May 6, 2022

Debatable

In competitive debate future presidents, supreme court justices, and titans of industry pummel each other with logic and rhetoric. 

Unclasp your briefcase. It’s time for a showdown. Looking back on an episode originally aired in 2016, we take a good long look at the world of competitive college debate. 

This is Ryan Wash's story. He's a queer, Black, first-generation college student from Kansas City, Missouri who joined the debate team at Emporia State University on a whim. When he started going up against fast-talking, well-funded, “name-brand” teams, from places like Northwestern and Harvard, it was clear he wasn’t in Kansas anymore. So Ryan became the vanguard of a movement that made everything about debate debatable. In the end, he made himself a home in a strange and hostile land. Whether he was able to change what counts as rigorous academic argument … well, that’s still up for debate.

Special thanks to Will Baker, Myra Milam, John Dellamore, Sam Mauer, Tiffany Dillard Knox, Mary Mudd, Darren "Chief" Elliot, Jodee Hobbs, Rashad Evans and Luke Hill. 

Special thanks also to Torgeir Kinne Solsvik for use of the song h-lydisk / B Lydian from the album Geirr Tveitt Piano Works and Songs

Support Radiolab by becoming a member of The Lab today.    

Radiolab is on YouTube! Catch up with new episodes and hear classics from our archive. Plus, find other cool things we did in the past — like miniseries, music videos, short films and animations, behind-the-scenes features, Radiolab live shows, and more. Take a look, explore and subscribe!
THE LAB sticker

Unlock member-only exclusives and support the show

Exclusive Podcast Extras
Entire Podcast Archive
Listen Ad-Free
Behind-the-Scenes Content
Video Extras
Original Music & Playlists

[RADIOLAB INTRO]

LATIF NASSER: Hey, it's Latif. This is Radiolab. Today we're rerunning one of the most polarizing episodes of the last few years. We didn't expect it to be but it really was. So yeah, take a listen whether you've heard it before or not, I'm curious to hear what you think, so tweet at us. But other than that, here you go: Debatable from Radiolab.

RYAN WASH: So before we get started, I had a couple of questions for you.

ABIGAIL KEEL: Yeah, please. Fire away.

RYAN WASH: So I've talked to a lot of people who you've attempted to contact.

ABIGAIL: Mm-hmm.

RYAN WASH: There's a lot of hesitation. People just don't have faith in media right now, and considering our issues, to be honest, white-controlled media.

ABIGAIL: Mm-hmm.

RYAN WASH: So I got a couple of questions for you.

ABIGAIL: Yeah.

JAD ABUMRAD: Quest away.

RYAN WASH: Why now?

JAD: Why do we want to do this story now?

RYAN WASH: Yeah. It's been a couple of years.

JAD: Yeah. Well, it's—Abby just found the story. [laughs]

ABIGAIL: Yeah.

JAD: It was unknown to us until right now.

ROBERT KRULWICH: This feels a little newsy-of-the-moment in its upside-down way.

JAD: This is Robert, by the way, our other host.

RYAN WASH: So we have Robert. We have ...

JAD: We have Robert, we have Jad.

ABIGAIL: And we have Abigail.

RYAN WASH: Jad?

ROBERT: J-A-D.

RYAN WASH: J-A-D. Yes.

JAD: Do you have other questions?

RYAN WASH: Sure. We can wait. We can table those.

JAD: No, no, no. Ask them. Ask them.

ROBERT: Let's hear them.

RYAN WASH: So what is the end goal? What do you want the story to say?

ROBERT: We never know that at the beginning.

JAD: Okay. Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: This is Radiolab. And today ...

ROBERT: Today we're gonna tell you the story of a guy. This is a guy named Ryan Wash.

JAD: He's part of a movement of people who have taken this established corner of the academic world, and they've reshaped it and reframed it.

ROBERT: Into something even weirder and more different.

RYAN WASH: Weirder? Hmm.

JAD: No, not weird bad. Weird interesting.

ROBERT: Yeah, interesting.

JAD: Let's replace the word "weird" with "interesting."

ROBERT: I don't know, I'll confess I find it ...

RYAN WASH: I'm just saying in debate lingo, that's a link.

ROBERT: That's a link?

RYAN WASH: Usually, when you run a criticism, the link is the thing that they've done bad.

JAD: Oh.

ROBERT: Okay.

RYAN WASH: The description of performance debate is weird, is problematic.

JAD: Well, can I put a less ...

ROBERT: Less judgmentally? [laughs]

JAD: Okay, so the world that we're talking about, which is at the center of this whole story, is obviously debate.

ROBERT: Yes.

JAD: High school debate and college debate. Now I never did debate, but from the outside it always seemed like this hyper-competitive brain sport.

ROBERT: These guys with these little accordion briefcases where they have all these files in there with all the research.

JAD: Yeah. They go to these tournaments, and they argue about some topic back and forth and back and forth and back and forth.

ROBERT: Yeah.

JAD: Now the interesting thing about debate—I didn't know this beforehand—is that the people who do this often go on to become hugely powerful people: Supreme Court judges, presidents, leading thinkers, scholars, titans of industry.

ROBERT: It's the farm team of the big folks for tomorrow. So Lee Iacocca from Chrysler, he was a debater.

JAD: Margaret Thatcher, Ted Cruz, Karl Rove, Hillary Clinton.

ROBERT: Oprah Winfrey.

JAD: Richard Nixon.

ROBERT: Malcolm X.

JAD: They all were debaters. And today, this is Ryan's story, Ryan Wash's story of debate.

ABIGAIL: Actually, it's Ryan's story debating debate.

JAD: Yes. And this story comes from reporter Abigail Keel. And before we get going, I just want to let you know there is some strong language in this story, some profane words. Skip it if you need to. Otherwise, here we go.

ABIGAIL: Is it cool if we jump in, Ryan?

RYAN WASH: [laughs] Yeah.

ABIGAIL: I would love to know, Ryan, like, what was your life like before you were ever on a debate team?

RYAN WASH: Well, Kansas City, Missouri. Inner city public school, you know? 99 percent Black students. I was actually tricked into debating.

JAD: Really? When was it? When was this that you're talking about?

RYAN WASH: Oh well, let me see. 2000—I'm sorry, I'm old. [laughs] 2005?

JAD: When were you born if you're saying you're old?

RYAN WASH: 1990.

JAD: Oh, come on!

RYAN WASH: [laughs] But yeah, I ended up getting tricked into debate. I was definitely more of an observant person, which is why I like to play the game of chess, because how people move their pieces, the time it takes them to move their pieces, all gives away something. There are tells.

JAD: Hmm.

RYAN WASH: And so I was tricked into debate by playing chess. And I ended up winning the school chess tournament that we had, and this little short German redhead lady named Jane Reinhardt came to chess practice—I ended up being president of the chess club. She came to chess practice one day and pulled me in the hallway and was like ...

