Debate team argues for better future

Debate team argues for better future

By Matt Daray

After winning tournament, team members discuss program’s future

Arguing with passion and knowledge with the best in the country, the university’s debate team is now facing the challenge of passing the torch.

The Saluki Debate Team started its season with a perfect record after winning the Oct. 2 Golden Gate Invitational, its third tournament win of the year. Each tournament was dominated by team members Benjamin Campbell, a senior from Springfield, Mo, studying political science, and Josh Rivera, a junior from Chicago studying political science, who have won 29 out of 30 debates this season as a pair. With both set to graduate within the next three semesters, the team has begun to prepare the next generation of debaters for the stiff future competition.


Todd Graham, director of debate, said this year’s win streak is a continuation of a decade of success that has culminated in multiple tournament wins over the last six years.

The university’s debate team has made the final four in a national championship since they won in 2008. Considering its success, Graham said he is conflicted because he knows the team’s winning streak and overall performance won’t last forever but won’t end anytime soon.

“I feel like we’ve set the university up to such high standards over the course of the last decade, especially the last six years, I just don’t think this is normal,” he said.

The team is preparing to pass such success on to younger members since Campbell and Rivera will both graduate soon.

“Obviously, (Campbell and Rivera) are the heart of our team,” Graham said. “They’ve both been around for awhile, and right now they’re the strongest debate team in the country.”

Each competition requires a large amount of preparation and studying, Campbell and Rivera said.

The two said they go through rigorous training to prepare for debates and tournaments, which includes two days spending seven hours researching topics and practicing debates against other team members. They said they think this practice has kept the team on top and prepared for competitions.


Campbell said the team prepares by studying each competition’s judges to gauge what sorts of arguments and topics they tend to look for in a debater. He said each team member also meets with a coach one hour a week to work on previous speeches and improve their arguments.

Campbell said he has changed his style over the years to win competitions and is now focusing on sharpening his overall quality at debating.

“This is my eighth year in debate, so I’ve spent the better part of the decade, most of my life, revolving around debate arguments, … research and reading the news,” he said. “The big thing for me this year is focusing on skills and focusing on more technical aspects.”

Graham said Campbell and Rivera’s success could be intimidating to new team members because they have to practice against the best in the country. However, such practice will help them sharpen their skills and proceed with the level of success their predecessors left behind.

Having a small budget is also a concern for the team because it allows the retention of only four debaters for two teams, Graham said, which can render a nerve-wracking recruiting process.

“Every year, because we have such a small program, we have to make sure recruiting is done very, very well, and we have a very exacting process for the sort of debater we want to come to SIU,” he said. “Because we have such a small program, I can’t make any mistakes in recruiting.”

Climbing tuition rates have caused the team to offer fewer scholarships for students to attend the university and participate in the debate team, Graham said. He said while funding is lower than it was several years ago, the university has gone through great efforts to maintain the program and guarantee it can at least survive as a small team.

Competition can be tough for younger debaters, but Campbell said the team’s newcomers are poised to succeed after an impressive showing at the Golden Gate Invitational.

“It’s difficult to go 6-0 at a prelim tournament,” he said. “It’s even more difficult to do so at a tournament where there are a lot of other really good teams.”

Both Campbell and Rivera take responsibility for teaching the newest team members how to succeed and continue their legacy.

Campbell said his responsibilities as a senior team member are to help the newer members learn college-level debate skills and to assist them with academics and personal issues if needed.

“What I sort of try and help them do is focus on what is different from what they’ve done in the past and how they can get themselves better for this specific form,” he said.

With practice and hard work, the team’s newest members should be able to succeed their mentors, Rivera said.

“Really the hope is that not only are they able to have the success that they want, that as they do better than us, we see the success for ourselves,” he said.

“If they are better than us, that just proves the team is doing something correctly and

that the formula hasn’t broken down yet.”

Matt Daray can be reached at [email protected]

or 536-3311 ext. 254.