Two Cents: The December PF Topic Wordings

Briefly is back with another installment of Two Cents! This time, we’ll be discussing the December resolutional choices on the topic of Sports & Society. Devon Weis and Kyle Chong are contributors for this month’s edition.

Here are the NSDA’s topic choices:
OPTION 1 – Resolved: Professional sports are an appropriate platform for political change.

OPTION 2 – Resolved: NCAA student athletes ought to be recognized as employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Devon Weis

Devon Weis currently serves as the head PF coach for Byram Hills High School. He helped Byram Hills qualify to TOC in PF for the first time in school history. He debated for four years studies at Suncoast High School in Florida, reaching outrounds at a variety of state and national tournaments like Penn, Florida Blue Key, The Sunvitational, FFL States and Crestian. Throughout his career, the teams he’s coached for have made it to late outrounds at tournaments like NSDA Nationals, CFL Nationals, Princeton, Lexington, The Sunvitational, and Ridge. Devon is a senior at New York University, studying Politics, History, and Philosophy.

After this announcement, the NSDA’s topic area renews a 9-year trend of (with the exception of 2016) making December resolution a domestic policy issue. Unfortunately, these topics look extremely unappetizing. The first resolution is truth testing in nature, and is clearly a nod to the recent trend of athletes kneeling during the pledge of allegiance. While this topic does adhere to Public Forum’s signature “ripped from the headlines” style, it harkens back to an older, darker period of the event where the NSDA would force students to debate things like the NBA’s dress code, and whether or not PF resolutions should be about sensitive religious issues. There’s a bunch of reasons why I don’t think you should vote for this topic, but here’s the two biggest.

The first of which will be your judges. The vast majority of judge pools in PF are composed of volunteer laypeople who are less experienced with bracketing out bias. I think this topic in particular begs for judge intervention as almost everyone already has a stance on the issue, with many believing strongly one way or the other. That’s not to mention how difficult it will be for even the most experienced judges to choose who better defined the term “appropriate,” or even worse, weigh between intangibles like “increased political momentum” on the aff and “decreased fan enjoyment” or “patriotism” on the neg. In my opinion, the truest answer to this resolution is that there is no such thing as “an appropriate platform for political change” in a democratic state, yet it’s unclear if such an argument affirms or negates, which will likely cause some debates to devolve into meaningless disputes about framer’s intent.

The second reason is on argument diversity and fairness. There really just isn’t that much to say about this resolution. Aff can argue that the political change sports players are aiming at is important and that athletes are effective at setting that narrative, while the neg is forced to simply disprove that. I think this kind of debate is going to be actively un-educational and borderline unfair as it forces the neg to argue, prima facie, that there is a right time and place for efforts towards political change. It would be incredibly easy for aff teams to argue that not only are professional sports games an incredibly effective method for starting conversations about political change, but also there really isn’t any meaningful line to draw between when one should be trying to change their country for the better. Oh, and let’s not forget that almost all of the literature base is composed of opinion pieces and blogs.

Final grade: D-

While Option 2 may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I think it’s rather clear that the second topic is the better of the two. A few reasons for this.

First, literature base. Since this is such a common, discussed resolution, there is an incredibly wide base of literature about the subject, as well as more generalized literature about the effects of employing young people. PFers love empirics, and this topic looks like your best chance to use numbers in your December cases.

Second, argument diversity. Unlike the first topic, this resolution gives debaters the chance to discuss the rights of students, the purpose of college (and more specifically college sports), gender equality and corporate exploitation, giving rise to a plethora of different strategies. Also, the resolution uses the term “ought,” which invites a more-than-welcome departure from PF’s default utilitarian calculus. By using the word ought, the resolution opens up the possibility for moral and rights-based arguments about fairness that I believe will be a breath of fresh air for debaters that have grown tired of constructing super long link chains about PF’s golden word: “lives.” Also, the specific language of the resolution is really nice as it clearly defines what the fiat of the aff entails without much room for squirrelly interpretations.

Third, balance. While there are definitely way more balanced topics out there, I feel like this one will really test teams’ abilities to construct a clear narrative rather than extending an assemblage of unrelated impacts to garner “offense.” This topic forces teams to weigh between many different relevant, potentially intangible impact areas and will thus be a bit less concretely aff or neg biased. With that being said, I do think there’s a slight advantage for the neg.

Final Grade: B-

Kyle Chong

Kyle Chong is an Assistant Coach at The Nueva School in California. As a debater, Kyle was the President of Bronx Science’s Debate Team, where he won seven bids to the Tournament of Champions, ending his career at tenth in the country. His students have achieved success at both the local and national level, with just this year boasting championships at SCU, Harker, ASU, Berkeley, Kandi King, and the TOC. Kyle is a junior at UC Berkeley studying Political Economy, Cognitive Science, and Entrepreneurship.

While Option 1 is certainly a topic that hears a lot of political discussion in the news, I think that a Public Forum debate on this will feel very shallow. Often the topics that are most ripped from the headlines mimic the language, rhetoric, and overall argumentation of public discourse – an effect that would force debaters to really be up-to-date with the news as the topic develops and with op-ed’s as commentary gets more nuanced. These kinds of skills are often neglected in Public Forum, and that’s not the only way this is not like most PF resolutions. While I can foresee debaters still making arguments about inherency and solvency, I also think debates will eventually boil down to impacts that are less weighable and more abstract. This inevitably happens with debates on social issues.

I also think that this resolution is particularly challenging because of the word “appropriate”, a phrase not seen in PF since 2008. (Resolved: In a democracy, civil disobedience is an appropriate weapon in the fight for justice). Perhaps the storied definition debates of my heyday will come back! This phrase will probably have one of two interpretations: a) whether professional sports on balance exhibits a positive effect on spurring political change (in favor of the intended objective), or b) whether professional sports should or should not be a normative avenue for political change. I think either interpretation would make for a clash-heavy debate, but also a debate with which debaters are not immediately familiar. Overall, I think this would’ve made for a really interesting topic if PF was what it was when I started debating in 2011, but the norms in PF have shifted away from arguments that would make this a remotely productive conversation.

Final grade: C+

Option 2 is a topic that is much more similar to the popular PF resolutions of today. There is certainly less ambiguity in this resolution than Option 1, and judges will find themselves to be less biased towards a side coming in to the round considering how nuanced this issue is. The wording also really discourages PFers from making “advocacies” or glorified plans on the affirmative and counterplans on the negative. I can see this topic playing out in two ways: a) recognizing athletes as employees moves the college sports industry in a better or worse direction as a whole, or b) recognizing athletes at the level of the individual being a good or bad idea. Both of these interpretations have pretty ample room for arguments on either side. If you’re looking for a more balanced resolution this December, I’d vote for Option 2.

That being said, I think there are some problems with the topic as well. For one, I think the debates on this topic will get very stale. Certainly the more lively debate to be had is with Option 1 given its relevance to mainstream public discourse, and I don’t think you could really find anybody at a debate tournament who would truly be passionate about the rights of student athletes. There is also little room for unique argumentation, which means that debaters that normally get away with out-of-the-box strategies or arguments will be finding themselves forced to actually debating the topic.

Final grade: B

What are your thoughts on these topics? Let us know by leaving a comment below!