JANE REINHARDT: I understand you were chess champion, and that's a really good thing. And we have this debate program, and I think you'd be really good at it.

RYAN WASH: Like, "You know, anybody who could critically think at chess could critically think at debate." Yadda, yadda, yadda. I didn't even know what debate was.

ABIGAIL: So he told her ...

RYAN WASH: No.

JANE REINHARDT: "No. Not for me." But I persist.

RYAN WASH: [laughs]

ABIGAIL: So over the next year ...

RYAN WASH: She kept on telling me. She's just like, "I thought I told you to join debate. I thought I told you to join debate." I was like, "I thought I told you no."

JANE REINHARDT: I can spot a debater at 20 paces.

RYAN WASH: And she was just like, "Okay, you think I'm playing." So one Monday I came to school. She handed me a piece of paper. It was a revised schedule. She had my schedule changed to where I had debate first hour.

ABIGAIL: [laughs]

ROBERT: [laughs]

JANE REINHARDT: I just ...

RYAN WASH: And so here I am.

JANE REINHARDT: Here you are. That's what happens with a lot of my debaters. They just come in kind of dazed. Like, "Uh, my schedule got changed." I'm like, "Yeah, okay, that's fine. Take a seat."

ABIGAIL: So those first few classes, Ryan's learning the basics of debate. And in this kind of debate that he's doing, it's called policy debate, there's two teams and two people on each team. Usually the debate is about some kind of national policy topic like, "The United States government should increase its economic engagement in China." One team at the beginning of the debate is randomly assigned to be affirmative. And that means they're supporting that proposition. They're saying, "Yes, the United States federal government should do that. Here's why." And the other team is the negative team, and they're arguing against the affirmative. Both of those sides make their case, and then at the end the judge decides who made the better arguments.

JANE REINHARDT: I mean, I get them up debating almost day one.

RYAN WASH: We ended up having mock-debates in class, like Pepsi versus Coke, Family Guy versus The Simpsons, and stuff like that. And so it was very fun. It made us learn how to do impact analysis.

JAD: Impact analysis?

ROBERT: What is that?

RYAN WASH: So for instance ...

ABIGAIL: Let's say you're debating apples versus oranges.

RYAN WASH: If I say the rinds of apples are necessary for the fertilizer to produce oranges, so you must vote for apples.

ABIGAIL: That would be the impact of choosing apples over oranges.

RYAN WASH: You have to be able to compare the two and make argumentation. So the traditional standard for argumentation ...

ABIGAIL: As Ryan started learning all this ...

RYAN WASH: ... impact analysis, Toulmin's model, argumentation ...

ABIGAIL: ... he started to ...

RYAN WASH: ... ethos, pathos, logos ...

ABIGAIL: ... do really well.

JANE REINHARDT: Yeah. Yeah, he did.

ABIGAIL: He joined the team. Started going to tournaments.

RYAN WASH: You know, debate is one of those activities that affords you the possibility of traveling places. Where I grew up and went to school, I mean, students didn't leave a 40-block radius for their entire life, you know?

JANE REINHARDT: I mean, you're in control in that debate round. And everybody's listening to you. And I think it's important to feel that way, even if it's only in a 60, 90-minute debate round. Ryan needed those wins. He needed ...

RYAN WASH: I was enjoying debate.

JANE REINHARDT: ... that affirmation.

RYAN WASH: I was having a great time. The thing that helped me out was that my first tournament was a Debate Kansas City tournament. Debate Kansas City is an urban debate league, and so we were debating other kids from the same neighborhood, just went to different schools. And so that environment of debate was, to me, very different. Like yeah, we wanted to win, but there was a lot more camaraderie in the debate, I thought.

RYAN WASH: And so to me, by the time I went to my first national competition, I was very much committed to debate. But once I went to that national tournament for the first time, I was like, "Okay, I don't know about this."

JANE REINHARDT: At national tournaments, you're up against what I call name brand schools.

ABIGAIL: You know, like predominantly private schools.

RYAN WASH: And so we were real excited about that. Put our little dress clothes on. Got cute.

ABIGAIL: Got on the bus.

RYAN WASH: Nerves started kicking a little bit just about going to a debate tournament. Got off the bus, went inside. And then we went into the cafeteria. And when we opened the door to walk into the cafeteria and began to walk in, the room went silent. I mean, when I tell you the talking stopped, literally 300 other plus students stopped and stared at us because a bus of Black kids had just arrived. And they, like, watched us the whole time that we were in the cafeteria, and they were like, "What are they doing here?" At least, that's how I felt, you know?

RYAN WASH: But we walked over to our table, and our coach was like, "Do not worry about them. Pull out your things. Get warmed up. Get ready for competition." And so got our stuff pulled out and started to practice. And then they started to whisper. Whether they were whispering about debate stuff or about us, I don't know. I wasn't in their heads. But I can definitely explain to you what that felt like. It was real awkward and it was real uncomfortable.

ABIGAIL: And making things even more awkward and more uncomfortable is that when the debates actually got going—and this is particularly true at the national level—this is what debate sounds like.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, debater: This event also turns back [inaudible] causes global nuclear war and escalation if there's a backlash.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, debater: The plan: The US federal government through an act of Congress will substantially reform domestic transportation infrastructure by requiring that all federally-funded road paving projects in the US use 15 to 22 percent ground rubber and asphalt and concrete mixes.]

JAD: What is this? Is this sped up or something?

ABIGAIL: No. This is what debate sounds like today. Like, they sort of speed read.

RYAN WASH: Well, the goal of speed reading, or spreading if you will, is to get more arguments out.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, debater: The US highway and road infrastructure has an urgent requirement for ...]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, debater: Hetero supremacy and white supremacy ...]

ABIGAIL: And apparently—and this is like a quick digression—this kind of thing actually started in the 1960s, and the students were actually the ones who were driving it.

SCOTT HARRIS: One of the things that makes debate such an interesting intellectual game is that it's much more of a bottom-up-driven activity than a top-down activity.

ABIGAIL: That's Scott Harris, director of debate at the University of Kansas. In the case of speed reading ...

SCOTT HARRIS: We evolved a situation where one team decided, Well, I'm gonna present eight arguments," and the other team talked slower and only answered six of them. And the judge says, "Well, you didn't answer two of these arguments so you lost the debate because you didn't answer those arguments." And so the other team said, "Well, we need to answer all eight of those arguments," and they started to talk faster. And the other team said, "Well, we'll present 10 arguments," and then they answered 12. And so it escalated to a point that, in some instances, has gone way too far.

ABIGAIL: And getting back to Ryan, it's not as if he didn't know how to do that style of debate.

RYAN WASH: That's the way I debated. I did try to speak fast.

