Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Liberty University #1 in Debate?

A friend sent me a link to this article in Newsweek about Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University being the #1 debate team in the nation, knowing that I know the debate world pretty well and would find it interesting. My response to the article is: uh, no. Not even close. I’d love to know how this article came about; I suspect Falwell’s people actively tried to get the story in there. But in fact, it’s far from the truth and is actually a good example of how statistical rankings can be quite deceptive.The article says:

The Liberty team is currently ranked No. 1 in the country, above Harvard (14th) and all the other big names.

To understand why this is deceptive, you have to understand how such rankings are done. The fall debate season rankings are available from the NDT (National Debate Tournament) webpage and they are based upon a points system developed by Jon Brushke of Cal State Fullerton. For the fall season 2005, Liberty was indeed ranked #1 in the “overall” category, but this ranking is virtually meaningless for several reasons.

First, it includes novice results. When you look at the varsity rankings, you’ll see that Liberty is 20th, not 1st. Second, the rankings are based on a points system that does not take into account the quality of the competition faced. If a team goes undefeated in a tournament, they get 16 points for that tournament – but that is true whether the tournament is a little regional get together or whether it’s a major event with all the top teams competing. So how does Liberty accumulate points? By attending small tournaments and avoiding the big boys.

Liberty attended 9 tournaments in the fall. Michigan State, a genuine national power (national champions in 2004, currently #8 in the varsity rankings), attended 7. But they were only at the same tournament three times. Liberty avoided the Kentucky and Harvard tournaments, where they would have faced all of the top teams in the nation, and instead attended smaller tournaments at Kings College, Army and Richmond. So they accumulate lots of points that don’t mean a whole lot and boost their rankings.

What happens when Liberty faces the top teams? Not so good. At the Georgia State University tournament, for example, their two teams went 3-5 and 4-4 (Michigan State won the tournament). In the 2005 NDT championships, Liberty didn’t even make the top 32 teams to make the elimination rounds. They also didn’t break the top 32 in 2004. Or 2003. Or 2002. In fact, they’ve only made the elimination rounds of the NDT once since 1997, with a 5-3 record, where they were promptly eliminated by USC. So this isn’t exactly a debate powerhouse we’re talking about, despite the Newsweek story’s exaggerated claims.

The traditional powers in college debate remain the same – Harvard, Michigan State, Berkeley, Dartmouth, Northwestern, Emory, Kansas, Wake Forest, and so forth. Liberty is certainly no threat to the top teams over the course of a season. They inflate their results by sending lots of teams to small, insignificant tournaments. When they play with the big boys, they generally get smoked.

Comments

  1. #1 afarensis
    January 31, 2006

    Interesting, I had seen the story on MSNBC but hadn’t had time to read it…Are we surprised that Liberty is using trickery to get their ranking?

  2. #2 Dave S.
    January 31, 2006

    I wonder if debate teams would benefit by having something more akin to the Elo system in chess, whereby your rating is determined both by your wins/losses and by the strength of your opposition. Perhaps there are not enough matches held to statistically justify this.

  3. #3 Ed Brayton
    January 31, 2006

    I don’t know that I’d call it trickery on Liberty’s part to get the ranking, but to publicize it with the implication that their debate team is better than Harvard or Northwestern or Dartmouth as a result of those rankings isn’t terribly honest. There are other reasons why they might go to smaller tournaments and take lots of teams, like the fact that they’re cheaper and more kids can participate that way. But to pretend that the points you accumulate that way makes you “higher ranked” than schools that go to fewer but better tournaments is just silly.

  4. #4 Ed Brayton
    January 31, 2006

    Dave-

    The rankings just don’t matter in debate. It’s all decided in head to head competition. The ranking that matters is how they finish in the NDT or CEDA nationals and in the big tournaments throughout the year. The teams are seeded going into the national tournament, but that seeding doesn’t really mean anything. The draw is still random and the matches are determined by record throughout the tournament. The fact that the team that is #1 according to these irrelevant rankings hasn’t even made the elimination rounds of the national tournament in 8 years tells you all you need to know about how meaningful the points rankings are.

