The National Debate Tournament: W(h)ither the NDT?

by Donn W. Parson, University of Kansas

Reprinted with permission from the Summer 1996 Arguentation and Advocacy

The success of the seer Nostradamus seems in large part a product of his skillful use of ambiguity. Unlike the End-of-the-World visionaries who specified the date and even time of Armageddon, only to revise the details to disappointed followers the "day after," Nostradamus' predictions contained sufficient situational ambiguity to avoid being clearly disproved. Describing the National Debate Tournament of 2046 or even predicting its changes en route will require all the visionary ambiguity the language can provide.

One way of predicting the future is rediscovering patterns of the past. If the curse of ignoring history is having to relive it, perhaps examining the history of the NDT may reveal ways in which reliving history can be more productive or even enjoyable. Hence a vision of the future might well begin with an examination of our past.

The past five decades of the National Debate Tournament have been ones of permanence and change (Parson, 1995). With two major exceptions, the aspects of permanence seem to dominate the tradition of the NDT. Among the permanent aspects are fifty years of policy topics, and a format that has varied only slightly over the years, first to include cross examination in the format, and then to adjust the constructive speeches and rebuttals by one minute. The tournament has varied in size, from a low of 32 teams to a high of 78 teams. Current procedures have provided tournaments ranging from 72 to 78 teams.

The methods of team selection have varied over the years. Initially all teams were chosen through geographic regions; later ten then sixteen first round at-large teams were selected before district teams competed for bids. More recently, up to sixteen second round at-large teams have been chosen after district selection, and up to six of these teams could be third teams from a participating school.

Thus there have been changes, but most changes have been minor or cosmetic in nature. Two major events, however, have changed the tournament in substantial ways. The first of these was the departure from West Point. When West Point Commandant William Westmoreland informed George Ziegelmueller, then President of the American Forensic Association that the Academy would no longer host the tournament, the NDT began a pilgrimage across the nation with a different host each year, and with a National Tournament Committee in charge of the tournament and its selection process. The NDT Committee also picked a tournament director, and in the 30 years since leaving West Point the tournament has had ten directors.

A second major change affecting the National Debate Tournament was the development of a second national tournament, one representing the Cross Exam Debate Association (CEDA). Until 1996-7 the two tournaments chose different topics, and programs generally engaged in only one type of debate, although a few schools had programs in both areas. Occasionally NDT debaters would enter the CEDA National Tournament, but given qualifying procedures, CEDA debaters did not enter the NDT, since debaters needed a whole season of participation on the NDT topic to qualify for its tournament. The debate world was split: the resulting dialectic has had its share of unpleasantness, much of it unnecessary.

W(h)ither the NDT?

The NDT has maintained a core of 80-100 subscribing schools. More realistically, 40-50 schools have sent teams to the NDT during the past five years. As the number of subscribing schools decreases, there is increasing pressure to increase the number of teams from each school. Some invitational tournaments have handled as many as 8-12 teams from an individual school. One argument is that any team meeting NDT qualifications (such as a win-loss record, or ranking by the NDT Committee) should be able to attend, regardless of the school represented. In this way, the NDT would resemble many of the current invitational tournaments.

An extension of this position is the "open" NDT with the possible limitation of teams from any single school (such as three or four). This would change the tournament in major ways, and probably decrease the number of judges per round to two and possibly one. The number of teams invited might well have an effect on the number of schools willing to host the tournament.

One can find among NDT coaches two quite different positions on the size of the tournament. One group would move toward the more "open" NDT with possible limitations on the size of the tournament. Another group would move in the opposite direction, and reduce the size of the NDT, possibly to a maximum of 36-48 teams. These coaches would make the qualification process more rigorous, with result that the very strongest teams would qualify. The current practice of including sixteen first round teams, 46 teams through the district process and up to sixteen second round at-large teams seems to steer a middle course between these two positions.

One of the major questions to be answered is the effect of having both CEDA and NDT debating the same topic area, or debating variations of the same topic. Thus the 1996-7 year will provide an interesting test of its possibilities. Debaters will thus be able to debate in both CEDA and NDT divisions. In addition to providing debaters with broader debate experiences, programs will have greater variety of tournament choices, and programs stretched to the economic breaking point may breathe a bit easier. If students debate one topic area in both divisions of debate, then perhaps students can qualify for both the CEDA National Tournament and the NDT. Such an eventuality has ramifications on the possible size and function of both tournaments.

An implication of this suggestion is the presence of two national tournaments, one "open" to all teams which qualify and a second limited to a smaller number of teams. Within this framework, the "open" tournament might be prior to the second tournament, with qualifiers from the first tournament receiving bids to the second tournament (perhaps all quarterfinalists, or qualifiers). Such a scenario is only possible as coaches representing CEDA and those representing NDT resolve outstanding differences and work together on both tournaments. As choice is extended to students, the quality of their forensic experience would increase. To see this scenario enacted would require a continuing dialogue between representatives of both organizations, but it is not difficult to visualize it in operation in the early part of the twenty-first century.

If the NDT has had ten directors in the past 30 years, it has had 27 hosts. Only Jack Rhodes who has hosted three NDTs and Chester Gibson with two NDTs had hosted more than once. The reason is not difficult to fathom. In addition to the time and effort demanded of the debate director and staff, the cost to the school may reach $25,000 and beyond. One dean, familiar to the author, encouraged his school to host the NDT: "It will be a fine way to use your debate budget this year." As costs have escalated, tournament fees have skyrocketed, from about $75 a team in 1976 to $275 in 1996. As a percentage of the typical debate budget, the NDT has increased disproportionately, and most schools need additional funds to attend the NDT. The NDT may not find sufficient schools able and willing to expend large sums to host in the future.

One potential answer to the cost problem has prompted NDT Board of Trustees Chair Lee Polk to initiate and endowment program involving former NDT debaters, coaches and institutional members. An NDT that is not underwritten by its own endowment in the next century will need to be a "stripped down" tournament indeed.

The computer age has altered both tournaments and debaters' methods of research and preparation. The NDT currently uses TAB ROOM ON THE MAC, a program created by Rich Edwards of Baylor to administer the tournament. Invitational tournaments use versions of the same program. Schools now set up LEXIS and NEXUS connections for quick evidence search during tournaments; no longer does a closed library on Sunday deter debaters. Most of these changes have occurred during the last decade. Yet the use of computers in debate may still be in a period of infancy.

What will be the use of computers fifty years hence? One can envision a screen on which the debater displays supporting evidence at the touch of a computer button? Perhaps the computer will enable competition without travel a sort of "briefing" system similar to moot law courts. Perhaps oral advocacy will no longer be practiced in debate. Perhaps the 2046 NDT can be conducted over the computer. But then in early 2047 a coach named Northworth will suggest we scrap the whole system and invite a very few teams to meet each other face-to-face and have a single competent judge render a decision based on the arguments heard. It will seem revolutionary, but worth a try. Or perhaps not.


Parson. D. (1995). The National Debate Tournament at fifty: Five decades of permanence and change. In S. Jackson (Ed.), Argumentation and Values: Proceedings from the 9th SCA/AFA Conference on Argumentation. Annandale, VA: Speech Communication Association.