ABIGAIL: But he says somewhere around the first national tournament, like, all of that stuff just kind of stopped making sense to him, like the fast talking, and the fact that he had to debate these super highfalutin' topics.

RYAN WASH: I felt as if I could never take any of the stuff that I learned in debate and take it back to 3304 Aski, which is where I lived.

ABIGAIL: This isn't just unique to Ryan. I mean, what you see at this stage in debate is that a lot of kids, especially inner city kids from public schools, Black students, you know, they just start to drop out of debate at a certain point. But Ryan? Ryan didn't do that.

ROBERT: Now something big's gonna happen, I have a feeling. Like, somebody's gonna say ...

RYAN WASH: No.

ROBERT: No?

RYAN WASH: No. What happened was that a student from University Academy, she was a senior ...

ABIGAIL: Her name was Marshana, and she went to a different school than Ryan.

RYAN WASH: She came over and asked Reinhardt—she needed a partner. There was about to be this tournament called KCKCC TLC Tournament.

ABIGAIL: It was a big high school debate tournament. And Marshana, she was a senior, so she was older than Ryan, but she needed a partner. So she came to Jane Reinhardt and Jane said, "Well, here. Ryan. He's your guy."

RYAN WASH: So met with Marshana. It was the Thursday before the tournament happened. And I pulled her into this room, and I had three boxes of evidence, you know? And I was ready to go with my traditional stuff.

ABIGAIL: The topic was whether the US should increase participation in national service programs, so like Peace Corp, Armed Services, stuff like that.

RYAN WASH: So I'm like, "Oh, this is the stuff that I've been working on." I showed her the Learn and Serve America stuff. I had this Peace Corp affirmative that I hadn't wrote yet.

ABIGAIL: He showed her note cards with statistics on them. Quotes from various experts.

RYAN WASH: You know, and she was like, "Mm-hmm. Uh-huh. Yeah, that's cute." And so she handed me this expando and was just like, "Okay."

ABIGAIL: "Take this folder, go home, study it."

RYAN WASH: So I go home and I open this expando, and it was all of this—it was full of things. And I stayed up literally all night studying this file. I mean, it was not a lot of evidence. There was not a lot of pre-written out answers to arguments. There wasn't a lot of that. There was some things, there was Ralph Ellison's ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ralph Ellison: I am an invisible man.]

RYAN WASH: There was a clip from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man in there. There was ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Maya Angelou: You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lines.]

RYAN WASH: A Maya Angelou poem in there.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Maya Angelou: You may trod me in the very dirt, but still, like dust, I'll rise.]

RYAN WASH: There was some original stuff that she wrote. And I'm like, I—I didn't get it. But she was the senior, and Reinhardt kind of told me, you know, "Let her drive the ship. You just ride along." And I was like, "Okay." So...

ABIGAIL: Next day ...

RYAN WASH: We get to the first debate. I still was very unclear when we arrived at the tournament just what was going on.

ABIGAIL: He and Marshana get to the classroom, and standing on the other side of the room are their two opponents.

ROBERT: Are they white kids mostly?

RYAN WASH: Yeah, they were white guys in suits with Republican ties on, if you want a vivid description.

ROBERT: [laughs]

ABIGAIL: The other team, they're affirmative, so they go first.

RYAN WASH: And they're like, blahblahblahblahblahblahblah ...

ABIGAIL: They lay out this whole argument about how the national service programs are good because they increase US power abroad. And then it was Marshana's turn.

RYAN WASH: And so she gets up to give this speech, and it starts with this, like, four-minute-long piece of spoken word.

ABIGAIL: Like, this performative speech, kind of, about her personal experience in debate.

RYAN WASH: And she had this way of speaking that was very passionately forceful. It made people stop. They stopped writing. They stopped talking.

ABIGAIL: And in the middle of this riff, Marshana laid out this argument ...

RYAN WASH: That the style of debate that they engaged in, that fast paced form of debate, was exclusionary because it demotivated minority students from participating.

ABIGAIL: And not only that, it also creates this resource imbalance, because if you're gonna start debating with a ton of arguments, then you have to research that many arguments. And you need help researching those arguments, so you pay people and you pay coaches to help you make those arguments. And that clearly favors rich and affluent schools. And beyond that, Marshana argued, like, even the language itself sets up a norm of what counts as intelligent, authoritative argumentation.

RYAN WASH: For instance, like men's voice to be held up over women, Black people to always seem angry and rude when they're just being passionate, as if they don't have feelings. You know, it was a criticism of the auctioneer style of debate. It was a criticism of the insular lingo of debate. It was a criticism of the way in which debates were decided socially and politically as opposed to argumentatively. So I was like, "Okay, I kind of get what she's ..."

ROBERT: Were you shocked? Did this shock you?

RYAN WASH: No, I wasn't shocked. On the one hand, I was like, "Damn, that was great. That was tight!" Snaps like we was at the poetry slam. But I was sitting to myself, thinking, "Okay, how am I gonna extend this?"

ABIGAIL: Like, when it got to be his turn, what's left for him to say?

RYAN WASH: I don't know what more—what other words I could use. And so it wasn't until the second person from this team got up and he started to speak and he was like, debating about "The state is great! This is disrespectful to the state of debate." And he turned to her—it was this moment. He turned to her and he said it, like, from his soul: "You should go down the hall, because that's where poetry/prose is held. This is academic debate."

RYAN WASH: And I was like, "What?" And basically, his argument was that what we were doing was not debate. What we were having was a talent show, is how he described it.

JAD: Hmm.

RYAN WASH: And I was just like, "I get it!" And maybe it was the studying I had done all night, but everything kicked in in that moment. My passion came into the room and I was just like ...

JAD: What? What was "it?" You get "it?"

RYAN WASH: Like, I get everything that she was trying to say, what she was saying about the structure of debate, because I had felt those things before. I just didn't know how to articulate them.

JAD: Was it like I get that I can—was it like permission?

RYAN WASH: I get what she's saying. Like, debate is fucked up! I'm sorry.

JAD: [laughs]

RYAN WASH: And let's just say we definitely went on to win that debate.

ROBERT: You won this match?

RYAN WASH: Yeah, we won the debate because ...

ABIGAIL: Okay, so let me just explain what happened in this debate. Judges in this kind of situation have a choice, right? Like, they can hear the arguments that Ryan and Marshana are making, and they can think, "Okay, this isn't really about the Peace Corp or about Armed Services, so you lose." Or they can do what the judge in this debate did, and they can say, "All right, the topic has kind of shifted, but let's look at what we have in front of us. Let's look at the arguments that were made." You have Ryan and Marshana saying that the structure of debate is racist, and then you've got the other team not really responding in any kind of like counter-argumentative way.

