"Selected Personal History of the NDT"
George Ziegelmueller, Wayne State University
Excerpts from Article to appear in Argumentation and Advocacy, Reprinted with permission of the American Forensic Association

The National Debate Tournament began in 1947 as a small invitational event hosted by the United States Military Academy at West Point. The West Point tournament sought to bring together the best teams from each region of the country for an end of the season national competition. Twenty-nine colleges and universities participated in the first West Point tournament, but in subsequent years the number of participants increased to thirty-six. The thirty-six school limitation remained throughout the West Point years.

The West Point Debate Tournament was, from its beginning, a prestigious event, and invitations to it soon came to be widely sought. The rapid popularity of the tournament was due, in part, to its elitist nature and the national competition which it offered and, in part, to the stature of the sponsoring institution and its colorful and gracious style of hosting. Fifty years ago, competition at most tournaments was limited to teams from the immediate geographic areas, and the most successful teams from different regions of the country were eager to test their skills against championship teams from other sections. Teams from the South and West tended to be more persuasive in their style and orientation than were those from the East and Midwest. Judging standards were less standardized than today, and theoretical interpretations more diverse. A national tournament thus provided the opportunity to explore and test many of these differences, and participation in a selective championship event enhanced the prestige of the invited schools. In addition to the appeal of championship national competition, the West Point tournament offered participants an opportunity to experience an inside view of the nation's top military academy and to benefit from much of the pomp and formality surrounding it. Male students and coaches ate at the cadets' mess, and female coaches and students dined at the Officers' Club. A cadet was assigned to escort each team. Pairings for the tournament were announced orally and then posted on a big board at the front of the assembly hall. Banners for each school were hung around the assembly hall, and as the pairings were announced, the competing teams and judges met under the affirmative schools' banners to be escorted to the debate rooms. A serving table in the assembly hall offered a variety of refreshments throughout the day. At the end of the preliminary rounds of debate, a formal awards banquet was held. The Academy's top brass attended these events, and both cadets and officers wore their dress uniforms. The West Point Glee Club provided entertainment for the occasion, and an orchestra provided dinner music throughout the banquet. The traditions established by the Academy and the extraordinary care that was put into hosting the tournament made simply attending the event a reward in itself.

Initially, teams invited to the tournament were selected informally and subjectively. Well-established coaches in each region were consulted regarding who to invite, and in general, their recommendations were accepted. After a few years, committees were set up within each section to oversee the selection of teams from their areas. Considerable autonomy was given to these distinct committees regarding the means used in selecting teams, but gradually district qualifying tournaments replaced committee selection as the standard process.

West Point always had complete control over the procedures used in administering the actual tournament. The format for the debates, the number of rounds, the number of judges, team pairings, and judging assignments were, all, decisions of the tournament staff. After a few years, a committee composed of the district chairs was established to advise the tournament director, but all decisions regarding the operation of the tournament, itself, remained in the hands of the West Point staff.

It was not until 1958, eleven years after its establishment, that I attended my first National Debate Tournament. Most of the teams competing that year carried their evidence in a single, long file box or small brief case. The topic for debate that year, was by present standards, a very specific one: "Resolved: That the requirement of membership in a labor organization as a condition of employment should be illegal." Although there was, over the years, some gradual increase in the amount of evidence used by debaters at the NDT, the rapid expansion in the quantity of evidence used largely coincided with the adoption of such broad topics as "Resolved: That the federal government should be given greater freedom in the investigation and prosecution of crime." The emphasis on large quantities of evidence has, of course, been further facilitated by the increased application and availability of such technologies as mimeographs, photocopying, and most recently, computer assisted searches.

The End of the West Point Era

The 1966 National Debate Tournament was an especially memorable one for me, personally, and for the debate community as a whole. The tournament was personally significant because it was the first time that a Wayne State University team advanced to the final round of the NDT. The circumstances surrounding my team's participation in the final round were unusual, however. On the morning of the first day of competition, one of my debaters called my room very early to tell me that she had spent much of the night in the bathroom and was much too ill to debate. When I notified the tournament staff, I was told Wayne State would have to forfeit its rounds of debate until either both debaters were well enough to participate or a substitute Wayne State debater could be provided. We forfeited rounds one and two. Round three was not scheduled until after the luncheon break, and by that time, I had arranged for a substitute debater to fly to West Point. He debated third round, and although rumors circulated that we had lost that debate, the team did, in fact, win. Round four was late in the afternoon, and the sick debater who was by that time feeling somewhat better came to the assembly room. Although she was weak and her stomach was still queasy, the tournament staff insisted that she -- rather than the substitute -- must debate or forfeit another round. She debated that round and all four rounds on the second day. The team went 6-2 in the preliminary competition, losing only the two forfeited rounds, and won all of their elimination rounds until the finals.

