The Full Story (including the Triples and forfeit controversies) of NPDA Nationals

The views expressed in this post are held by me, David McNeil. If you have any questions, concerns, or comments on what is said here, I would be more than happy to hear them and engage in a dialogue. Please do not hesitate to email me at mcneil[dot]david[dot]


Western Washington University was an absolutely beautiful location for the NPDA Championship–forests of massive pines surrounding the academic buildings, and an incredible view of the bay from the campus’s West side. Unfortunately, from the perspective of just about every party involved in the controversy that ended up developing, our team’s exit from the tournament was much less charming than the scenery.


As those of you who have been following our updates on the tournament will know, Cal and Justin (Carleton EM) ended up going 4-4 after a very close bubble round loss. Graham and David (Carleton MT) went 5-3. We definitely had some luck along the way–getting the bye round 1, and winning two close prelims in rounds 6 and 8–but regardless, we made it to out-rounds. It was here that the trouble began.

The tournament broke to triple-octafinals, with the top six seeds advancing to doubles without debating (so, 58 teams were 5-3 or better after prelims and thus cleared). Carleton MT hit University of Puget Sound (UPS) GW, a team ranked very highly in the country in terms of NPTE points, and who earned 5th place at the NPTE tournament itself this season. We were government/ affirmative in a debate with the resolution “The United States federal government should enact the Anti-Excessive Speculation Act of 2011 into law.”

Controversy Part I

We knew that we didn’t have much of a chance going into the round. The panel was two judges who had been around the West coast Parli community for a number of years. The third judge was Anantanand Rambachan, a liberal arts college professor in Minnesota who has taught religion, philosophy, and Asian studies for over 25 years (I’m borrowing from his paradigm to give this information). His son, Akshar, is a senior at St. Olaf, and suffice it to say that while Professor Rambachan is certainly an extremely capable coach and critic who has been involved with the activity for many years, his preferred style of debate departs significantly from the norm for Parli tournaments on the West Coast of the NPDA circuit.

You can probably see where this is headed. We debated the round and though we weren’t great, we did our best. I’m not sure I can say the same for our opponents from UPS. They were laughing and silently joking with other UPS students in the room for most of the debate in a way that strongly connoted mockery. They spoke much more slowly than I’m sure they usually would, and whether they weren’t taking the round seriously or were just trying to adapt, their decision to debate the round this way ended up being a damning one.

The round ended, and one of the circuit Parli judges signed his ballot rather quickly. Professor Rambachan decided next, after about 10 minutes, but left the debate room with his ballot in hand. No one is quite sure what the reason was for this, but we do know that the St Olaf team had to leave (to catch a flight?), and my assumption is that he simply didn’t know any better than to leave and turn his ballot in to the tab room. I’m not sure if he’d judged a round before on the West Coast Parli circuit. He probably just wasn’t familiar with the convention to wait and disclose his decision along with the other two critics.

The third judge took about 20 minutes to make his decision (especially nerve-wracking because, based on our experience at the tournament, most decisions take about 90 seconds). Of course, when he finally decided, it turned out that he and the other experienced Parli critic had split their ballots, meaning that Professor Rambachan’s ballot was the deciding vote. But he was nowhere to be found. One of the other critics ran down to the tab room to find out how he had voted, and… he had voted for us, the government team.

Team UPS was not pleased. The woman on UPS GW left immediately, storming out of the room and muttering “oh my god” as she left. Most of team UPS, who had come into the room to hear the decision, followed. One UPS coach and the male half of the UPS GW team stayed through the two RFD’s from the judges who were present, and after those RFD’s had finished, I pulled him aside for a brief word. Essentially, I just tried to convey that Graham and I knew how it felt to be seemingly screwed over by an unfriendly judging situation against a random, unheard of, outsider opponent, and that for what it was worth, we were sorry to be ending their season in such an unexpected (and, from their perspective, illegitimate) fashion.

The guy on the UPS team and his coach who had remained were fairly nice about this, saying they obviously didn’t hold it against us personally. From their perspective, NPTE was understandably a much more important tournament anyway, and NPDA was kind of a crap shoot (the remaining UPS coach invoked the sewer escape scene from The Shawshank Redemption as an analogy to describe his view on the struggles of teams progressing through the many sewage-y pitfalls of NPDA Nationals. His analogy and opinion about the tournament, not ours).

Controversy Part II

So, already feeling a bit weird about the situation, Graham and I went on our way back to our prep room, and waited for the double-octafinal pairings to be released. We knew that we wouldn’t be able to debate in octas if we won in doubles, since octas were to be held the next morning and our flight demanded that we leave Bellingham to get to Seattle before octas would be over. After discussing this situation with Peter and his friend and former colleague, Joey, we decided that the best thing to do was notify the tournament directors of our situation before doubles started. We had no money left to pay a fine and didn’t want to incur some such penalty or anger.