ABIGAIL: And Ryan in this debate, what he does is he points at that. He points at when this other team says, "Leave the room," and he says, "Hey, what they just did proves our point: that we are excluded from debate." And the judge agreed.

JAD: Oh, so you used his sort of "You don't belong here" as a kind of argument against him.

RYAN WASH: And that's what I was saying about our evidence. It came a lot from what happened in the debate itself.

JAD: That is fascinating!

ROBERT: But wait a second, wait a second. Let me just take that guy's side. So you're changing the whole—you're throwing huge bombs at them: racism, hegemony. What's he supposed to do? Say, "I'm a racist?" What is he supposed to do?

RYAN WASH: Stop. Stop. Stop.

ROBERT: What do you mean stop?

RYAN WASH: Stop. First off, he should stop.

ROBERT: [laughs]

RYAN WASH: Second off, I mean, you don't have to say you're racist. Ain't nobody going to want to admit that they're racist. But you can definitely admit that you've engaged in racist practices, or you can have a debate about whether or not that was a racist practice. There's a healthy debate to be had about that. But instead, what he said was that you all do not belong here.

ROBERT: "Leave the room."

JAD: Hmm.

ROBERT: Like, if you walk in and you say what you just said, and you say it forcibly and eloquently, and the other side says, "Hey, you're changing the rules here. You're breaking things down. Leave the room." And then in the "Leave the room," they leave themselves open to this counter-attack that you give, like, it still surprises me that you'd win.

RYAN WASH: And so this is the thing. There's very few rules to debate, but there's tons of norms. And depending on, you know, the community of debate or the space of debate that you're in, those norms may differ. But I only know of a few rules, like there must be a winner and a loser, time limits—and I've seen that be debatable at times. There must be an affirmative and a negative. Other than that, how one approaches debate, you know, how one approaches the topic, how one approaches themselves and their opposition, all of that stuff is debatable, and arguably should be debatable.

JAD: That's it? There's no, like, Bible of debate? There's no book of ...

RYAN WASH: No. Okay, so they put out things like the NDT Rule Book, which is like affirmative teams must be topical. But in the world of debate, what does it mean to be topical? What does it mean to be "On topic?"

ROBERT: Hmm.

JAD: Wow.

RYAN WASH: That has to be debatable in order for a debate to happen.

ROBERT: [laughs]

JAD: This is getting very interesting.

ROBERT: I'm just curious. If you're really good at this, can you parse me what you would've said if you were the guy coming after you or before you?

RYAN WASH: Well, one of the things that they needed to do in particular was to say that the debate itself shouldn't be about debate. They were trying to say that, but what they said was, "Y'all should leave."

JAD: Ah. See, that's interesting, because the place where I have sympathy for the other side is where they're like, "I thought we were talking about the Peace Corp." Like, they walked into the wrong room or something.

ROBERT: But on the other hand ...

RYAN WASH: But that was part of our argument was that how do you do debate, how do you participate in an activity for hours and hours and hours, weeks upon weeks upon weeks, and arguably years on years on years, and not every think about why you debate the way that you do. That was what we were pressing.

ABIGAIL: So what was the other team's reaction?

RYAN WASH: They were really upset. Yeah, they called us a n-word and shit like that.

JAD: No! Really?

RYAN WASH: Yes! Like, what do you mean "No?" Yes! [laughs]

JAD: That's—wow!

JAD: We'll be right back.

 

***

 

[ADVERTISEMENT]

JAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: This is Radiolab.

ROBERT: And it's back to our story, again from producer Abigail Keel.

JAD: Which is a story about a guy named Ryan Wash and about debate, how we debate.

ABIGAIL: So just to kind of like pull back from that moment with Marshana and the poetry and all that, this kind of thing wasn't just happening in a vacuum. Like, it actually came from all kinds of different places all at once. And one particular interesting person who was influencing it was George Soros.

JAD: Wait. The billionaire?

ABIGAIL: Yeah.

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: Soros was fascinated by debate.

ABIGAIL: That's Dr. Shanara Reid-Brinkley. She's a scholar and a big figure in the so-called Black debate world.

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: Soros thought that debate was one of those kinds of activities that was incredibly important to the production of democracy.

ABIGAIL: So he started funding debate programs overseas.

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: In, say, places like eastern Europe.

ABIGAIL: And here in the US, he poured tons of money …

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: Like, millions and millions and millions of dollars to start urban debate programs. First started with New York City.

ABIGAIL: 1997.

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: Right? So they literally went out to all these New York high schools, talked to a bunch of administrators, and Soros just pumped money into New York City to start an urban debate league.

ABIGAIL: And then it went to Baltimore, then to Chicago, Detroit. It went to Kansas City, out to LA, Newark.

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: And it just kept moving. So we're almost up to maybe 23 or 24 cities.

ABIGAIL: So, you know, if you take a step back and look at it all, suddenly really within a few years, you have all of these new Black debaters. And many of those students, she says, would go through the exact same thing that Ryan went through.

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: At the regional level, you can imagine you get a bunch of African-American students, a bunch of teachers who are supporting them in a very positive environment. They build relationships and friendships. And so debate feels like home in that space.

ABIGAIL: But as soon as they go to that first national tournament ...

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: Culture shock. Because there is a sea of white people.

ABIGAIL: And according to Dr. Reid-Brinkley, this influx of Black debaters into a primarily white space started to create some tension and pressure, and that all built up and eventually it resulted in something called the Louisville Project.

RYAN WASH: The Louisville Project started. Its goal was to increase meaningful participation of ...

JAD: Like because Louisville ...

RYAN WASH: Let's go back.

ABIGAIL: [laughs]

RYAN WASH: [laughs]

ROBERT: I know that there's a baseball bat associated with Louisville.

RYAN WASH: Jesus Christ! Okay, so early 2000s ...

ABIGAIL: Down at the University of Louisville, there was a debate team.

RYAN WASH: A predominately African-American team. And so they were having a hard time finding traction.

ABIGAIL: He says they would go to these national tournaments ...

RYAN WASH: And no matter what they did, if they tried to accommodate the more traditional style, there was always something that they did wrong.

ABIGAIL: Apparently those students would try to make arguments about race inside the topics, but usually it didn't work.

RYAN WASH: And so ...

ABIGAIL: At a certain point ...

RYAN WASH: ... they decided that they were done with that.

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: And they were like, "No. We are unwilling to play your game in the way that you have defined it should be played."

ABIGAIL: And so these debaters, what they would basically do is they would show up and they would force a conversation about race, basically saying like, "We're not gonna talk about China or global trade until we deal with this."

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: This is Louisville's famous phrase. They said, "We can't change the state, but we can change the state of debate."

