Speech & Debate Should Stay Online

Nicholas Ostheimer | 3/4/22

In 2019, COVID-19 hit the world by storm. By the end of January, WHO declared a global public health emergency, and in mid-February, so did the US. Stay-at-home orders were announced across America in the following months, and it became clear that online speech & debate was a necessity.

If you're a competitor in forensics, odds are you've participated in an online tournament. From simple local tournaments to massive championships on the national circuit, including Harvard's annual tournament, speech and debate has shifted dramatically to a digital format. These tournaments have enjoyed widespread success and received constant criticism.

Yet, the benefits of online speech & debate competition extend far beyond safety during a pandemic. Online competition has made unparalleled strides in accessibility and equity in speech & debate across the country. It may be a radical thought, but speech & debate as we know it ought to shift online permanently.

Let’s start by looking at accessibility. Prior to the pandemic, prestigious tournaments hosted by universities (Harvard, Sunvite, Princeton, TOC, etc.) were all held in person. To even qualify for the TOC, competitors had to fly to at least two different national circuit tournaments and break to a certain elimination round. The barriers to accessibility compounded on each other - to do well at these tournaments, competitors need coaching and prep, usually supplied by well-endowed speech and debate programs or speech & debate alumni from their team. Competitors needed the money to flow across the United States at least 3 times in a year. Competitors needed the stability and time to take time off from school, work, or other obligations. Among other factors, these combined financial, social, and structural barriers to successful competition on the national circuit created an incredibly elitist and insulated speech & debate community.

Online competition addressed every single one of those factors. When tournaments shifted online, it became easier to network with competitors across the country and learn externally from your school’s speech and debate program. Personally, my growth and success in congressional debate this year is exclusively because I had the opportunity to learn from competitors I met online. When tournaments shifted online, it became cheaper to attend tournaments. No one needed to book flights, book a hotel, and rent transportation just for the chance to compete. Online speech & debate allowed low-income competitors from small schools an extraordinarily unique chance to be competitive on the national circuit without facing a prohibitive financial burden. So far, I’ve gone to 6 bid tournaments this year, and got a bid to at 3 of them - I wouldn’t have had the chance to go a single one of those had I faced the financial challenge of travel, housing, and transport every time. When tournaments shifted online, competitors had the opportunity to compete with far less concern for their possible job, their family, their academics, and any other extracurricular commitments.

It's important to acknowledge the flaws of online competition. These past few years, it's been harder to get new students on the speech & debate team, and I know that first hand. The social and networking aspect of competitions has deteriorated. These flaws, however, are not only outweighed by the benefits, but they can easily be addressed. Sunvite, for example, arranged times for congress competitors to discuss and network. Under supervision, competitors exchanged contact information, jokes, and discussed possible dockets. Competitions and competitors have the opportunity to bring the benefits of in-person debate to the virtual world, and we shouldn't be balking at that challenge!

Speech & debate should be a competition of skill, not a measure of wealth. Online speech & debate has uniquely torn down the barriers faced by competitors, and it’s genuinely scary for competitors like me that these opportunities won’t stick around in the next few years. I’ve had a fantastic run this year, I've met people I never would have met, and I founded Equality in Forensics. None of that could have happened without online speech & debate.

The options for keeping an online aspect of speech & debate are numerous. From holding some bid tournaments online on a permanent basis, to encouraging online platforms for competitors, a permanent shift towards online speech & debate would have incredible benefits for competitors like me and you.