This was the earliest point at which we realized that our departure time might actually be an issue–obviously, we were not expecting to break any teams, let alone have a shot at winning one or even two out-rounds. But here we were, in doubles, set to debate a team against whom we had a real shot at winning (College of Idaho CG). So, under Peter and Joey’s advisement, we communicated our situation to Joe Gantt.

Mr. Gantt was, to put it mildly, angry. In a phone conversation with Justin, who spoke to Mr. Gantt on behalf of our team, he made it clear that he felt this kind of action was wildly “disrespectful” of the tournament, and “completely unheard of and unprecedented” in debate. Evidently, he was unaware of the fact that we had come to NPDA Nationals not with the intent of personally inconveniencing him or disrespecting anyone’s sacred honor, but with the hopes of competing against and learning from competitors that we knew, on average, would be much better than us. I guess he also was unaware of the fact that Carleton is exactly the kind of small, limited budget program that the NPDA speaks of trying to include in the activity–a goal which seems to run opposite to the action of yelling at us with personal attacks on our program. (I guess Mr. Gantt also didn’t know, or chose to ignore, that this situation is not unheard of at all–teams having to leave to catch flights and forfeiting elimination rounds because of this is something that happens all the time in high school LD and Policy, for instance. And I’ll bet you that ten times out of ten, those teams don’t leave because they don’t want to compete, but rather because of financial or academic constraints.)

In any case, Mr. Gantt made the decision to forfeit Carleton MT from the tournament effective immediately. We were not allowed to debate in doubles, and our opponents were given the free pass to Octafinals. Needless to say, this turn of events also angered team UPS, whose coach demanded to know how we could possibly have ended the careers of his top debaters in such a callous way, not even sticking around to debate. We tried to explain our budget constraints and how we had handled the situation to the best of our ability (and while the UPS coach said he did not hold a grudge against us, he was still resentful of the situation).

Concluding Thoughts

So, we left the tournament on a note that was pretty bitter. We went out winners, but had seemingly incurred the wrath of all the important powers that be in the Parli community. A few coaches and debaters that we talked to expressed understanding for our situation, but it was hard not to feel like the pariah.

What stung most of all was that it seemed like no one stopped to think about how much this sucked from our perspective. This tournament was our one shot at competing with some of the best teams in the country in the most legitimate circuit setting that we had resources to access. When we finally got our chance to prove ourselves, we were mocked and yelled at.

Maybe we should have communicated our travel situation from the get-go. But we came to Nationals to compete and get experience and learn, and it’s not our fault that a judge decided to not give an oral RFD in a round against a team that didn’t take us seriously, or that Carleton barely even knows we exist and doesn’t give us the budget to travel to more than three tournaments (only one out-of-state) for the entire season. It was either do this travel arrangement, or not go to the tournament, and miss our one shot at justifying even the paltry funding the Carleton gives us right now (our funding was already cut 20% by the school for the 2011-2012 season). I’m not sure what’s so irresponsible about competing for as much of the tournament as we could, especially when we’re exactly the kind of coach-less, student-run, small program that the NPDA is apparently trying to include.

Moreover, the sense of entitlement that we encountered among a couple specific established debate programs was kind of sickening. I’m willing to wager just about anything that our team members have spent at least as many hours on debate as a whole in their lifetimes as any major squad from Washington, Oregon, or California. Sure, we’re outsiders to their circuit, and they’re much better than us at their game on your average day. But we have to compete to learn how their version of the activity works.

The bottom line is this: It’s hard enough not having funding, and having to fight that battle with our own institution. But when we’re derided by major players in the community and blocked from competing by the tournaments themselves on top of that, I don’t know how the NPDA expects to achieve their lofty goals of inclusivity in the activity and the community.

David McNeil

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6 Responses to The Full Story (including the Triples and forfeit controversies) of NPDA Nationals

  1. David McNeil says:

    Emily- I think it will have blown over. Part of it is that John-Henry is right, and it’s not like it’s us against the world. Plenty of teams and individuals, as it turns out, felt for us or simply didn’t really care either way. Part of it is also that we’ve had some really constructive dialogue with some tournamnents and coaches about how to avoid situations like this in the future (how to lobby for more funding from Carleton and get certain fees waived at tournaments, etc). So we’re looking to go to more tournaments and compete more next year, and I doubt if this will still be on anyone’s mind.