ABIGAIL: So they kind of end up developing this whole new methodology, which is actually a throwback to Aristotle. And in his idea, you need three things to persuade someone: ethos, pathos and logos. Logos is like logic, so getting research and scholars and evidence and things like that. Pathos, that's where emotion comes in. So maybe a personal story, or sharing something that will connect with the audience. And then ethos, which is kind of hard to pin down. You can think of it, like, as credibility, or sort of like speaking in tune with the spirit of your culture.

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: That's where you get the introduction of the use of hip hop.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, rapper: Some say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice. I say the darker complexion, the deeper the roots.]

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: The use of spoken word.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, performer: They say that n*****s always already queer. That's exactly the point. It means that it is a case turned to the affirmative because we're saying that ...]

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: The use of what we call "Street scholars."

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Hands up, don't shoot! Hands up, don't shoot!]

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: You know?

JAD: What was the reaction when this first started?

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: They would say things to Louisville like, "This isn't research, this is me-search," as if Black scholars, noted Black scholars in their fields are not real experts, right? They would say things like, "Hip hop does not belong here. Your argument style doesn't belong here." And I'm saying these things in really nice ways, you know what I mean? But there could be really angry screaming matches at tournaments.

ROBERT: Would you have an objection to a prohibition? As a coach, if you said, "Look, for the next year, let's never talk about you. And leave your gender, your sex, your background, your family, your religion behind and stay entirely in the brain." I doubt that you would do that, but I'm wondering why you wouldn't.

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: I would—well, I think that's anti-Black. I think it's anti-Black to ...

ROBERT: Well, it's anti-everything. It would be anti-gay, anti-Jew, anti-everything.

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: Right. Exactly. It would be anti- all of those things. But particularly for our purposes, it would anti-Black. And the reason why that's important for me is because these students don't get to leave their blackness at the door when they enter for competition, right? They can pretend that they're not Black, but that does not mean that everybody else is going to pretend that they are not Black.

JAD: [laughs]

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: Even when they speak, what arguments they make, when they open their mouths to make an argument, people are paying attention to the fact that it is coming out of a Black body. They don't get to speak without race being a factor. Nobody gets to speak without race being a factor in a nation where race is a factor.

ABIGAIL: Now back to Ryan. So he's 16 years old, and he sees Marshana do this spoken word poetry thing. Starts to read more about Louisville and he's just like, "I'm in."

RYAN WASH: I dedicated my debate career to discussing debate. Every debate. Every single one.

JAD: Every debate.

RYAN WASH: Every single one.

JAD: Every single one.

ABIGAIL: Fast forward. He graduates high school. Isn't sure he's gonna go to college.

RYAN WASH: I was a first generation college student, so I really didn't know much about the process.

ABIGAIL: But then, early August, 2008, he gets a message from a debate coach at a small school in Kansas called Emporia State University.

RYAN WASH: And August 14, I was driving up to Emporia for college.

ABIGAIL: So Ryan gets there, gets paired up with a sophomore, Latoya Williams-Green.

RYAN WASH: Who's now the director of debate at Cal State-Fullerton. Go best friend! [laughs]

ABIGAIL: The two of them start debating together, and over the course of a couple years, Ryan starts to get recognized.

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: He's winning speaker awards. He's making it into the out rounds at tournaments. But it was an uphill battle.

ABIGAIL: She says that Ryan kept bumping into judges who weren't really into the whole three-tier approach to debate.

RYAN WASH: Yes. I lost a lot of debates before I won any of them.

ABIGAIL: And at this point, Latoya's graduated, and he's debating a freshman on the team. He's halfway into his senior year when ...

RYAN WASH: I had ...

ABIGAIL: ... his new debate partner flunked out of school.

RYAN WASH: At this point, it was either find somebody to debate with or my debate career was over.

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: And so what happens is Ryan is also close to one of my best friends who's one of my contemporaries, Rashad Evans, who was then a coach at Western Connecticut University. And basically, Rashad had this bombshell idea.

ABIGAIL: One day, they called Ryan up, and they were like, "What if you partnered up with this guy from Rutgers, Elijah Smith?"

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: And the reason particularly Rashad thought this was a good idea, first, Elijah was an astoundingly good debater. He just had excellent skills and traditional skills. But the other reason was that both Ryan and Elijah were queer Black men.

ABIGAIL: The thinking was that you've got two guys kind of standing at the intersection of two marginalized groups. And if they're gonna try to make an argument about feeling excluded and invisible in the debate world, well, they can own that argument better than almost anyone.

RYAN WASH: So I called him one night. It was 9:30.

ABIGAIL: And he was like, "Hey, do you want to come debate with me?"

RYAN WASH: And he was like, "Dude, this is a lot. I can't really answer this right now." And I was like, "I understand. I'm asking you to come move to Kansas for a semester, or what have you, and live ..."

ROBERT: From Newark.

RYAN WASH: From Newark, New Jersey. He called me back the next morning. It was like 8:00 a.m. my time. He was like, "I've already applied and everything." And so the next couple weeks he was down in Emporia. Elijah and I debated four tournaments together.

ABIGAIL: First tournament, they won two matches, lost four.

RYAN WASH: I was very upset. I was heartbroken because I was a senior and I was like, "I don't really do 2-4. But it's fine. It's okay."

ABIGAIL: Dr. Reid-Brinkley was actually at that tournament, and she said that watching Ryan and Elijah debate ...

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: Was a hot mess! [laughs]

ABIGAIL: They just didn't have any chemistry.

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: There was nothing persuasive about it. Nothing popped about it. You know, it didn't really speak to the judges.

ABIGAIL: She remembers a time when Ryan came over to her apartment to talk to her and Rashad.

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: And he was just like, "You know, I don't know what we're doing wrong." He just didn't know why things weren't clicking. "What's not working? I don't know what's happening."

ABIGAIL: So the three of them were all talking, and Rashad? Well, like, Ryan really looks up to Rashad because Rashad is also a queer Black guy, but he's also like a really, really great debater.

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: And it was Rashad who said, "You're not being a queer Black man, right? You're being a debater." And so Rashad would say things like, "You need to butch it out, you know what I mean? You need to fem it up sometimes. Sometimes you need to duck walk on them. Sometimes you're going to have to vogue, you know?" He's saying "Be Black. You will always be Black and queer in these spaces, so rather than attempting to hide parts of yourself, instead you should be fully you."

ABIGAIL: Ryan, with this in his head, went back to Elijah. And within a few weeks things started to click.

RYAN WASH: We were just like, "Here's what our roles are: this is what you do, this is what I do."

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ryan Wash: This debate is about debate that ...]

RYAN WASH: I would start the debate ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ryan Wash: This is our argument about how it is to propagate the strategy that allows for us to not even be those n*****s that you say we're supposed to be.]

ABIGAIL: Ryan would preach.

