In Plain Sight by Noah Simon

The ‘lone wolf’ and ‘independent debater’ have been the source of quite a lot of controversy in recent memory, from tournament liability to TOC exclusion. However, not many people seem to truly understand what being a lone wolf entails. For most, being a lone wolf means you are alone on your school team; it means you have to spend hours figuring out how to register for tournaments and book flights and hotels and arrange drop off’s and pick up’s; it means long email chains with tournament directors; and it means you have no coaches to run to after ‘judge intervention.” In short, it means doing everything yourself. Of course, there are those fortunate enough, including myself, who are able to hire coaches. There are also those who have paired up with teams or other debaters across the nation to share prep, and I’m grateful to be in the latter category as well. But it’s not easy, and this article attempts to identify the main hurdles lone wolves face and to suggest realistic solutions.

One of the main problems is tournament legislation regarding chaperones. Tournament directors are justifiably concerned about student safety as well as tournament liability. Mandating an adult chaperone is reasonable. Demanding that the adult be a formal school employee, however, is not. Lacking a formal team, most lone wolves also therefore lack a dedicated employee or chaperone who is able to travel to tournaments. Thus, it becomes exceedingly difficult and expensive to jump through this hoop.

However, there seems to be an easy and effective way to balance the needs of students and the concerns of tournament directors: accept school-sanctioned chaperones in addition to formal employees. This resolves the issue of liability, as there is an official adult attending to the students. It also facilitates finding a chaperone because lone wolves can ask their schools to approve coaches from other teams that are already attending the tournament. This solution has mostly worked for me and others this year. The majority of tournaments are amenable to this, and have been very accommodating. Loyola, Greenhill, Valley, Voices, and Meadows have all been excellent in including lone wolf applicants, while St. Mark’s insisted that a school employee be present- which effectively excludes all independent debaters. Another solution could be liability waivers which would transfer legal responsibility from the tournament director to the family. Eager to attend, I suggested these solutions to the St. Mark’s tournament director. Despite increasingly pleading email requests, these solutions were rejected without explanation.

Another hurdle for independent debaters is the requirement to bring at least one judge to cover their obligation. Tournaments are worried that large schools will dump all of their owed rounds on the tournament, which would be forced to hire more and more local judges. There is a justifiable concern regarding maintenance of the judging quality, as there may not be enough local, high quality judges. However, without a school program to support them, lone wolves are forced to cover the judge’s cost of flight, transportation, housing, and time. This presents a tremendous financial burden, and would force less affluent debaters off the national circuit.

The reality is that lone wolves don’t represent the large burden of a big school. Instead, they represent a small fraction of pools and thus don’t have a lot of rounds to cover. So, to prevent this further marginalization, tournament directors can (and have, in some cases) waived this requirement and allowed independent debaters to buy out their obligation. With the three or four-round obligation that judges usually have per debater, lone wolves could also split the costs of a judge with another debater or ask a team with an extra half of an obligation to let them pay for the extra rounds. Or, along the lines of some existing programs, judges could generously offer to cover free rounds for lone wolves.

Another common talking point regarding lone wolves is acceptance to the TOC. Many are aware of the contentious controversy last year over an independent debater who had earned two bids but wasn’t permitted to attend the TOC. There were various reasons why this particular case was more complicated than most, but it has somehow slipped into the norm of the community to post a paragraph in the tournament invitation about how independent debaters will not be granted bids to the TOC. It is suggested that if independent debaters were allowed to attend tournaments or go to the TOC, debate would potentially devolve from a school-based activity into competing privatized institutions and teams.

Perhaps it is valid to preclude lone wolves from uniting into teams. However, the idea that debate, as rooted in schools, is somehow pure and fair is offensive. To say that some schools, with large budgets, haven’t already privatized debate is ignoring reality. All that independent debaters desire is to be able to debate and receive the opportunities in equal measure with their peers- a balanced playing field. By preventing them from competing under either an independent moniker or their own school name regardless of an established team, we punish high schoolers for administrators’ lack of cooperation. The solution to this problem is simple and straightforward: reverse this policy and allow qualifying lone wolves to compete and attend the TOC even if their school doesn’t acknowledge a team.

In addition to the solutions proposed above for the particular issues noted, there are general changes that can be implemented to improve the experience of lone wolves and independent debaters. Prominent debate websites and institutions can use their influence and networks to assist those who face the most resistance in the community.

First, an online organization (such as Victory Briefs, NSD Update, or Premier Debate) could set up a lone wolf network. This way, independent debaters could band together to facilitate logistics. Lone wolves could coordinate housing arrangements, so that, for example, a lone wolf from Los Angeles could house other lone wolves for the Harvard-Westlake tournament and a debater from San Jose could house lone wolves for Voices. If that is not feasible, debaters could also share hotel costs. There are endless possibilities for the website: there could be a mentorship program so that more experienced lone wolves could assist novices, lone wolves could find others with whom to share prep, lone wolves could share coaches to reduce costs, and lone wolves could find others for support at tournaments.

Second, with the large resources that a lot of these schools possess, there could be programs started to help support a lone wolf in need of funds to attend tournaments. By sponsoring those who otherwise wouldn’t be able to participate, we would help debate become less of a rich person’s activity and improve access for all.

This isn’t a problem that lone wolves can fix alone- the best way to break down an institutionalized and systematic problem such as the one we are facing today is from the inside. This is why I am writing this call to action: Coaches, be the educators that you are and facilitate student development, even if they’re not on your team. Debaters: include your peers in a community in which you are lucky to find yourself: be welcoming, and be kind. The most important thing that we can all do is to support those who aren’t as fortunate, and to advocate for solutions such as those I’ve presented here.

There is something profoundly and shockingly disturbing about a community that labels itself progressive and values “kritikal education” but simultaneously erects administrative and socioeconomic barriers. There is something distasteful about coaches priding themselves in being educators and facilitators of intellectual engagement who hide under buzzwords like “liability.” Before we plunge into the warrantless depths of some lofty and verbose Foucauldian engagement in kritikal deconstruction, I ask that we first discover the integrity behind the role of the ballot and resist the exclusion that’s occurring right in front of us, hiding in plain sight.