Usual Suspects

This last weekend was the Columbia Tournament, which is probably the most tense tournament we of the Traveling Tabulating Circus run.  Not because the Columbia kids do it worse — in fact, they’re usually spot on with excellent tournament direction.  This year was no exception; Brittany did a fantastic job, which is usual for a Columbia TD.  But usually their great weakness is they have had to stand alone, since the team historically was quite small.  Not so anymore; Brittany had help in droves.  The help certainly showed in the tournament quality; folks like Nora, Dhruv, Justin, Rohan, and the Guido all played essentially roles.  And they had the best ballot sorting operation I’ve ever seen run by college students, which meant quite simply they took it seriously.

But Columbia is in the unenviable position of actually being in New York City.  I don’t like New York, that’s no mystery, but that’s not what I mean.  The trouble is, easily half of its considerable draw doesn’t see it as anything more than a local.  Lots of kids and judges stay at home, come in by ones and twos, and schools change everything under the sun at the last minute.  It’s very difficult to run an all events invitational as it is; it’s nearly impossible to do so when half the coaches are asking for consideration and help and special exceptions as if it were Just Another Local.  It isn’t.  And Palmer is a finite quantity.

So this time around, I snapped a little.  The Coach Who Always Registers Late wasn’t allowed to register at all.  Fines were levied and registration fees dropped after the deadline were paid.  My emails were decidedly less helpful and decidedly more accusatory when the situation fit.  It certainly felt somewhat good, but it didn’t really help the long term much, I suspect.

The trouble with our tournaments is that we’ve build up a huge scaffolding  of rules and monetary incentives to be good citizens in the forensics community, clearly defined in the invite as far as we can.  But let’s be honest, they don’t work.  95% of the people at a tournament are good citizens, and cause 5% of the problems.  The other 5% is a constant cast of characters who, after a decade or two of doing this activity, still cannot seem to figure out basic things about attending tournaments, no matter how many fines they have paid.

The good people pay fines on the rare occasion when they happen to screw up, but the people who flout the standards and rules all the time — the people fines and rules were created for  — often put up such an unholy fuss that it’s not worth the money to bother them about it.   So you end up penalizing and charging the very people you don’t mind doing favors for, since those favors are rare and apologetically asked for, instead of demanded as some right.

There’s no substitute for coaches understanding that the tournament director’s time is a precious, usually unpaid resource essential to our activity.   Coaches who routinely foist their own chaos on the tournament, by unapologetically changing everything at the last minute, sometimes after the tournament begins, cause a lot of direct harm when their changes slip; judge rankings, speech room sizes, byes given to opponents of missing debaters, etc.  But their biggest indirect harm is at the top.  It’s simply unconscionable that they value their own time above the tournament director’s.  It’s no mistake that invariably none of the Usual Suspects is a tournament director in their own right.

Because I have to put up with changes, oddball requests, missing judges, and efforts to break various rules and guidelines nearly constantly from Wednesday night until the tournament is done, I can’t do any number of things I’d like to make the college tournaments run better.  I can’t read ballots and evaluate new judges for elim rounds.  I can’t edit the extemp questions as carefully as I’d like.  I can’t spend time nailing down the exact rooms for elims until the last minute, or even go around and look at the rooms to see if they are in fact well suited for Congress supers or VLD semis.  I can’t sleep that extra hour so I don’t yell and snap at people the next morning instead of talking.

In short, by outsourcing their lack of organizational skills to me, the tab director, these 5% make the tournament appreciably worse for the other 95% of the tournament.  Not to mention me, said tab director, who often has a difficult and wearying time.  I’m also fighting a lot of burnout; I’m speculating how much longer I can do this game.  I dare say that I’ve done a lot of good for a lot of kids at college tournaments, but it comes at considerable cost to my own life, and this sort of behavior amplifies that cost considerably.

The trouble is, forensics lacks a league; the NFL and NCFL notwithstanding, there is simply no governing authority to our activity with both universal reach and legitimate and transparent decision making to be an effective regulator of our sport.  The NFL is universal, but not legitimate; the NCFL is neither.  Local leagues are often legitimate and transparent, but never universal.  Our own Northeast Circuit doesn’t even so much as have a league on paper, though in practice we are something of a league already, simply being a gathering of like minded people who run everything.   But at the end of the day, there’s no arbiter to really punish the screwups.  If you screw over Lexington with various shenanigans, you still get to come to Columbia.  If you screw with Columbia, Scarsdale’s still there for you.  And that means on subsequent weekends, Sara S, myself, and Joe V have to put up with your crap and make our tournaments suffer for it.

We talked about at one point getting each others’ backs in the event that a school stiffed a tournament on fees, the others wouldn’t let that school register until the fees were paid.  That gets triggered once in a while, usually when a school absconds with a lot of money, such as by pulling out of the tournament on the last day or something.  But that just treats money.  So I took a stand this year, and just didn’t let repeat offenders into the tournament late.  That gate has closed.   Perhaps we should close others?