RYAN WASH: I could reign in the choir, if you will.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ryan Wash: That this activity is affected by the same structural inequalities that allowed the hood to be segregated.]

ABIGAIL: And then Elijah ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elijah Smith: You as a competitor ...]

RYAN WASH: He did the middle speeches.

ABIGAIL: He dealt with logic, counter-arguments, things like that.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elijah Smith: It isn't a question of Black goals, it's a question of new epistemologies.]

RYAN WASH: He was better at the game of debate.

ABIGAIL: Ryan said they went from practicing ethos, pathos, logos, to being it.

RYAN WASH: We embodied that methodology.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ryan Wash: So you tell me how their methodology literally deconstructs those that sacrificed inside this debate. You probably ...]

RYAN WASH: And then I would end the debates.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ryan Wash: That's the shit that our purpose talks about. Now that's some real talk, sweetheart.]

ABIGAIL: In their second tournament, they made it to the finals and they lost in a close decision. But their third tournament was actually a national tournament called CEDA: the Cross Examination Debate Association.

RYAN WASH: It's kind of called the people's tournament.

ABIGAIL: And they won that tournament.

RYAN WASH: I was able to give a pretty good 2AR, and we ended up squeaking the debate out.

ABIGAIL: And then, their fourth tournament—their final tournament together—well, it's actually the whole reason we're telling this story. It's the NDT.

RYAN WASH: The National Debate Tournament. That was the tournament.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, debater: My decision not to go for a ...]

ABIGAIL: So the NDT is this marathon of a debate tournament. It's like March Madness or something. It's held every year. It lasts for four whole days. And there's 13 rounds of debates, 78 teams.

RYAN WASH: And the NDT is where Harvard is, Northwestern, you know? Georgetown. That's the tournament that they prepare for.

ABIGAIL: That's the tournament those sorts of teams usually win.

RYAN WASH: So we're definitely the underdogs. Definitely the underdogs. An all-Black team had never gotten past quarterfinals of this tournament.

ABIGAIL: Things kick off Friday morning at 8:00 a.m.: Emporia versus Idaho State. And they beat Idaho State. At 11:45 a.m., they take care of Puget Sound. 4:15, they go against Oklahoma. Oklahoma actually beats them, but it's prelims, so it's not like they're out or anything. And then the crazy thing is that after the loss to Oklahoma, Ryan and Elijah go on a roll. They take down USC, they roll over Emory, they beat not one but two different teams from Harvard. They beat Michigan State. And then on the last day, they beat another team from the University of Michigan. Then they go on to beat Wake Forest. That puts them in the semis, which has never been done before by a Black team. And then they're against Oklahoma, who they beat, and that puts them into the finals.

RYAN WASH: It was—everything is very surreal to me. We're in the finals of the NDT. Never happened before. We're also potentially about to unite the crowns, and what that means is win CEDA and the NDT. No team in history had ever done that.

JAD: And who were they up against?

ABIGAIL: Well, they were going against a team that Ryan had already faced twice that year.

RYAN WASH: And lost every time.

ABIGAIL: The 14-time national debate champions: Northwestern University.

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: So when this round gets set up between Northwestern and Emporia, one of the things that we've described it as is a clash of civilizations.

ABIGAIL: She says that about Northwestern because they have one of the biggest debate programs in the country.

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: They've got an entire hive mind, you know, with a hotel war room for them to strategize in.

ROBERT: [laughs]

RYAN WASH: And then it was us, these two queer Black guys from Emporia, Kansas.

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: From a really small school with not a lot of resources. So it is like a David and Goliath story.

 

***

 

JAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT: And I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: This is Radiolab. And now back to our story about the state of debate. And when we left off, Ryan and his teammate Elijah were about to go head to head with 14-time national debate tournament winner Northwestern.

RYAN WASH: Okay, so let me explain the room to you all. This is the biggest room that I had ever debated in.

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: This hotel room that they have the debate happening in is a huge ballroom.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, announcer: Welcome to the final round of the 2013 National Debate Tournament.]

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: And this ballroom was packed!

RYAN WASH: The audience itself was segregated. On the right side of the room, Northwestern's side, it was packed full of their people. And then on our side, it was ...

JAD: Was it, like, racially segregated, too?

RYAN WASH: It was.

JAD: It was.

RYAN WASH: It was.

ABIGAIL: So just to round this out ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, announcer: The judges for this evening's debate are...]

ABIGAIL: Up near the front of room at a table were the judges, which included our guy Scott Harris.

SCOTT HARRIS: Yep.

ROBERT: And how many judges were judging this debate?

SCOTT HARRIS: Five. Four men, one woman. All of them were white.

RYAN WASH: And ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, announcer: The affirmative team in tonight's debate will be Emporia State University.]

ABIGAIL: Ryan and Elijah from Emporia, they were on one side of the stage. And on the other side of the stage are the two Northwestern students.

ARJUN VELLAYAPPAN: We're wearing our Northwestern jerseys.

ABIGAIL: One was this guy.

ARJUN VELLAYAPPAN: I'm Arjun Vellayappan. I debated at Northwestern for four years.

ABIGAIL: And the other was his partner, a young woman named ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, announcer: Peyton Lee.]

ABIGAIL: Peyton Lee.

RYAN WASH: I don't know if she knew this, but she was like my college debate nemesis.

ARJUN VELLAYAPPAN: My partner Peyton, I was a sophomore, whereas my partner and Ryan on the other side were seniors.

RYAN WASH: And that was the thing that really getting me. It was gonna be my last debate. It was Peyton's last debate. It was my last debate. We were seniors. This was it.

JAD: Oh, wow.

RYAN WASH: College debate is the pros. It's the NFL. It's it.

ABIGAIL: Since it's their last debate, everybody kind of gets up before their speeches to say thanks and bye.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ryan Wash: I want to thank Northwestern for providing me the opportunity to make debate a home.]

JAD: This is Ryan?

ABIGAIL: Yeah. And ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Peyton Lee: This is gonna be my goodbye, so it might take me a little bit.]

ABIGAIL: This is Peyton.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Peyton Lee: Debate has been my, in a way my friend. It's been my hardest work and my most rewarding play. And it's taught me more than I could ever dream. For that I'm indebted to all of you, every part of this community, in particular a number of special people in my life.]

JAD: Wow!

RYAN WASH: It was a lot.

ARJUN VELLAYAPPAN: So the topic for the year was whether or not the United States federal government should increase incentives for certain forms of alternative energies.

RYAN WASH: It was nuclear power, solar power, wind ...

ARJUN VELLAYAPPAN: Or reduce restrictions on other forms of alternative energies.

RYAN WASH: Coal, natural gas and oil.

ABIGAIL: Okay, so Ryan and Elijah were affirmative. So they were supposed to argue, like, something positive about how the US government should support solar energy production, or should restrict coal usage and energy or whatever. But they're not gonna debate that.

