Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

March 30, 1999, Tuesday, SOONER EDITION


LENGTH: 1797 words




There are many kinds of March Madness. One of them is about to occur in this small, disheveled classroom on the quiet campus of Mary Washington College, an hour south of Washington, D.C.

It’s a sunny Saturday. Spring break weekend. The red-bricked colonial buildings - so perfectly matched they could have come from a kit - have been evacuated.

No one could guess that a fiercely competitive intercollegiate tournament, the three-day American Debate Association nationals, is raging in dozens of classrooms. There are no drunk or painted students, no CBS trucks and no cliche- spangled pre-game/mid game/post game wrap-ups. But this is mid-March: the beginning of crunch time for the country’s top college debate teams. Yesterday, 64 college teams finished their own four-day NCAA championship debate tournament in Detroit. Pitt’s team - Omri Ceren and Brendan Delaney made it to the "Big Dance," but finished a disappointing 3-5, which didn’t qualify them for the elimination bracket. The final four were still fighting it out at press time.

On March 13, however, as winter’s last major snow storm creeps toward the Northeast, schools like Pitt, Duquesne, Harvard, the Naval Academy and Trinity are here for the ADA tourney. In Room 205 of Dupont Hall, Pitt’s Ceren and Delaney are warming up for a debate with John Carroll.

The duo soon will engage in a highly structured, highly specialized, unique kind of competitive debate unlike any most people have ever seen. Nothing like Lincoln-Douglas, not even close to Kennedy-Nixon, it’s an NCAA-sanctioned form of madness that has absolutely zero chance of ever selling out an arena, being nationally televised or being rocked by test-taking scandals.

The topic of the debate is so esoteric CSPAN 4 wouldn’t touch it. It has something to do with a proposition to amend Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act so that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission could only handle class-action suits. That way, the argument goes, the EEOC would be more efficient.

By the luck of the draw, John Carroll will argue the affirmative, Pitt the negative. The format will be a cross-examination style with four nine-minute speeches, followed by three-minute cross-examinations, followed by four six-minute rebuttals, with preparation time in between.

It’s only minutes to tip-off.

Ceren is the 4.0 freshman phenom Pitt debate coach Gordon Mitchell recruited out of Southern California after spotting him in Indiana at a national high school debate tourney. He is sitting at a student desk shuffling some "cards" - sheets of paper that have "cuttings" of newspaper and magazine articles taped to them.

Next to him is teammate Delaney, an equally talented history major from Reserve by way of North Catholic High School. Vice president of the College Republicans, he is speed printing something on a big piece of blank, unlined green paper.

Ceren, Delaney and Coach Mitchell have traveled here by van for the three-day tournament. Ceren and Delaney have brought all the equipment they need: their brains, a backpack stuffed with newspapers and five plastic storage tubs filled with accordion file folders containing hundreds of newspaper and magazine clippings on every possible aspect of Title VII.

Ceren, who is 18 and still a citizen of Israel, has a tub with a sticker that has "Goodbye Friend" written in Hebrew. Once last fall, as the team was loading the van for a road trip, he left the tub unattended on the curb in front of the Cathedral of Learning. Pitt police called the bomb squad. They thought the computer science/philosophy/psych major was a terrorist.

But no time left for color commentary. No player introductions. No national anthem. We’re under way.

Boom, as John Madden might say, John Carroll’s lead-off man leaps up behind the teacher’s desk at 11:34 a.m. and launches a seamles stream of words at what must be 10 times the legal thinking limit.

Faster than Peter Pittsburgh on fast-forward, the words he is reading spew forth in an unintelligible slur of words, phrases, numbers, names and dates, punctuated only by gulping deep breaths that arrive just in time to keep the kid from passing out.

Spew. Spew. Spew. Spew. DEEP GULPING BREATH .

Spew. Spew. Spew. Spew.

The judge in the back of the otherwise empty room, Clarion University’s debate team coach, P. Anand Rao, is casually taking notes. Ceren and Delaney don’t seem to be listening. If they act like they’ve heard this spew a hundred times before, it’s because they virtually have.

They’ve debated Title VII issues in more than 50 two-hour long contests in nine tournaments this year. Title VII is the umbrella subject that every competitive college debate in the country has been arguing about in the 1998-99 season: "Resolved: That the United States federal government should amend Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, through legislation, to create additional protections against racial and/or gender discrimination."

When teams argue the affirmative side, they devise a "plan" to amend Title VII that is backed up by tub-fulls of research they’ve collected. For instance, an affirmative team might argue to amend Title VII so that it limited class-action suits or included sexual discrimination suits. The negative team, which always has the tougher job, would then have to poke holes in the plan, prove that the plan is nontopical (i.e., from Mars) or propose a counter-plan.

It’s actually way more complicated than that, but there’s no way to explain it by the end of March.

