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.