  5. #5 llDayo
    January 31, 2006

    The article says it beat Harvard last month. Is this true?

  6. #6 llDayo
    January 31, 2006

    Sorry, should have included the quote: “They’re tough. [But] we’re not afraid to debate Liberty,” says Harvard coach Dallas Perkins Jr., whose varsity team was beaten by Falwell’s last month.

  7. #7 rik
    January 31, 2006

    Yes. But for fairness to the Newsweek article and completeness, note that the cited article goes on to say:
    “But part of the reason Liberty is at the top is that it hits as many tournaments as it can, racking up the points that determine national rankings. While the powerhouses like Harvard and Northwestern concentrate on nabbing the prestigious varsity titles, Liberty is competitive at all three levels?varsity, JV and novice. “They’re tough. [But] we’re not afraid to debate Liberty,” says Harvard coach Dallas Perkins Jr., whose varsity team was beaten by Falwell’s last month.”

  8. #8 Dave S.
    January 31, 2006

    Ed –

    That’s a bit different than chess then, where there is generally a strong correlation between rating and results. Although even there we have seen cases of ratings inflation. The Burmese team in the late 90′s for instance.

  9. #9 chrisberez
    January 31, 2006

    That makes sense, then. I was going to say, I didn’t realize you could win debates by sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting “La la la la la I’m not listening I’m not listening!”

  10. #10 Ed Brayton
    January 31, 2006

    Ildayo wrote:

    The article says it beat Harvard last month. Is this true?

    Probably. I didn’t look up the results on that, but you have to understand that at a given tournament, Harvard probably has 5 or 6 teams entered in varsity, some of them very young or just not all that talented. Liberty likewise has several teams in tournaments. It’s quite possible that Liberty’s A team beat Harvard’s D or E team, all of which are “varsity” so that doesn’t mean anything at all. Liberty A being Harvard A? Possible but not likely. For all I know, it may be a bit of a down year for Harvard. But I can promise you that MSU’s A team doesn’t live in fear of the “higher ranked” Liberty team, nor would the top team from any other powerhouse school.

  11. #11 llDayo
    January 31, 2006

    Ed-

    That makes sense then. I do not have any experience with debating competitions so I have no idea how they’re run. I assumed each team had one Varsity, JV, and Novice, not multiples of each. Thanks for clearing that up!

  12. #12 Ed Brayton
    January 31, 2006

    Having multiple teams from each school sometimes leads to interesting results. For instance, in the 2004 national championships, Michigan State “closed out” one semifinal, meaning two teams from the same school made the semifinals in the same bracket. In such cases, the school has a choice of having the teams debate each other to see which one will advance or just choosing which one will advance and letting them have a round off. In that case, they chose to advance the top team (they were clearly the stronger of the two and were expected to be there, while the B team making it that far was a bit of a surprise) and give them the chance to watch the other semifinal to see the team they were going to debate in the finals (in that case, Berkeley or Northwestern). They ended up beating Berkeley in the final round for the championship.

  13. #13 mph
    January 31, 2006

    Ed,

    While it is true that a large percentage of Liberty’s points comes from regional travel, your criticism of Newsweek goes too far and leaves your readers with an incomplete picture of the NDT rankings and Liberty Debate.

    First, as Newsweek noted, Liberty does attend a large number of regional tournaments, but you mislead your readers by listing two large tournaments that we did not attend, while ignoring the many other large varsity tournaments we do attend. For example, in 2004-2005 Liberty sent varsity teams to Georgia State, Cap Cities (Catholic University, DC), Wake Forest, Baylor, and Northwestern. This year we sent varsity teams to Georgia State, Cap Cities, Wake Forest, USC, Fullerton, and Texas (this weekend). This is hardly “avoiding the big boys.” Additionally, you understate Liberty’s varsity record. It’s true that we have only been in the elimination rounds of the NDT once since 1997 (a convenient cutoff point since Liberty was in the elims of the 1995 and 1996 NDTs) but during that same period we have been in the elimination rounds of major national tournaments, including the University of Northern Iowa, Georgia State, Cap Cities, Wake Forest, Fullerton, Baylor, Northwestern, and CEDA Nationals.

