You know, for all of Jerry Falwell’s complaining about the “liberal media”, he’s getting an astonishing amount of credulous and fawning coverage over the completely meaningless fact of the Liberty debate team being ranked #1 in the nation according to a point(less) system. The latest is a long article in the New York Times Magazine, of all places. Mark Twain famously said that there are three kinds of lies – lies, damned lies, and statistics. This is a perfect example.
As I’ve explained before, the #1overall ranking in college debate is nothing more than a total points system that counts novice, junior varsity and varsity all together and ignores the quality of the competition. Liberty University gets to be #1 ranked by sending lots and lots of novices and JV debaters to smaller regional tournaments, piling up points. But their varsity team is slightly above average at very best. No varsity team from Liberty has finished with a winning record at the National Debate Tournament (NDT) in the last 8 years.
Here’s a few more stats that might illuminate the true reality. Let’s look at the winning percentages of the top teams from around the nation (each team is 2 people and each school typically has multiple teams entered in tournaments). Michigan State leads the way with two teams above 82% (one at 87%, far and away best in the nation). Behind them are the usual suspects – Emory, Berkeley, Northwestern. Where’s Liberty? Their highest ranked team is 81st with a 54.2% winning percentage. None of their other teams are in the top 120.
When weighted for quality, matched against the top winning teams, Liberty’s top team is ranked 111th with a 3-6 record against the top 25. In matchups against teams that “clear” at tournaments – meaning teams that qualify for the elimination rounds at tournaments – Liberty doesn’t rank at all and is below 26% in wins against them. And when you actually do adjust for quality of competition, where does the Liberty team rank? How about 117th.
Despite this, they’re all over the media claiming to be the best debate team in the country, “higher ranked than Harvard”, and the media is lapping it up like a hungry kitten. This is utter nonsense. I don’t begrudge them the fact that they focus on giving opportunities to younger kids who never debated in high school. I think that’s valuable and laudable and great for those kids. But piling up points that way doesn’t make you the best debate team in the nation and going around claiming it does is highly misleading.
In no other competitive activity are the rankings compiled this way. If Tiger Woods spent his time competing in Nike tour events instead of the PGA and dominated at that lower level, he wouldn’t be the #1 ranked golfer in the world. When readers see an article declaring that Liberty University is the #1 ranked debate team in the nation, “higher ranked than Harvard”, they assume that this means Liberty beats the best teams head to head. Nothing could be further from the truth. They have lots of hard working novices and JV debaters who rack up points for them, but in terms of actual quality competition, Liberty’s debate team is positively mediocre. And all the talk of #1 rankings isn’t gonna change that fact.