  2. David McNeil says:

    Thanks for the comment John-Henry. What you’re saying makes a lot of sense, and I think that especially in hindsight we’ve realized that it wasn’t the entire NPDA community reacting one way or another. That characterization was unfair on my part, and probably just the result of feeling alienated and kind of resentful about the whole situation. Now, especially having seen what people have posted on Net Benefits and having had some constructive dialogue with Kyle, the UPS coach, I see that my black-and-white portrayal of people’s feelings here is flawed in some respects.

    However, I still stand by the initial objections to behavior of the UPS team during the round (though the guy on the team, Will Gent I think was his name, was kind enough to stay and talk with us for a few minutes after the round was over). I also object to how Glenn yelled at us for something that was out of our control (our budget constraints) and could have been resolved much more easily and peacefully without all the animosity on his part.

    I guess my point is that while you’re right, John-Henry, that we knew what we were getting into when we went to the tournament because of our previous experience with high-stakes debate competitions, this was the first time we’d been in a setting like that doing NDPA Parli specifically (as opposed to high school LD) — so we didn’t know that there would be so much emotion and drama among certain people’s reactions at the tournament. Honestly, my experience with LD in high school was that yes tournament directors would be stressed and yes debaters could get very upset if they lost a round in an unorthodox way– but the vast majority of the time, everyone was pretty mature about it (even in the face of career-ending defeats). So, we’re very much still breaking into and trying to understand how the NPDA community works, and some of those norms aren’t familiar to us yet.

  3. carldebate says:

    Addendum: The tournament official with whom our team spoke before double-octafinals was Glenn Prince and NOT Joe Gantt. I apologize for the mistake.

  4. John-Henry Heckendorn says:

    I just saw this posting and had some thoughts I wanted to share, sorry if at this point you’re over the whole thing.

    As a debater from the “west coast” circuit, I have a pretty different perspective on the situation. Broadly, I sympathize a lot with your story, though I feel like you may not have a perfect understanding of how the community as a whole perceived the circumstances.

    It is sadly though I feel understandably common for drama to break out at nationals. When teams who pour their lives into debate end their careers on a weird note, there is a significant impetus to try and restore control over the situation. You point out that it was not logical or reasonable for NPDA to react towards you guys in the way that it did. I guess I’d say that “NPDA” as a community did not react and arguably does not ever react as a cohesive entity. Instead, a highly stressed and overworked tournament director, plus the team you beat, reacted in a negative way. While I agree their reactions were not entirely logical or reasonable, I also think its understandable that people react on the basis of emotion and nerves at the end of a highly exhausting day during a highly exhausting week. While I really understand that as an outsider you were susceptible to feeling alienated and targeted, but I don’t think its callous to point out that after the dust has settled, you perhaps should be less surprised by what transpired.You are a debater, you compete in an extremely subjective activity with people who are strongly predisposed to express themselves aggressively and vehemently.; in a sense, you knew what you were getting yourself into.

    It seems like you feel like it was you against the community. I’d suggest that feeling probably stemmed in large part from the fact that, as you point out, Carleton debate does not have a lot of connections to the broader NPDA community. Had you the opportunity to stay at the hotel instead of leaving, you would have heard a lot of people expressing sympathy for you guys, and acknowledging although the situation sucked, it wasn’t your fault. I personally think it absolutely makes sense that you guys planned NPDA as you did, especially as a student program with a tiny budget, and I think you should be proud of legitimately taking down Gent Webb. But if during my career I had reacted every time I pissed some people off and/or got told off by tournament facilitators, I would have a pretty saturated set of blog posts,

    As an outsider I can see why it would be hard for you to put yourself in the shoes of the people you encountered, but I think you are placing a lot of sentiments on the NPDA community that don’t actually exist. I debated you, I thought you guys were very smart and had a lot of potential, and I encourage you not to let one tough experience induce you to abandon the community and pull back within a self righteous shell.

    Sorry, I was pretty tired when I wrote this, my thoughts may not be as clear or organized as I’d like, but I felt like this was an important clarification to make. I’d love to hear what you think, that is, if you still have any investment in this situation.


  5. Emily! says:

    OK I’m coming to this post about a month late (a fascinating, if disheartening read). But one question burns in my mind. How is this going to affect Carleton’s relationship with NPDA in the coming years? Is this going to have any lasting effects, or will the heated emotions have all blown over by next year?

  6. carldebate says:

    One other thing that I want to address: there has been a baseless accusation made on the net-benefits forum that our team departed from the tournament with Mr. Rambachan. This is completely and utterly false. At no point did anyone on our team talk to or travel with him. I don’t think anyone on our squad has even spoken to Mr. Rambachan, ever in our lives. What’s more, we actually tried to strike him before the tournament but because of a mix-up in the strike system (which was our fault—we filled out the form incorrectly), that strike was not honored.


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