F&M Debate Team ascends in national rankings, lacks campus recognition

By Erin Moyer || Senior Editor

“Okay, what’s the one thing that you want F&M to know about the debate team?”

Without missing a beat, Matt Rohn ‘16 replied: “That we have one.”

Well, there you have it. Let it now be officially, finally known (among my dozens and dozens of readers) that F&M has a debate team. Does it ever have a debate team. And chances are, they’re the most successful F&M team you’ve never heard of.

For those who don’t know– which, by the Debate Team’s estimation, could be a large number of people– the F&M Debate Team is currently ranked third in the country. Rohn and Edwin Bogert ‘17 are ranked behind only George Washington University and Yale University. Only two schools in the country have a more successful debate team than we do. Only two. Rohn and Bogert are far, far ahead of heavyweights like Johns Hopkins, Princeton, and Harvard. Has F&M ever been ranked above them in anything, much less something something as cognitive and challenging and important as debate? I’m not so sure. This past winter, our Debate Team even went to the World Universities Debate Council’s Worlds Championship in Thessoloniki. Have we ever done anything on such a global scale? Again, I am not so sure. This paragraph is full of exclamations and italics because our debate team’s situation is a little unbelievable; For any part of F&M to be faring so well is great. But for an organization that runs on a shoestring budget and surprisingly little campus enthusiasm, it’s that much more remarkable.

What makes the F&M Debate Team so great? I asked them myself. Alex Mericola ’19 summed it up in one word: persistence. To say the team has had a renaissance over the past two years would be incorrect, because “renaissance” means “rebirth.” This team wasn’t “reborn,” because it never really existed quite like this. This team has built itself up from the ground.

The Debate Team is technically a part of Club Council, and they do receive what is a fairly large sum of funding for a group within Club Council. The issue there, though, is that this organization doesn’t really function like any other club here. No, the debate team is really that: a team. A competing, travelling team who goes out on the road most weekends. Rohn said that the debate team attends about 25 to 30 tournaments a year, and what Club Council gives them, as nice as it is, generally only covers the cost of attending three a semester.

The team thus sustains itself on the generosity of others. The College funded the cost of attending Worlds, and the team received a generous donation from the Bonchek family — generous all the more given that Larry Bonchek’s son debated at Princeton. The debate team also turns some subsistence profit off hosting its own tournament, as it did this past weekend. The F&M Pro-Ams 2016 Emily Ray Thought, an event that I really hope was officially titled that, actually happened just this past weekend. If you caught sight of dozens of sharp, arguing people this weekend, you got to see the Debate Team at work. 

However, you definitely didn’t see our own Debate Team in action; when a team hosts a tournament, they don’t compete in it. Bogert speculated that perhaps the reason F&M’s debate team doesn’t have a wider on-campus following is that the team never really does debate on-campus. You’d have to be a wildly dedicated fan to catch our own Debate Team anywhere. Most tournaments the Debate Team competes in would warrant at least a two-hour drive.

Getting to the tournament may be the least stressful part of the whole weekend, though. The tournaments the team travels to sound surreally intense. You crash on a dorm room floor, you wake up at 8:00 a.m., and the best case scenario is that your next eight hours are spent yelling at strangers. Bogert joked that it makes for a disjointed sort of life: there’s “alternate universe” of people you know really well but see in different cities every weekend, all roaming and arguing around the country.

The Debate Team has been receiving attention after its upcoming event, the F&M Debate on Fraternities, drummed up a maelstrom of controversy. It’s a sudden flurry of attention for the team who’s mostly just been quietly beating the rest of the country with relatively little fanfare. 

The press the team is getting for the Fraternities Debate may signal even more coverage in the team’s future. Rohn said that Mericola may be their most successful novice of all time. I say, keep an eye on F&M’s best team ever.

Start following this roving band of semi-rock stars on tour. Start watching what may be our most successful thing of maybe all time. By way of closing, I’ll let the country’s sixth-ranked speaker, Matt Rohn, play me out: “You know what else we’re better at than Harvard? Nothing.”

Senior Erin Moyer is the senior editor of The College Reporter. Her email is emoyer1@fandm.edu

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