Fighting words

UGA debaters are arguably a national powerhouse

Fighting words

Firing words like bullets, sophomore Brittany Cambre of Alpharetta makes an argument during a practice debate at Phi Kappa Hall in February. Junior Maggy Warden, also of Alpharetta, prepares for her turn.

Photo by: Andrew Davis Tucker

Brittany Cambre stands behind a makeshift lectern of two blue plastic tubs in a sixth floor corner classroom. With pages of notes in front of her, the Georgia debater takes a breath and launches a rapid-fire soliloquy on U.S.-Syria relations.

Members of the Emory University team competing against Cambre discuss holes in her evidence as she quickly delivers her points. At times, they almost drown her out, but Cambre takes loud, deep breaths and finishes her argument within the allotted nine minutes.

Emory won the last time these two teams met. Now, in the qualifying round for the National Debate Tournament, Cambre and teammate Adam Schmidt take the victory. It sends the pair to future rounds, which result in more victories, and helps two Georgia teams advance to the national tournament.

With that, Georgia continues its streak, sending teams to the nationals for the past 20 years. In all, 38 UGA teams have competed for a national title since 1987. Last year, UGA's Brent Culpepper (AB '07) and Kevin Rabinowitz (BBA '07) received the Copeland Trophy, a glass pyramid-shaped award given to the nation's best team.

"Debate, like athletics, is competitive, and there may be some alumni who want UGA to be at the top in both academic and athletic fields," UGA Debate Union coach Ed Panetta says. "There are very few institutions that truly succeed at both; there is no reason UGA shouldn't find itself amongst that very small group of colleges and universities."

Success doesn't come without dedication. Culpepper and Rabinowitz say their debate preparation was a full-time job—40 to 60 hours a week researching, strategizing and practicing their arguments in the team's trophy-filled office in Phi Kappa Hall. That commitment enabled them to excel in their classes and enhanced their collegiate experience, says Culpepper, now in law school at Vanderbilt University.

"Debate was the single most important factor in my enjoying the university," he says. "It really becomes a lifestyle."

The work begins in the summer, when the topic is announced, and continues through the year. "I feel like you almost put in the time of a student-athlete," says Spencer Diamond, a senior and member of Georgia's other national qualifying team.

Memories of those late nights and long road trips, on a minimal budget, have created intense loyalty among alumni, some of whom now help fund UGA's debate program, which is part of the Speech Communication department within the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. Eight of the 16 members on this year's roster have scholarships ranging from $400-$2,500 (the largest amounts are Richard Russell Advocacy Scholarships, awarded to four debaters).

Gainesville attorney William House (BBA '67, JD '69) is aware of the budget limitations the program has faced. He remembers trying out as a freshman in 1963 for the only scholarship—$250—and losing out. House has pledged $100,000 that will go into an interest-bearing account, with the income used for scholarships.

"I would like to repay some of the benefits that I received by helping some other students," he says.

Texas attorney Brent Clark (AB '87, MBM '88) is among the contributors, both with his dollars and moral support. He brought the team cases of soft drinks and bottled water, bags of microwave popcorn, chips and salsa and other snacks at last year's national tournament in Dallas.

"When I was at Georgia, we had nothing. It was very bare bones. We'd get kicked around by schools. It was almost laughable," Clark says. "The (Georgia) debaters now would have killed us. They are in a league with Dartmouth and Harvard and Berkeley and all the schools that would totally dominate us in years gone by."

Panetta became Debate Union coach in 1987. He recalls a department secretary asking him how much of the $10,000 budget he expected to return at the end of the year. "I looked up from my desk and said we needed more money and I was going to ask the department to provide us with a larger budget," he says.

His first year, the program had no returning debaters. Clark, in his first year of graduate school, had been the sole team member. There were no scholarships and no assistant coaches. Training and recruiting students was a challenge, and Panetta began by sending the two-person teams to small confidence-building competitions. Just three years later, the team advanced to the National Debate Tournament.

Georgia's prominence rose as the program, which had a previous heyday from 1964-77, grew stronger and debated worldwide. This year's squad won tournaments at the U.S. Naval Academy and University of Miami. A prison system outreach program, which former Gov. Roy Barnes participated in as a student, continues. Through Panetta's guidance, several former debaters were inspired to coach on high school and college levels. For his 20-plus years of dedication to debating at UGA, Panetta was named this year's Glen Pelham Coach of the Year, a national award.