After a few minutes of concentrated listening, a first-time spectator can distinguish words and phrases floating by in the info-stream like flood-dislodged houses. "Stroessen 91." Spew. Spew. "Violence and genocide." Spew. "Liberty." And even, spew, spew, a whole sentence/thought that, while sounding fallacious and hyperbolic, is, at least, DEEP GULPING BREATH, understandable: "Discrimination amounts to moral slavery."

The John Carroll kid must be saying more, though. The judge is writing things down in columns on his yellow legal paper. "2:40," the judge says quietly, looking at his timer.

The John Carroll kid finishes without injuring himself. Ceren and Delaney stand up and ask a quick question or two at normal conversational speed. For three minutes it sounds like an actual debate, as Ceren, shirt-tail out, says things like, "OK, sweet. Where’s the evidence that ...?

Then it’s Delaney’s turn to spew. Using a stack of storage tubs as a makeshift podium, he unleashes a counter stream of words that makes the John Carroll kid sound like Al Gore on Prozac. He spews so fast, breathes so gulpingly, that his face turns red.

Once again, words occasionally surface: "Bureaucracy" and "extinction of the species" and "Nazi Party." But to the outsider there is no context, no understanding. "One," the judge says, a minute before his beeper beeps at 11:59.

Pitt’s Coach Mitchell’s boys are doing him proud, but he isn’t there to see it. He is in a classroom somewhere, serving as the judge in another debate. Coach Mitchell, who grew up in Sewickley, was an all- star college debater in the ‘ 80s at Northwestern University.

He does more than just coach Pitt’s 28-member academic debate team and write inside-the ivory-tower think-pieces with titles like "Pedagogical Possibilities for Argumentative Agency in Academic Debate" as an assistant professor in Pitt’s communications department.

He is director of the venerable William Pitt Debating Union, which is founded on the idea that "argument can educate as well as emancipate." He has organized and presented debates at Pitt on such topics as capital punishment, drug control policy and school vouchers. Unlike competitive college debates, they are intended for public consumption/participation.

Coach Mitchell, like many in the college debate world, believes if debate is made more politically relevant and more engaging to the public it can become "a motor of social change" and produce a better society. He is active in trying to get more high schoolers interested in debate, a mind game that, as everyone from Abraham Lincoln and Malcolm X to Cyril Wecht knows, is a natural teacher of good research, thinking and argumentative skills.

Last fall, in an effort to reach out to high school students, Coach Mitchell started the Pittsburgh Urban Discussion and Debate League at Westinghouse High School. It’s still very much a project in progress, but on this weekend - and for all of March - he is concentrating on tournaments.

The Pitt-John Carroll struggle lasts more than another hour.

Ceren, his head barely visible above the tubs, spews too - but he’s not reading. He’s looking at his notes on a green sheet. Spew spew. The judge is making thin columns on his paper. More cross-examination. Spew spew. Beeping timers. A charge that "your link is simply off." The John Carroll kid is frantically spewing and hopping around from foot to shoeless foot.

Spew spew.

"Two," says the judge at 1:10 p.m.

Spew. "Clinton" this, "zero risk" that. "45," says the judge. Then, as suddenly as it started, boom, the debate is over. Hand shakes all around. "Good debate." "Good debate."

Ceren and Delaney slowly begin packing up their cards and file folders as the judge does some computing. Somehow, he has used seven narrow columns and arrows to track the flow of the arguments. He asks a question or two. Everyone is awaiting the decision. But there’s no tension, no sweat.

Finally, the judge speaks with blessed deliberation and clarity. "It was a good debate. I really enjoyed it." He thinks John Carroll "wasted too much time on Clinton," a cosmic straight-line that no one seems interested in turning into a joke. In the end, he votes negative. In other words, Pitt wins, bringing its tournament record to 4-1.

Less than four hours later, after Ceren and Delaney have whipped two talented spewers from Liberty College, they are packing their tubs and suitcases in their van and clearing out.

They’re going home a day early. Coach Mitchell is worried about the snow storm expected to hit the mountains between D.C. and Pittsburgh. He’s afraid of getting trapped in West Virginia and missing study time on Monday.

Ceren and Delaney are disappointed they have to forfeit their other tournament debates. They’d feel even worse if they knew they would have been the No. 1 seed in the elimination round the next day. And that they would be named the tourney’s second and third best individual debaters. But Coach Mitchell made the right call. On Sunday afternoon Interstate 70 was blocked for five hours by a 20-car pileup and buried under a foot of snow. A veteran coach knows you don’t ever win a debate with Mother Nature.

GRAPHIC: PHOTO, PHOTO: Bill Steigerwald/Post-Gazette: Holding forth at a makeshift; podium at Mary Washington College is Omri Ceren of the University of; Pittsburgh debate team. Teammate Brendan Delaney, at right, listens, while; opponents Jared Woodard, far left, and Nick Yingst of Liberty College ready; their rebuttal.

LOAD-DATE: March 31, 1999