RYAN WASH: We had figured out that we wanted to talk about the idea of home.

ABIGAIL: In other words, energy isn't the most important conversation that we need to have. The conversation we need to have is whether this community can include people like Ryan, like Elijah.

RYAN WASH: Can we find home in debate?

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: Because that's how the community feels about itself: that this is a home place for a lot of people, right? There are people who grew up in debate, people who started debating when they were 12 and 13, went all the way through college. So the people that you often develop that tightest friendships with, the people that have some of your coolest memories because you all spent the summer together going to debate camp, those people make up your family. There are people who make friends in debate when they're 13 that they keep until they die.

ABIGAIL: So Ryan's up first. And to make his argument about his home ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ryan Wash: Judy Garland references the great homeland of Kansas when she told audiences there was no place like home in the Wizard of Oz.]

ABIGAIL: He starts talking about a movie.

RYAN WASH: Have you all seen The Wiz?

ABIGAIL: I have.

ROBERT: I have not.

JAD: No, sorry.

ROBERT: So ...

ABIGAIL: All right. Real quick synopsis. It's a 1978 film, and what it is is it's like an all-Black cast version of the Wizard of Oz. So, like, Michael Jackson is playing the Scarecrow. Richard Pryor is the Wiz. And Diana Ross is Dorothy.

RYAN WASH: It was that movie was just like, to me, you know, it was the fear that Dorothy felt ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Wiz: Where am I? Where am I?]

RYAN WASH: At the beginning of arriving to Oz.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Wiz: The indivisible land of Oz!]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Wiz: Oz? I want to go home!]

ABIGAIL: I mean, the point Ryan's making is like that's how he felt too when he came into debate, when he was walking into that cafeteria.

RYAN WASH: Yeah.

ABIGAIL: And there's a line where you say—let me find it. "When the Dorothys of this world think of energy, they don't think of thorium reactors, but the energy required to get out of bed and navigate the struggle."

RYAN WASH: Yep.

ABIGAIL: So that's like kind of—is that how you were tying it?

RYAN WASH: Yeah. Energy for us meant what it meant to get out of bed in the morning, what it meant to thrive in a world in which you were never meant to survive.

ABIGAIL: And for Dorothy ...

RYAN WASH: She was able to reach a place of Oz.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Wiz: Please, is there a way for me to get home?]

RYAN WASH: Where you realize that all you ever needed in the first place was yourself.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Wiz: Home? Inside me?]

RYAN WASH: And that you had the power all along. And that's part of what our argument was, and that was part of what I was trying to say was that I had been in debate for eight years at that point, and I was so sick and tired of people telling me that what I had to say about debate and what I thought about debate wasn't legit, when debate was a student-driven activity. That I have just as much to say about this topic as you do, and your claims are not any more valid than mine, and vice-versa.

ABIGAIL: And Ryan ended his, like, eight-and-a-half-minute speech on sort of this, like, hopeful appeal.

RYAN WASH: You know, to never give up. We have to ease on down the road together. Dorothy just can't go by herself, you know?

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ryan Wash: Judy Garland might not have much over the fabulous Diana Ross, oh but honey, she did have one thing right in that is there's no place, not even no place like home.]

ARJUN VELLAYAPPAN: And then ...

ABIGAIL: After a few minutes, Arjun, the sophomore from Northwestern ...

ARJUN VELLAYAPPAN: I got up and I gave the first negative speech.

ABIGAIL: He started to make his argument.

RYAN WASH: The one that they had beat us with every time.

ARJUN VELLAYAPPAN: Called "Topicality," which basically says the topic has posited a question.

ABIGAIL: You know, should the US government alter its approach to energy policy?

ARJUN VELLAYAPPAN: And we think the affirmative should have to answer that.

ABIGAIL: Or this isn't a real debate.

RYAN WASH: Well, first of all, I don't think the resolution is a question.

ABIGAIL: Second of all, like, nowhere in the rules does it say that you have to be topical.

ARJUN VELLAYAPPAN: But ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Peyton Lee: This is a debate about ...]

ARJUN VELLAYAPPAN: ... our position was that debate should be theoretically fair. Both sides should be able to win.

ABIGAIL: And if you're gonna come out here and argue that ...

ARJUN VELLAYAPPAN: "Racism is bad, debate's not a home."

ABIGAIL: Like, we can't argue against that.

ARJUN VELLAYAPPAN: I'm not gonna say debate isn't a home for me. I love it.

ABIGAIL: It's not fair to have to argue against that.

RYAN WASH: Well ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elijah Smith: We form ourselves, as ourselves ...]

RYAN WASH: Who is debate fair for now? Who is debate inclusive for now?

ABIGAIL: Is it actually fair if, in order to win a debate, you need to have, like, a whole research team and debate camps that cost thousands of dollars to participate in?

ARJUN VELLAYAPPAN: But there's a topic that's democratically voted upon by all the schools at the beginning of the year. Something about the topic should be mentioned just to give the negative basically respect—respect for the thousands of hours that my partner and I and the Northwestern debate team and other people in debate have spent researching energy and being prepared to talk about the intricacies of energy policy in the United States.

ABIGAIL: This went on for over an hour.

RYAN WASH: I mean, it was a lot happening.

ABIGAIL: And eventually, Arjun and Peyton really start to, like, focus their argument on their version on debate: the traditional version. This is how you actually change the world: not by focusing on yourself, but doing research. It's being able to argue the affirmative side of something and the negative side of it. Because people who learn those kinds of skills ...

ARJUN VELLAYAPPAN: They can actually go and do things outside of debate.

ABIGAIL: Like deal in convoluted globalized trade negotiations, or solve global warming.

ARJUN VELLAYAPPAN: Right.

ABIGAIL: So after two hours of this, it's almost midnight. Ryan feels, like, exhausted.

RYAN WASH: Yeah. But I felt it in the room that people were like, "We're not out of the debate. We can still win."

ABIGAIL: At this point, there's only one speech left, and it's Ryan's.

RYAN WASH: I was nervous. I knew it was my last speech. I knew everybody in the audience was waiting on me. Like, I just felt pressured, and I had maybe five sentences written on a piece of copy paper. And I looked over at Elijah and kind of was just like, "Well, this is it. This is it. This is all I've got."

ABIGAIL: The audio quality of this speech is kind of terrible, but we're just gonna let it play.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ryan Wash]

ABIGAIL: And Ryan says, like, early on, that piece of paper he was holding ...

RYAN WASH: I, like, threw it. And I started speaking from my soul, or what I will call the shaunde.

JAD: The shaunde?

RYAN WASH: The shaunde is the place that encapsulates your soul in your loins.

ABIGAIL: Ooh!

JAD: Well, all right!