    Second, your characterization of the rankings as “virtually meaningless” and “irrelevant” says more about your priorities than it does the rankings system. As you know, the points system is designed to reward overall program strength, while the NDT and CEDA Nationals are designed to reward the best two person team. Most of the schools you mention as the “big boys” are only interested in debaters that have extensive high school experience. Liberty has a long tradition as one of the best schools for debaters without previous debate experience (novices). Realizing that debate’s primary mission is educational, the debate community rightly established a ranking system that rewards programs that excel at teaching students of all experience levels. Program success is not, nor should it be, measured by “how they finish in the NDT or CEDA nationals and in the big tournaments throughout the year.” In fact, while the NDT has a separate ranking for the varsity division (of which Liberty has appeared in the top 10 on multiple occasions), the CEDA rankings make no such distinction for precisely that reason.

    As for the “insignificant tournaments” we attend, well, we’d love to take our whole squad to the tournaments you find valuable. We’d save a lot of money and I’d be able to spend many more weekends at home. However, until these tournaments start offering a novice division, we are going to keep attending tournaments that offer the best competition for all of our students. For us, that means attending the large varsity tournaments you mentioned and novice and JV tournaments where ever we can find them. We’re proud of the strength of our program and offer no apologies for claiming to be the number one debate program in the nation.

    Best,

    Michael Hall
    Assistant Director, Liberty Debate

  14. #14 RPM
    January 31, 2006

    Next thing you know, they’ll be claiming their football team is a tailback factory because they produced Samkon Gado. Their woman’s basketball team did manage to pull a big upset in last year’s tournament when they made it to the sweet sixteen (thanks to the power of Jesus, of course).

  15. #15 Ed Brayton
    January 31, 2006

    Michael Hall wrote:

    First, as Newsweek noted, Liberty does attend a large number of regional tournaments, but you mislead your readers by listing two large tournaments that we did not attend, while ignoring the many other large varsity tournaments we do attend. For example, in 2004-2005 Liberty sent varsity teams to Georgia State, Cap Cities (Catholic University, DC), Wake Forest, Baylor, and Northwestern. This year we sent varsity teams to Georgia State, Cap Cities, Wake Forest, USC, Fullerton, and Texas (this weekend). This is hardly �avoiding the big boys.� Additionally, you understate Liberty�s varsity record. It�s true that we have only been in the elimination rounds of the NDT once since 1997 (a convenient cutoff point since Liberty was in the elims of the 1995 and 1996 NDTs) but during that same period we have been in the elimination rounds of major national tournaments, including the University of Northern Iowa, Georgia State, Cap Cities, Wake Forest, Fullerton, Baylor, Northwestern, and CEDA Nationals.

    I didn’t say that you never attended major tournaments, I said that your points rankings are inflated by sending so many teams to so many smaller tournaments where you don’t have to face the top teams. Remember, the implication of this article was clearly that Liberty has the best debate team in the nation – anyone reading the article would have assumed as much without understanding how the points for this ranking are accumulated. Yes, you’ve been in the elimination rounds of major tournaments, but you’ve never been a serious threat to the best debate teams in the nation, much less been better than them all as this article implied.

    I agree with you that going to regional tournaments and taking lots of novice and JV teams is a great way to allow a lot of people to get experience in debate. I agree that this is very valuable and rewarding for those kids you give that opportunity to. But that doesn’t mean that your debate team is better than Harvard or MSU or Northwestern. You’ve got a good upstart program that does very well in smaller tournaments and just slightly above average in bigger ones. When you have made it to elimination rounds of major tournaments, where the competition becomes much more difficult, you’ve generally been beaten. You’re a solid octafinal team; you’re not a threat to win a serious tournament and you never really have been. Anyone reading that Newsweek article would certainly have had the impression that Liberty was the best debate team in the nation, better than Harvard and all the rest. That simply isn’t the case.

  16. #16 Dave S.
    January 31, 2006

    I like the correction at the end of the article…

    Correction: In the original version of this report, NEWSWEEK misquoted Falwell as referring to “assault ministry.” In fact, Falwell was referring to “a salt ministry”?a reference to Matthew 5:13, where Jesus says “Ye are the salt of the earth.” We regret the error.

