Elijah Smith and Ryan Wash of Emporia State University made history when they advanced to the final round of the 67th National Debate Tournament held this last weekend. They were the first all-black, openly gay team to ever get that far.
But they didn’t stop there.
By the end of the final round, audience members gave a standing ovation, banging on chairs and screaming in support. With a 3-2 ballot from the judges, Smith and Wash won the title of champions.
“I think we debated very well because the situation was very specific, and we rose to the occasion both in performance and argumentatively,” said Sam Mauer, the head of ESU debate, during the hour-and-a half wait for the decision after the finals ended at midnight.
Omar Guevara, the Weber State University director of forensics, said the team’s win was historic for two additional reasons.
“It is very rare for a state college (and not a private or flagship public university) to win this tournament,” he said.
It is especially rare considering the team also won the Cross-Examination Debate Association National Tournament a week before.
“This debate typified a clash of civilizations in the pedagogical approach to competitive academic debate,” Guevara said.
On one hand, he said, ESU used a critical, philosophical approach, and on the other hand, Northwestern University used a traditional-policy approach to the debate route.
“So you had a clash of demographics and identity, you had a clash of institutions, and you had a clash of pedagogical styles,” Guevara said. “It was truly a beautiful moment. And the debate was decided on a 3-2 decision, the most narrow of margins.”
Smith and Wash had the affirmative during the debate, Guevara said, and argued the question of identity as a starting point for academic debate itself and to make the debate community accountable for the demographics of inclusion and also the appreciation of difference.
“Northwestern University (argued) for a more traditional approach to the activity, arguing that the team from Emporia State did not follow the bounds of the resolution and their positions from identity questions detracted from the bigger questions that they felt needed to be addressed,” Guevara said.
This final round was the last time all four of the finalist debaters would compete. As they individually spoke for the first time, they took a few minutes to thank everyone who helped their debate careers, including family, friends and coaches.
Before the final results announcement, Peyton Lee and Arjun Vellayappan of NU both said they felt anxious and exhausted, but were happy with their performance.
“I think we believed in what we were arguing,” Lee said. “I think that was fun. For our final round, we got to defend the kind of debate we like to do.”
Besides ESU and NU, the semifinalists were Andrew Arsht and Andrew Markoff from Georgetown University, and Chris Leonardi and Michael Masterson from Oklahoma University for Leonardi and Masterson.
Other quarterfinalists were Damiyr Davis and Miguel Feliciano from West Georgia University, Ellis Allen and Alex Pappas from the University of Michigan, Chris Leonardi and Michael Masterson as well as Rashid Campbell and George Lee from the University of Oklahoma, and Joe Leduc and Ian Miller from Wake Forest University.
Other octofinalists were Bradley Bolman and Michael Suo as well as Anna Dimitrijevic and Daniel Taylor from Harvard University, Korey Johnson and Ameena Ruffin from Towson University, Kyle Deming and Kevin Hirn from the University of Michigan, Ken Bailey and Richard Min as well as Jacob Hurwitz and Lee Quinn from WFU, Jushnu Guha-Majumdar and Flynn Makuch from the University of Texas, and Matthew Pesce and Jason Sigalos from Emory University.
In addition to the actual debates, WSU held a T-shirt drive for the Dallas Urban Debate League and an Easter service on Sunday morning in the Wildcat Theater, and also celebrated Weber State Debate’s 90th birthday. The tournament also held an opening ceremony on Thursday night and an awards dinner on Sunday night, where all tournament participants were given prizes and the top 20 speakers were given trophies.
“We had the entire nationwide intercollegiate academic debate community here in Ogden,” Guevara said. “They spent seven days and six nights and, as a result, had many opportunities to interact with both Ogden and Weber State in ways that normal conventional attendees may not — and they had an extremely positive impression of both our community and our university.”
Guevara said he is grateful to everyone at WSU who made the historic opportunity of hosting the tournament possible.
“We are the state of Utah’s only academic policy debate team, and in our 90 years of service, we have helped represent the state of Utah to this community and competed against the most elite institutions in this community,” he said. “This past weekend was a reminder about our relationship with this community and about how the nationwide intercollegiate academic debate community holds Weber State in special regard because of their service to host the 67th National Debate Tournament.”