It was a meme in high school, but I really think that Speech and Debate should be considered a sport. We probably go through about 10,000 gallons of gatorade hydrating after spitting straight fire in a round, lift 10,000 lbs of luggage flying and busing across the country, and read 10,000 pages worth of film/prep before every single tournament. It comes with all the perks of athletes: the exhilaration of finally breaking, the awesome after parties, and holding up the 1st place trophy like a real champ. But like the great athlete Lebron James once said, “People will hate you, rate you, shake you, and break you. But how strong you stand is what makes you.”
It isn’t all roses in this seemingly idealistic activity with educated young minds engaging in civil discourse over nuanced topics. Through 200+ rounds of debate and watching my teammates over 4 years, I can suitably say that Speech and Debate will test you to the limit. Forget 5 hour late night prep sessions everyday for weeks before a national tournament only to not break by one speaker point or by having the judge vote for the wrong team. Forget arguments with teammates, oftentimes close friends, which result in breakups, hurt feelings, and resentment that sometimes lasts for months. Forget being called “a stuttering bum” by your coach and crying your eyes out after a practice round. This is nothing, merely the preparation, the bulking, training, and strengthening you need for when you actually hit the hardwood in a real game.
We wake up at 6 am, eat a healthy meal of energy drinks and cheerios, and begin to run the marathon that is a Speech and Debate tournament. You learn how to navigate the political landscape: which prep groups to “be in” on, which teams and schools are your “enemies”, and which judges are undesirable. It gets toxic: teams accusing each other of cheating and evidence violations, trash talking between the victors and losers of a round, and backhanded compliments that somehow tear you down even more. In such an environment, one can’t help but be physically and mentally exhausted.
But in spite of all this, I will tell everyone this: DO SPEECH AND DEBATE. Looking past the implied strengths of becoming a great communicator, having public confidence, and developing analytical skills, you find an activity where you can meet some of the greatest people on earth. Find yourself a debate gang that will gas you up before tournaments, the SATs, and asking out a girl. A group who will stick with you through the toughest rounds and come with 3 am coffee to keep you awake. A group that will talk about the topic for 1 hour, debate Kant and Marx for another two, and play basketball (badly) for the last hour. My best friends from high school have all do debate, have done debate, or have crossed a debater badly enough to know how powerful Speech and Debate really can be.
And in the midst of the hectic game, you see some beautiful moments of sportsmanship. You’ll see teams concede an octos round at the TOC to engage in true discourse on structural violence and a team throw a round and hug their opponents who had just lost a close friend. People have the guts to call out fault when they see it, not bluntly fighting it with fists, but with their words. I watched a novice teammate confront a nationally-ranked senior debater head-on for running an argument that promoted rape culture.
This was my last season and I am officially retiring from the game. I wasn’t anything special, not a TOC, NSDA champ, or Olympic gold medalist and certainly not nearly as good as any of my other friends. But I don’t regret anything, not one moment. I don’t regret getting knocked out of an important tournament because my entire team sang and wished happy birthday to me right after. I don’t regret the lost hours of sleep (well kind of, but not too much), for they were spent having the deepest conversations of my life in a random motel room with my closest buddies. I am no Jordan, Ali, Phelps, or Bolt. My name is Ben and I am a skinny 5’9 guy who found not only my voice, but myself, through Speech and Debate.
From your wannabe NBA star,