    I think they got it right the first time. :)

  17. #17 Ocellated
    February 1, 2006

    Dave S,

    I made the same comment on my blog this morning. For a misquote, it was right on the money!

  18. #18 Ed Darrell
    February 5, 2006

    We just need to note that the rankings Liberty is seeking give points for quantity over quality. Liberty appears to have the most teams at tournaments, but not the national championship teams.

    It’s like ranking high school football programs nationally on the basis of points scored and kids playing, and then saying that high school football is superior to college football because high school kids score more points and make more yards. We still don’t put the high school kids head to head with college teams, nor would we expect the high school kids to be competitive with colleges (Duncanville, Texas, notwithstanding).

  19. #19 adam42381
    April 27, 2006

    This should clarify this issue: http://www.liberty.edu/index.cfm?PID=6848&NewsID=136

    Liberty is a good debate team.

  20. #20 Ed Brayton
    April 27, 2006

    LOL. No, that just continues the statistical nonsense that started it all in the first place. All three of those statistical ranking systems are based on total points at all three levels – varsity, junior varsity and novice. But since none of the top teams, or very few, ever send anyone to JV or novice tournaments, those points are meaningless for establishing the team’s ability to debate. They send lots of teams to small JV and novice tournaments and rack up points, but that has nothing to do with how well their team debates against quality competition. In varsity, the only division in which the actual quality of the debate can be tested, Liberty is a mediocre team at very best. They rarely even compile a winning record against top competition.

    Look just at the NDT rankings, where Liberty is #1 and MSU is #14. Yet at the actual NDT tournament, Liberty was 3-5 while MSU was 8-0 and won the national championship. That fact alone should tell you that the statistical rankings have nothing at all to do with actual debate ability.

  21. #21 nkapania
    April 27, 2006

    Ed,

    While it may be true that Liberty’s top team often will not be in the late elims of the NDT, i agree with Michael Hall that your criticism is too close-minded.

    First, the “top programs” you speak of (Michigan State, Northwestern, etc.) target the debaters from high schools that are amazingly well funded and have a coaching squad on the level of some college squads. If you were not a debater from one of these schools, it is very unlikely you will have the chance to travel extensively or debate more than a few tournaments. Liberty’s focus is on allowing everyone, especially from the local Virginia area where debate is not as huge of a deal, to have the chance to experience competitive debate.

    Second, there is no doubt in my mind that Liberty could be one of these “top programs.”
    I attended debate camp at Liberty and the instruction i recieved from the Liberty coaches was on par with the instruction i recieved from coaches at the Wake Forest Institute, a “top program” you mention. If Liberty solely focused their program on two or three teams, their top team would be just as competitive as Michigan State’s or Berkeley’s.

    Liberty does not choose to use their resources to get national circuit high school debaters. They are not interested in taking their top two teams to every tournament while new debaters have to stay at home researching. Instead, the debate team resembles the university, a focus on knowledge for everyone.

    Is Liberty the #1 Team? It depends on your definition of the top team. Myself, I have an enormous amount of respect for what Michael Hall, Brett O’Donnel, and Liberty have been able to accomplish, having personal experience with Liberty as well the “traditional powerhouses.”

  22. #22 Ed Brayton
    April 27, 2006

    nkapania wrote:

    First, the “top programs” you speak of (Michigan State, Northwestern, etc.) target the debaters from high schools that are amazingly well funded and have a coaching squad on the level of some college squads. If you were not a debater from one of these schools, it is very unlikely you will have the chance to travel extensively or debate more than a few tournaments.

    That is absolutely not true of MSU. It’s more true of Northwestern, Harvard, Dartmouth and the like, but it’s emphatically not true of MSU. Most of the kids they’ve turned into nationally prominent debaters came from in-state programs in Michigan. More importantly, this just doesn’t change my argument a bit. I agree that Liberty tends to get kids who didn’t debate in high school, which is why they tend to focus on novice and JV tournaments. I think that’s laudable. But it is absurd to claim to be the #1 debate team as a result of that.