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ryan Wash]

RYAN WASH: There was portions of the speech that I don't remember giving. Apparently, there was a part where I almost took my shirt off. I almost ripped my shirt off.

JAD: [laughs]

RYAN WASH: I mean, like, I don't remember that. And I had to pause because I was trying to get out of that zone and come back to kind of like provide a voice of reason, but as I kind of slowed down to do that, the crowd starts clapping. I had 50 seconds left. I still have to answer this last thing. I still have to extend this piece of evidence. Oh shit, I didn't say anything about warming. What do I do? What do I do? What do I do? And I just was like, "I don't know. This is reason enough to vote affirmative. Forget it."

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ryan Wash: I think that the judges should vote affirmative in this debate. Blessings on that one.]

RYAN WASH: And then, I walked over and shook their hands. I gave Elijah a hug. And then I walked out the room and went and smoked a cigarette.

SCOTT HARRIS: At that point as a judge, I took a deep breath, packed up my notes. I put headphones, noise-canceling headphones on my head.

ROBERT: [laughs]

SCOTT HARRIS: I found a room where there was no one else around, and I could have total quiet and think about what had been said.

ABIGAIL: Now Scott says that he felt like the debate was close, like it was gonna be a tight vote.

SCOTT HARRIS: So I sit down and look at my notes. I relisten to the last couple of speeches that I had recorded several times.

ABIGAIL: On one hand, Northwestern presented a lot a good research, and a lot of it he agreed with. On the other hand, like, Peyton and Arjun are saying if you have these skills then you're gonna be better prepared to go talk in front of Congress or something. But Scott says if you just listen to, like, Ryan and Elijah, like, they sound more persuasive. Like, you can't convince me that somebody who sounds like that isn't actually also prepared to do those things." And so, like, Ryan and Elijah's whole presentation is actually proof that Peyton and Arjun's argument is invalid. At the same time, he thought, "There have to be things that we all just agree on as our starting point."

SCOTT HARRIS: And if the alternative is a world in which the affirmative can come into a debate and talk about anything they want to talk about, then the ability to make that a fair competitive environment seems a little problematic.

ABIGAIL: I think Scott was kind of torn.

SCOTT HARRIS: It took me about 45 minutes to an hour to decide who I thought won the debate.

ABIGAIL: Ryan says that when he was sitting there waiting for the decision to be announced ...

RYAN WASH: I was very convinced that we lost.

ABIGAIL: And eventually ...

RYAN WASH: They announced the decision.

SCOTT HARRIS: A three-two decision. Three judges voted for Emporia and two for Northwestern.

RYAN WASH: He was like, "It's a 3-2 for the affirmative from Emporia."

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [audience cheers]]

RYAN WASH: My partner Elijah jumped up. He was like, "Yeah!" People were crying.

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: I mean, if you could have seen this room erupt into joy. I was in tears watching this historic moment happen, because I had been around for so long and I'd watched so many Black debaters fail to make it to that top point.

RYAN WASH: I stood there and I was like, "Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!" All I could say—I said it like a million times, like, "Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!"

JAD: What swayed Scott in the end?

ABIGAIL: Well, he actually published this 11-page essay all about his decision explaining why he voted the way he did. There's a lot in there, but what I kind of take away from it is that, while maybe he didn't like that there was a disregard for the topic, he would've liked it a whole lot less if Ryan and Elijah hadn't been in the room.

SCOTT HARRIS: I mean, debate itself is incredibly important to me. Debate has been the greatest influence in shaping who I am as a person. And so in many ways, I view debate as my home, and given that it was a debate that challenged and criticized the activity that I have made a home for the last 40 years, that pointed out weaknesses, it caused me to reflect.

JAD: Wow. So their argument really worked.

ROBERT: I find this kind of like—it's either a segregating or an integrating event. My sense is that it's kind of integrating. Like, in a racially chilly world, this is a strangely warm spot.

RYAN WASH: No.

ROBERT: Are you saying no?

RYAN WASH: Yeah.

ROBERT: Why?

RYAN WASH: No.

ABIGAIL: You know, when we asked Ryan about how he felt about winning this tournament, I expected him to be really celebratory and, you know, tell me that it changed his life. He was the first Black student to win this tournament, and it seemed important to me. But he didn't really go there.

RYAN WASH: No.

ABIGAIL: You don't seem, like, as proud as I want you to seem, you know? Like, why? Why don't you?

RYAN WASH: You know, I—you know, it was a good thing for history, and it was a good thing to motivate people. I just want to stay focused.

SHANARA REID-BRINKLEY: It was an important win. It was significant. It was powerful. It was beautiful. But it was very clear to us very early on that not much had changed by the time we got into the next year.

ABIGAIL: Shanara Reid-Brinkley says that since Ryan's win there's been like a backlash. Basically, I mean, the next year another Black team broke through—it was two Black women this time. And that caused this big controversy, and people were saying that the state of debate was ruined. And in that same year, you even had a group of schools, like, talking about breaking off to form their own tournament where performance styles wouldn't really be invited. I think all of this makes Ryan not really know how to feel about his win. Like, maybe sometimes it can just for him feel like an anomaly.

RYAN WASH: Yeah.

ROBERT: It sort of seems like there's a series of accidents here. You're in school, where accidentally you have a teacher who pushes you and pretty much forces you into something which suddenly takes you over. You turn out to be peculiarly good at it almost again by accident. Then you're thrown into this sequence of events where you get to meet Elijah, and then almost by accident you become a champion and then suddenly it's over. The whole thing feels strangely lonely to me. Lonely but beautiful. I wonder how it feels to you.

RYAN WASH: Ironically, the same.

JAD: That is the first time you have agreed with Robert this entire interview.

RYAN WASH: Oh, stop! I just gotta give him a hard time and vice-versa. [laughs]

JAD: Huge thanks to Abigail Keel for reporting that piece. Abigail works for an amazing podcast called The Longest Shortest Time. You should definitely check them out. Thank you Hillary Frank for letting us borrow Abigail. This piece was produced by Mr. Matthew Kielty. We also had original music from Matt and from Dylan Keefe.

ROBERT: And special thanks to Will Baker.

JAD: Myra Milam.

ROBERT: John Dellamore.

JAD: Sam Mauer.

ROBERT: Tiffany Dillard Knox and Mary Mudd.

JAD: Darren "Chief" Elliot.

ROBERT: And Jodee Hobbs.

JAD: And Rashad Evans.

JAD: Okay, I'm Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT: And I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: Thanks for listening.

 

[LISTENER: Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neason, Sarah Qari, Anna Rascouët-Paz, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Carolyn McCusker and Sarah Sandbach. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Krieger and Adam Przybyl.]

-30-

Copyright © 2022 New York Public Radio. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use at www.wnyc.org for further information.

New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of programming is the audio record.