KU hosts and competes in National Debate Tournament

The University of Kansas debate team poses for a picture in early 2017.
The University of Kansas debate team poses for a picture in early 2017.

Voices rose and fell with rapid cadence in classrooms as students strived to speak as much information as they could under time limits.

In secluded rooms, judges determined which team had made a stronger argument.

And behind-the-scenes, teammates studied competitors’ tactics, organized research and helped prepare counterpoints for competitive team members.

It was Friday morning and preliminary rounds had just started in the National Debate Tournament. It was going to be a long weekend.

While the University of Kansas basketball team competed in the NCAA tournament this week, KU hosted more than 70 teams from across the country for the 71st National Debate Tournament. The four-day tournament, held at KU’s Edwards Campus in Overland Park, has never before been hosted in Kansas City.

“It’s a bunch of teams talking really fast and all of them are right,” said Benton Bajorek, a 23-year-old assistant debate coach for KU and former competitor for Arkansas State.

KU’s debate team is hardly a new player in the oldest collegiate policy debate tournament in the country. The university has had a team reach the final four fifteen times and won five times in the school’s history, most recently in 2009, according to school officials.

This year, KU fielded three teams in the tournament: junior Quaram Robinson and freshman Kyndall Delph; sophomores Jacob Hegna and Henry Walter and seniors Chris Birzer and Madison Cook. Robinson/Delph and Hegna/Walter were ranked in the Top 16 going into the competition.

It’s an exhausting, whirlwind competition that involves little sleep, lots of caffeine and long hours — debates starts early in the morning and end late, competitors say.

Each individual team competes in eight rounds of preliminaries — more than 90 rounds will occur Friday and Saturday. Their goal? Win at least five out of the eight debates and secure a spot in the single-elimination rounds that begin on Sunday night and are expected to conclude late Monday night or early Tuesday morning.

This year’s debate all loosely related to a resolution handed down earlier this year: Should the federal government establish climate policy that significantly restricts greenhouse gases? But those who imagine a simple pro and con debate are woefully mistaken. This style of debate unfolds in radically different ways each time it begins.

“This is much more technical debate,” said Scott Harris, who has coached KU for 26 years. “A lot of it is vast amounts of research.”

Teams affirming the resolution could choose to interpret a broad statement in a multitude of ways, for example. Maybe, a team decides to define climate more broadly, and discuss how such a policy might affect the racial or social climate in this country. Maybe, it takes a philosophical approach to the question instead of a scientific one.

Similarly, a team trying to negate that argument might argue that the way they are defining the issue is flawed, or agree on their policy but find flaws in suggestions for how it should be enforced.

Being successful on the debate floor means not just being able to debate diverse styles, but being intellectually prepared to respond to arguments based on politics, current events, new and old schools of thought, literature and philosophy, Harris said. On top of that, competitors read prepared briefs, quotes and research as fast as they can, making the debate hard to follow to the undeveloped ear.

“Speed kills in any sport, and this is a sport where speed kills,” Harris said.

On Friday, sophomore Tyler Woodcock sat in a work room with several other members of the 30 or so people on KU’s debate team. He hadn’t qualified for the tournament, which meant he was helping his team research and prepare for the weekend’s competition.

Woodcock started debate in high school and never considered discontinuing it in college. The 19-year-old admits at times the club can be overwhelming, and research and practice has taken up a lot of his downtime.

But he hasn’t been able to replicate the feeling he gets during competition.

“It’s hard,” Woodcock said. “But it’s fun. I’ve heard it described as a high-speed chess game.”

Katy Bergen: 816-234-4120, @KatyBergen