So I was thinking a little about the experience of NFL Finals. I saw three main finals (US Extemp, HI, and LD) and two supplemental finals (Storytelling and Editorial Commentary). I was officially present for the Oratory final, but Oratory tends to bore me to tears, so I opened up the laptop and discreetly caught up with my email during that one. I won’t apologize for this; until the event becomes something other than 70 minutes of pop philosophy, moral exhortations and poignant stories from a bunch of 17 year olds, I have little reason to listen if I’m not judging.
Anyhoo, the supplemental events are more or less usual final rounds that you could find at any regional tournament: they feature an appropriate but not overwhelming amount of ceremony, with a fair but not huge number of spectators, who are likely mostly drawn from the local leagues who have a student in the round. The students performed well, together with the vague sense of disjoint oddness that comes from supplemental events — no one does these things full time, and so no one really knows what they’re doing, or even what they’re supposed to be doing. But that’s fine, and they entertain, so we survive.
However, main event finals are an entirely different kettle of fish. The main final hall can hold around 3,000-5,000 people typically, and it’ll go from completely packed for the interp finals, to nearly a third full for the early morning Extemp finals. It becomes clear from the start that the NFL treats them as a Big Friggin’ Deal; they opened the day with an Elvis, they pack the judging panels with all sorts of people they want to impress and suck up to, and so on.
The effect, however, is distinctly harmful to the competition itself. In the US extemp final, the first three kids were able to handle it decently well; Becca, who was second speaker, was there last year, so she certainly didn’t have nearly the same epic tower of nerves going; this was familiar turf. The last three speakers, however, all looked like they were being led to their own executions, and they had to pull the trigger. Poor kids; nothing really sets you up for the experience of NFL finals except for making NFL finals, and since I imagine that most NFL finalists are first-timers in their senior year, there’s not much opportunity to gain experience. The last three kids basically forced their way through their final speeches, which were not very good. I imagine that for them to qualify for the final in the first place, each of them was a far better speaker than they demonstrated in the round; I bet their semifinal speeches were a great deal better.
The main event semis all happen at roughly the same time as one another, and they’re in normal classrooms with about 50 spectators at the most. Going from 50 spectators in a classroom to 1,000 in an auditorium in the course of one jump, and add to that the pressure of it being The National Final, and one grows surprised that more kids don’t wet themselves as soon as they set foot on stage. In some events, like Dramatic Interp, the effect is catastrophic; these pieces are designed to be performed in small, intimate settings and lose much of their punch when flung onto the stage. In Extemp, the kids don’t have their script and their memorized moves to cling to; they still have to make it up. The semis I’ve watched were better rounds by far than the finals I’ve watched, for exactly that reason.
It’s a shame in a way. The NFL is set up to be this big culminating event, and I understand their impulse to make the finals a Big Deal. They want to reward and congratulate the students with a huge experience, and they certainly do that. Their stage manager, too, is a wonderful guy, who very carefully guides the students through the process and tells them over and over, using different phrasing, to neither panic nor worry; he’s set up the process so the students don’t have to concentrate or remember any logistics or schedules, since they always have someone right next to them telling them what to do next. But, the spectacle itself degrades the quality of the round; it doesn’t permit each student to give it their best shot. I could wish the ramp up to a final wouldn’t be so suddenly vast, or that we could tone it down a little bit, so that I could have seen the best shot from the final three speakers, and not simply the best they could do when the stakes were at the absolute highest.