Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Designed to eliminate confusion: New name for NFL

Rick Sincere at NFL HQ in Ripon, 2012
News comes from Ripon, Wisconsin, that the venerable National Forensic League is changing its name to the National Speech & Debate Association.

The decision was made by the NFL's board last May.  One of the purposes behind the change in nomenclature was to reduce two separate but equally frustrating forms of confusion:  with the National Football League and with the term "forensics" as crime scene investigation procedures, as if the NFL were the trade association for characters played on TV by David Caruso, Ted Danson, and Gary Sinise.

To be fair, the term "forensics" derives from the courtroom rhetoric used by lawyers to prove their case beyond a shadow of a doubt.  Eventually this grew to encompass all the tools used by law enforcement and prosecuting attorneys, from fingerprints to DNA analysis as well as deductive reasoning and argumentation.  Orators and debaters laid claim to the word before the maggot-studying scientists started to use it.

In an FAQ on what used to be the NFL's web site, the reason for the rebranding is explained:
As a communication organization, we need to effectively communicate who we are and what we do. There is a common misunderstanding of “NFL” or “forensics,” including confusion with the National Football League or crime scene investigation; changing our name to focus on the activity of speech and debate will appeal to more students, coaches, alumni, sponsors, and the general public. We believe rebranding the organization as the National Speech & Debate Association will help us strengthen existing relationships, build new partnerships, increase national and local support for speech and debate, and allow us to pursue our mission to the fullest potential.
I have written on previous occasions about the positive impact speech and debate have had on my life and career.  Participating in debate through Marquette University High School's Webster Club and coaching younger debaters at the Georgetown University Forensics Institute (there's that word again) for three summers gave me analytical skills that I use every day.  Writing a blog post is not so different from writing a debate brief.  There just aren't as many bodies piled up on the podium, and you don't breathlessly tell your readers to "pull that across your flow."

It's too bad that popular culture has seldom offered a realistic view of speech and debate.  (Even the well-received play, Speech & Debate by Stephen Karam, is off the mark.)  Films like Thumbsucker and Listen to Me deserve thumbs up for effort but raspberries for accuracy.

The only recognizable portrayal of competitive speech on the high school circuit I have found is in James Magruder's novel, Sugarless.  In a brief review of that book in 2010, I wrote:
I don't read much fiction, in general, but when I received a review copy of James Magruder's Sugarless late last year, I simply could not put it down.

It has been almost a year since I read the book, but I still think about it because it resonates with my personal experience so much: not in every aspect, but hitting a sufficient number of points on the matrix to make me believe it.

Sugarless is the story of Rick, a 15-year-old high school student in suburban Chicago during the mid-1970s who, almost purely by chance, ends up on the speech team and finds out he has a talent for dramatic interpretation (or dramatic interp, for those in the know).

Magruder's verisimilitude about high school forensics struck me more than anything else in the book, even the parts about the protaganist's struggle with coming out as gay in an era far less accepting of that than it is now. His descriptions of the scenes at speech tournaments are amazingly accurate, and his portrayals of coaches and competitors are eerily familiar to me.

The one detail that other readers might find difficult to believe is the choice of the protaganist's speech coach to have him do an excerpt from Mart Crowley's play, The Boys in the Band. People unfamiliar with high school forensics may think that a play about gay men would be off-limits, especially in 1976, and especially in the American Midwest.

The truth is, a cutting from The Boys in the Band was circulating at that time, and my own coach asked me to do it. For reasons unrelated to the content of the piece, I ended up doing a different selection. (If I recall correctly, it was the courtroom scene in A Man for All Seasons, a far more conventional choice.) So I can testify against the doubters that an excerpt from The Boys in the Band was, indeed, being performed on the high school forensics circuit in the mid-1970s.

Having just seen the excellent documentary about Crowley and his play, Making the Boys, at the Virginia Film Festival, my memories of reading Sugarless earlier this year and my own experience in high school rushed back to me.
I recommend Sugarless to anyone who has competed in speech and debate or to anyone who was once a gay teenager. It's an excellent book, and a compelling read -- a real achievement for a first-time novelist, even one who, like Magruder, is an accomplished playwright and translator.
I would love to see Sugarless on screen, although I doubt that's likely to happen anytime soon. Too niche; too talky; too gay -- but delicious all the same.

Having mentioned Sugarless, I should also note Mark Oppenheimer's relatable, readable memoir, Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate. Oppenheimer portrays accurately the debate environment in which he competed, but that was not policy debate under the auspices of the NFL or the NCFL (National Catholic Forensic League). It was, rather, a self-contained regional circuit populated by New England prep school teams, different from the kind of debate people tend to encounter elsewhere in the country (Upper Midwest, Texas) and even in today's urban debate leagues. My review of Wisenheimer was published in December 2010.

While old-timers like myself may feel the rebranding of the National Forensic League into the National Speech & Debate Association (no approved acronym or abbreviation ) is a rejection of the organization's historical roots, at least it is an accurately descriptive moniker for the group.  It requires no more explanation than what can fit on a business card.

A final note:  it was announced earlier this month that the policy debate topic for the 2014-15 school year will be "Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its non-military exploration and/or development of the Earth's oceans."

Ocean policy got me into college and was one-quarter of my master's degree -- but those are stories for another time, another day.

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