"Individuals like Ed Panetta show that they care about the whole development of the student, not just as it relates to debate," says former debater Shuntá Jordan (BSFCS '98, MEd '03), now a debate coach at Pace Academy in Atlanta.

Panetta's role is shifting. He will focus on fundraising while a new coach shoulders much of the travel responsibilities. Panetta hopes to build a $2 million endowment for the program over the next decade. He already has received a significant gift for travel and coaching from former Florida State Rep. Marjorie Turnbull (MA '68), in honor of her late husband Augustus Turnbull III (AB '62), a former debate team captain.

"I don't want the program to ever find itself in a position where UGA debaters can't compete with the very best programs in America," Panetta says. "This is a pretty big challenge."

He'll also train coaches (Georgia is one of six active Ph.D.-granting programs that does so), facilitate local public debates, strengthen the prison debate program and assist in team strategy.

Current debaters say the visibility and tradition of Georgia's program and outstanding facilities made UGA stand out. Several accepted admission after being exposed to the program during events in high school.

"I wouldn't have gone to a school that didn't have debate," says Maggy Warden, a squad member who debated with Cambre during high school in Alpharetta.

"It was one of the turning points in my life that made me who I am today," Barnes says. "I was a fairly quiet, shy kid. Debate helped bring me out."

Back at the lectern, Cambre fires words like bullets from a machine gun—too fast for a casual observer to follow the argument.

"The judges are trained to listen to those debates," says Panetta, who doesn't want people to think he's training auctioneers. "Our debaters do have the capacity to adapt to public audiences when that is the expectation."

Cambre says the skills of debate, such as the ability to think quickly, translate to the classroom, where she is majoring in international affairs and international business. But the laborious research and other team requirements can take a toll. "There are definitely times when you're like, ‘I'm fed up with this,'" she says.

"Sometimes we have ridiculous amounts of work to do," says Warden, a risk management and insurance major. But it gets done, over winter breaks, summer recesses and in between classes and coursework. "You don't want to let the team down."

Looking back

Roy Barnes

(AB '69, JD '70)
Attorney, Barnes Law Group, Mableton
Barnes "just wandered in one day" to a debate team meeting in the basement of the Fine Arts Building. "I liked the exchange of ideas and being able to think on your feet, which came in very handy later."
Speed or not:
"As you can tell, I don't talk too fast. And to be quite frank with you, I've always criticized that style. I've always liked the style where you argued persuasively."
Skill set:
The research skills and self-confidence to take on both sides of an issue.

Ralph Reed

(AB '88)
Chairman and CEO, Century Strategies, a public relations and public affairs firm, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.
Reed was a debater at Stephens County High School in Toccoa and attended a debate camp at UGA in 1978, before joining the team.
Speed or not:
"I did talk fast and I got my material through, but I wasn't one of these guys who literally was a machine gun."
Skill set:
The research ability and knowing an opponent's arguments. "Most people who'd never been on a debate team just do not realize the literally months and months of research that are done. Back then, we would spend just hours and hours in the library doing research."

Paul Baxter

(AB '70)
Pastor, First Baptist Church, LaGrange
Baxter attended Georgia on a debate scholarship. He "retired" from his debate career after winning the top speaker award at the Southern Invitational Debate Tournament at Agnes Scott College in 1968.
Speed or not:
Baxter, who is from England, says his greatest difficulty was debating with a British accent that made it tough to compete with the "fastest talkers on the planet: debaters. When I tried to speak too fast, I left the judges behind. That taught me to try and make every word count. It has helped me preach shorter sermons that my congregation would count as a real benefit from debate."
Skill set:
Baxter says he continues to experience the importance of examining other viewpoints in search of the truth personally and professionally. Debating also enabled him to think on his feet and enriched his listening skills.

Shuntá Jordan

(BSFCS '98, MEd '03)
Fuqua Chair of Speech and Debate, Pace Academy, Atlanta
Jordan was a high school debater before joining UGA's team for the experience and camaraderie.
Speed or not:
Jordan admits the speed makes some people question whether they can be successful in debate. "I personally think the rapid–fire way of speaking is all part of the strategy. Teams try to put as much pressure as they can on their opponents."
Skill set:
Debate helped her develop critical thinking skills and awareness of global issues. "Debate is one of the best ‘games' that one could play. You are a part of fierce competition whether it be at the middle school, high school, or collegiate level."

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About the Author

Lori Johnston is a writer in Athens.