The two members of Towson University’s debate team happily accepted congratulations yesterday after winning a national championship—the Cross Examination Debate Association’s five-day tournament in Wichita, Kan.—and making history by being the first African-Americans to do so.
But what made the duo’s achievement not only remarkable but groundbreaking was that they had turned debate traditions upside down deciding not to argue their chosen topic—whether the United States “should constructively engage with a Middle East country.” Instead, in a direct challenge to the judges and the system under which they operate, the pair made their central premise the notion that, as Cooper said, “the problems of exclusion in the debate community need to be addressed first.”
By that, Cooper said, he meant the “racism, sexism and homophobia” that pervade the kind of tournament at which they were speaking. “We have a responsibility to talk about these things,” he said. “We talk about racism the most because it’s the one we’re most affected by. Even at awards banquets, they make jokes that the community laughs at, but the people who they affect don’t laugh.”
In addition, Cooper and Love used various forms of expression, including hip-hop, clips of songs and “spoken word,” to accentuate their points, a far cry from the more straightforward, evidence-laden presentations of some of their competitors.
“They debate in a style that is definitely outside the conventions of most teams,” said Darren Elliott, president of the Cross Examination Debate Association, which oversees policy debate competitions for two- and four-year colleges in the country. “It’s a very nontraditional style. That was clearly their strength.”
Elliott, who is director of the debate program at Kansas City Kansas Community College, said the Towson team showed courage in trying to “engage the community in changing how we talk about things, how we deal with these issues of race and sex and socioeconomic class.” In doing so, Elliott said, Love and Cooper confronted their judges, the tournament’s organizers and other debaters by “telling them that what they’re doing is not as productive as some alternatives.”