It was 30 seconds before the final round of the National Debate Tournament when Andrew Markoff (SFS ’14) received a final email message from his coach. The subject? Fundamentals. After four years, thousands of hours of preparation and a season full of tournaments, everything had all come down to the basics. The coach advised Markoff and his partner Andrew Arsht (COL ’14) to do what they had first been taught to do when learning to debate in high school.
“Speak clearly, don’t forget any arguments and don’t give them a way out. Essentially, don’t mess up. It was weird for me that after four, long, grueling years with all of these different topics, it all came down to the fundamentals,” Arsht said.
Many hours later, the fundamentals paid off: Markoff and Arsht won the national tournament for the second time. The team became legendary in debating history, having won the tournament as sophomores, becoming semi-finalists their junior year and finally winning the national title as seniors.
“I knew they were going to win,” said Andy McCoy (SFS ’16), part of the other team that qualified for the tournament. “Arsht and Markoff have always been the people you strive to be. They are great people and they work so hard.”with two teams of two people. The rounds typically last two hours during which each team member gives two speeches either negating or affirming a resolution. This year’s resolution focused on the judicial and statutory restrictions on the president’s war powers. The debates explored topics such as cyber warfare, the use of drone strikes, warfare in armed hostility situations like Libya and indefinite detention in Guantanamo.
The National Debate Tournament is the peak of the season in the college debating circuit. It consists of eight preliminary rounds and five elimination rounds. For the Georgetown team, the national tournament was the last tournament of eight in an exhausting season. The team of around 15 people spent the days in Indiana preparing to debate over 200 teams. Those who were not debating spent the days watching the other teams, writing down what arguments they were making and sending videos of the arguments to their coaches.
“The rest of the team has to scout and do intelligence. Without them, we couldn’t have done what we did,” McCoy said. “Generally, we were down in the lobby of hotel at 7 a.m. We would caffeine up, look at the evidence that had been accumulated the night before and debate all day until 9 p.m.”
They would then spend the whole night gathering more evidence and picking out relevant quotes to use during speeches, a process called “cutting cards.” It was an arduous process.
“Probably across the span of four or five days, [everyone on the team] maybe slept two hours a night,” Markoff said. “It was taxing both physically and emotionally. But there is always this moment when the field consolidates and you are in the last two. You can see the full squad unwinding and see how hard they have worked for you to get you to this point. When I can see my team’s faces it reminds me of why I love this so much. It’s not just winning, it’s a collective endeavor. Winning and working together makes us so close.”
Being on the debate team is a demanding extracurricular. Zachary Burdette (SFS ’17) says his coaches have estimated that the top researchers do the amount of work equivalent to writing a master’s thesis.
“It’s tough to convey what a time commitment it is. Debate is our basketball. The amount of time everyone devotes to it is like taking five classes. I’m glad that the profile of the debate team has gone up in the last few years because I hope that people know that by being a member of the Georgetown policy debate team, one is making big sacrifices,” Markoff said.
Yet, despite the time commitment, learning how to debate is an incredibly useful skill. McCoy has learned so many skills from debate.
“It’s made me a very good decision-maker. I can get the big picture and weigh the pros and cons. Even if I am trying to decide what to do after I graduate, it’s a transferable skill set. Also, it instills a good skill of communication,” McCoy said.
“The speed [of speaking during debates] sometimes makes class presentations hard,” Karkoff said. For him, debate has also taught him how to be a leader.
“It’s hard to lead by example and create an ethos of working hard but also having fun. When my partner and I got in a rut, and thought we just couldn’t do it, which we did, we had to learn how to force ourselves to do it, so that we didn’t let the rest of our team fall apart,” Karkoff said.
The loss of the leadership of “the Andrews,” as they are known, will be a great loss for the team.
“It’s going to be weird without them. It’s a new period of the team’s identity. I hope that we can keep their strong work mentality,” Markoff said. “It is such a true privilege and an honor to be a national champion. You have to engage in this weird nerd combat with truly the nerdiest, but also the smartest people in the country. Every single opponent we have had is a testament to how debate attracts brilliant minds. I’ll miss it.”