so much they’ll go to great lengths to attend a tournament. It’s appalling to deny this opportunity. Are you, tournament directors, only educators for the students who go to elite private schools?
Residues of Privilege
Ironically, many schools that exclude independents have their students read kritikal positions about privilege. One of the most obvious manifestations of privilege is that independents are excluded from debate by people who are hired by wealthy private schools. Many public schools simply do not support debate with the same resources with which private schools do. Public schools cannot put up full time salaries for debate coaches, so having a school-approved chaperone is usually not an option. The best coaches often end up at the programs where they can earn the most money. This is understandable, but it creates an impossible problem.
To compete, you need a school-approved chaperon who can travel across the country throughout the year. For that, you need the money not only to hire said coach but also to outbid wealthier schools to retain that coach. This scenario is one that every independent debater faces.
So I urge tournament directors to explain why smaller, underprivileged programs should be excluded from the activity. Why are these problems so difficult they can’t be overcome by waivers and proper procedures? Why should some get the opportunity to debate and not others? Why do you maintain the elitism of circuit debate?