    Liberty’s focus is on allowing everyone, especially from the local Virginia area where debate is not as huge of a deal, to have the chance to experience competitive debate.

    That’s great, but it doesn’t make them the #1 team in college debate. It makes them a nice lower-level program that competes primarily at those levels.

    Second, there is no doubt in my mind that Liberty could be one of these “top programs.”
    I attended debate camp at Liberty and the instruction i recieved from the Liberty coaches was on par with the instruction i recieved from coaches at the Wake Forest Institute, a “top program” you mention. If Liberty solely focused their program on two or three teams, their top team would be just as competitive as Michigan State’s or Berkeley’s.

    This suggests that MSU, Berkeley and the other top schools focus their programs solely on two or three teams; that simply isn’t true. The Liberty team isn’t much larger than those other teams. The difference is that the top schools send all their kids varsity anyway. It’s not unusual for those schools to send more than 5 teams to a tournament. After the NDT was over, MSU sent two of their younger teams to the CEDA tournament as well. The only difference between the programs is that Liberty chooses to debate at the novice and JV level, while most of the top programs send everyone in varsity so they’ll improve and be able to compete nationally.

    Liberty does not choose to use their resources to get national circuit high school debaters. They are not interested in taking their top two teams to every tournament while new debaters have to stay at home researching. Instead, the debate team resembles the university, a focus on knowledge for everyone.

    I’m sorry, but the notion that Liberty and “knowledge” even go together at all is something of a joke. This is a school that requires that its science teachers agree that the Earth is 6000 years old before they’re hired. Knowledge is in short supply all the way around. More importantly, your characterization of what other schools do is off base. At Georgia State, for example, Emory took 10 teams in varsity plus a couple JV teams. Harvard had 4 teams. Northwestern had 7 teams. MSU had 5 teams, all but one of which had a winning record. Liberty, meanwhile, took 2 teams; they went 3-5 and 4-4. So in fact, this criticism works the other way – the other top teams take more teams to the top tournaments and they all do better than the two teams that Liberty takes.

    Is Liberty the #1 Team? It depends on your definition of the top team. Myself, I have an enormous amount of respect for what Michael Hall, Brett O’Donnel, and Liberty have been able to accomplish, having personal experience with Liberty as well the “traditional powerhouses.”

    And I agree that giving those opportunities to lower level debaters is laudable. What I don’t like is the fact that they’ve been trying to play PR games with this mythical #1 ranking based on it. When the average person hears Brett O’Donnell tell a reporter that Liberty is the #1 team in college debate “even ahead of Harvard”, they are going to believe that means that Liberty beats Harvard at debate. And that’s just not true. It may be technically true based on a meaningless statistical measurement, but it’s still highly misleading. And they know damn well that it’s misleading.

    Sending a bunch of teams novice and JV has nothing to do with the quality of the debate team. It’s great for those kids, but it doesn’t make that team better than the top teams. Especially when even the best Liberty debaters get regularly pummelled by even mid-level college teams.

  23. #23 JP Lacy
    November 11, 2006

    I realize this comment is about 11 months out of the news cycle.

    As the associate coach at one of the “powerhouse” squads you’ve mentioned, I really do think that you’ve underestimated what Liberty continues to accomplish on a yearly basis: They teach great advocates.

    I’ve always had immense respect for Liberty Debate and the spirit of engagement that infuses their squad.

    The “traditional powers” in debate don’t stay that way by ignoring Liberty. The NDT was once won by a Northwestern team who copied their arguments from a Liberty novice team.

    If you walk in to a debate underestimating your opponent, and you’re likely to lose. Bad debaters ask before a round “are they good?” Good debaters ask “what do they say?” and get to work figuring out how to respond.

    Belittleing the success of others is not a formula for any successful team.

    JP Lacy, Wake Forest Debate

  24. #24 Jamie Carroll
    February 7, 2007

    JP Lacy: You know what I like?
    Me: No, what?
    JP Lacy: I like it when when Liberty loses.
    (He then proceeded to explain how they think they’re all bad ass by winning a bunch of novice stuff, so he prefers that they lose). So don’t be fooled by his comments here…