Meanwhile, on the first day of the tournament while I was busy trying to keep Wayne State in the competition, Colonel Lincoln, the West Point Tournament Director, met with the district chairs and advised them that at the tournament banquet he would announce the Military Academy's decision to discontinue hosting the NDT. He offered to free the committee members from their judging assignments so that future options could be considered.

Although I was not a district chair, I was, at that time, president of the American Forensic Association, and, in that capacity, I was asked to meet with the chairs. The committee wanted to explore with me the possibility of the AFA assuming the sponsorship of the National Debate Tournament. I told the committee I was not sure what the Association's membership's response to such a proposal would be, but I was willing to take the issue to them. Professors Herbert James of Dartmouth and Annabel Hagood of the University of Alabama and I asked for a meeting with the Superintendent of the Military Academy. Our purpose was twofold: to discover what kind of financial obligations were involved in hosting the tournament and to explore the possibility of West Point hosting the tournament for one more year to allow more time for future planning. A meeting was promptly arranged. The Superintendent explained that because of the United States' growing involvement in the war in Southeast Asia the number of men admitted to the Academy was scheduled to increase and that both space and money were in short supply. In a reappraisal of the mission of the Academy, the sponsorship of the NDT was not judged to be a high priority, although we were assured of West Point's continued desire to sponsor an active debate program. The Superintendent listened to our request to extend West Point's sponsorship of the NDT for one more year but he refused to approve such an extension.

Following the meeting with the Superintendent, the district chairs met again, and I was asked to serve as interim chair of a planning committee for the 1967 NDT. Throughout the remainder of the 1966 tournament, the members of the planning committee were in almost constant meetings, with only brief breaks between rounds of debate to coach our teams. A subcommittee was appointed to prepare an amendment to the AFA constitution calling for Association sponsorship of the National Debate Tournament. In addition, the subcommittee was charged with the responsibility of drawing up a Charter which would establish an organizational framework for the NDT. Other subcommittees were established to begin planning the details of the 1967 NDT -- a site had to be found, a budget prepared, funding arranged, and a tournament staff and director recruited. Because the American Forensic Association would not meet until the end of December, 1966, barely four months before the 1967 tournament, and because acceptance of NDT sponsorship by the AFA membership was not assured, the interim planning committee had to assume full responsibility for the 1967 NDT.

During the following months, I received many calls and letters from concerned colleagues expressing a variety of opinions regarding AFA sponsorship of the NDT. For myself, I neither believed that the National Debate Tournament was the source of all that was bad about debating nor that the loss of the tournament would be a major disaster. Whether or not the AFA chose to sponsor the NDT, it did not seem likely that the debate community would go for very long without some kind of national championship competition.

When I arranged the agenda for American Forensic Association meetings that December, I set aside an entire evening for the discussion of AFA sponsorship of the NDT. No other item of business was on that evening's agenda. The meeting was one of the best attended in AFA history. The room was filled to overflowing. The circumstances precipitating the amendment were explained and the proposed amendment was read. A motion to adopt the amendment was made and seconded, and the floor was opened for discussion. No one raised his/her hand. Everyone stood silently by. I knew there were strong advocates for the amendment and harsh critics of it present in the room. I urged people to speak, reminding them of the importance of the issue and of the several hours available for debate. Incredibly, not a single debate coach or communication teacher spoke up. After several more moments of silence, someone called for the question. The motion passed unanimously, but with many abstentions.

The Transition Years

The 1967 tournament was the first NDT held after the West Point. It was hosted by the University of Chicago and ran very smoothly (and for a second time, a Wayne State team advanced to the final round and lost). However, the 1968 tournament, which was the first one fully planned and sponsored by the American Forensic Association, went less smoothly. The tournament was hosted by Brooklyn College. Although the largest and best motel in Brooklyn had been selected as the tournament headquarters, the facility proved to be only marginally adequate. On the evening before the tournament, when some of the debaters and coaches returned to their room from dinner, they found their belongings in the hall and the doors to their rooms bolted. They went to the hotel manager to protest but were told that they had been given the rooms by mistake and that nothing else was available. Since my term as AFA President had not yet expired, the displaced debaters and coaches came to me for assistance. Professor Larry Tribe of the Harvard Law School was, at that time, the coach of the Harvard Debate Team, and I asked him to join me for a meeting with the motel manager. I introduced Professor Tribe as the legal representative of the American Forensic Association, and the previously belligerent manager quickly became more cooperative. The manager indicated that he needed some rooms so that the women who worked the bar could "service" their customers. After some negotiations he finally agreed to return all but two rooms to the locked out tournament participants, and we were able to have the occupants of those rooms double up with other tournament participants. While later NDT's avoided such disruptive beginnings, controversy over the nature and purpose of the NDT began to emerge among the membership of the American Forensic Association.

(for the rest of the story read George Ziegemueller's forthcoming article in Argumentation and Advocacy)