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Totally up for debate

A battle royale in the making?

This April, the Champions of the West take on the “Michigan of the East” in hopes of being crowned the national debate champions of 2016. That’s right, U-M’s No. 1-ranked debate team will face Harvard in a war of words that would leave lesser mortals dazed and confused.

Spring training is in full effect in the debate team’s office at the Michigan Union, where Joseph Krakoff and William Morgan spend some 40 hours per week reading, writing, and — yes — arguing. This is all in addition to their regular coursework as U-M seniors.

“Our alumni are very competitive; they want Michigan to be No. 1 in everything,” says Aaron Kall, U-M’s director of debate. “And our debate alumni are extremely competitive. This team is certainly aware of those expectations and will do everything we can to meet and exceed them. It would be great if this team could be the ones to bring the national championship home.”

In the spotlight

The stakes are especially high this year for Michigan debate. U-M placed second in the past two national championships, and is hungry for a win. With an opponent like Harvard, more eyes are on the team than usual. And with the presidential campaign debates pulling unprecedented TV ratings, burning up social media feeds, and even inspiring a side industry for online betting, debate is (dare we say it?) de rigeur.

“Every few years the country, the world, becomes fascinated with debate,” says Kall. “For someone who’s been doing it for so long, that’s great to see. You have to strike while the iron’s hot.”

Kall certainly has been striking. His own media profile as a “debate expert” is high, with placement in local, regional, and national news outlets. He’s been quoted in USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Times, among others. On Feb. 1, The Detroit Free Press published Kall’s op-ed, “[Bernie] Sanders should agree to Flint debate.”

“I’ve been doing this a long time, and have a good perspective of how the candidates are doing,” Kall says, “and I love to share my opinion with anyone who’s interested.”

On March 3, Michigan voters will welcome the Republican candidates to Detroit. Flint will host the Democratic contenders three days later on March 6, ensuring wide national exposure and ongoing discussion of the city’s devastating water crisis.

Listen in, Michigan

In this podcast, Kall has fun with a word-association game regarding each presidential candidate’s debating style and offers a tutorial on how we “civilians” can win our own daily debates … Keep reading below. (More Listen in, Michigan podcasts.)

Cage match

When he’s not coaching his own team, Kall certainly enjoys the role of spectator this time of year. Like most pundits analyzing the presidential debates, he attributes Donald Trump’s entry into the field (“a kind of mixed bag”) as bringing more attention to his favorite pastime.

“We’re seeing different debates than we’d be seeing if he weren’t there,” Kall says. “Just by the viewership numbers, we see that people like the ‘zingers,’ the back and forth. He’s certainly giving the crowd what they want.”

The candidates have delivered more than one teachable moment relevant beyond the campaign, he says, noting, “Even seasoned debaters can be vulnerable to traps.”

Whether it’s Rick Perry forgetting which government agency he wanted to destroy in 2012, or Marco Rubio playing into Chris Christie’s hands by repeating a canned line, one’s fortunes can turn quickly from contest to contest. Ted Cruz scored big points when he broke into Spanish recently, but he also left himself vulnerable to attack when he derided Trump for espousing a type of “New York liberalism.”

“It’s been a roller coaster,” Kall says. “But one good thing about having so many debates is that you can learn from your mistakes and come back with a good performance next time.”

The amazing comeback

Kall’s hoping that’s what will happen with his own team, Morgan and Krakoff, in April. He describes the senior duo as “brilliant and formidable” with an incomparable work ethic. Perhaps most important, they have the eye of the tiger, witnessing their former teammates take second place in extremely close final rounds of the national championships in 2015 and 2014.

The topic for 2016 will focus on reduction of U.S. military presence around the world. Each team must argue the topic from the affirmative and negative perspectives. Sub-resolutions will keep the content fresh during the long and grueling contest, as the teams debate what effect such moves might have on the president, the economy, the military, etc. And the sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia will surely figure into the mix.

“The days are long and the pressure is intense,” Kall says. “These aren’t athletes, but the rigors of debate — and what’s required at the top level — are just extraordinary.”

Been there, done that

For his own part, Kall fell in love with debate during a high school camp that brought him to U-M in 1994 and 1995. He returned to Michigan in 2002 and has been coaching here ever since.

“This is as high-level as the game gets,” he says. (After all, there is no “professional” debate league.) “There’s nothing like working with the best debaters in the country, competing against the best.”

As a former college debater who also made it to the national stage, Kall knows what his team will experience this spring. Regrettably he never won a national championship while debating, although his wife, whom he met on the debating circuit, does hold a national title.

“We didn’t like each other at all at the time; we weren’t even friendly,” Kall says of his one-time adversary. But their feelings changed when they met again on neutral ground as coaches at a high school debate camp. They’ve been together since 2001.

“Whenever people find out that we met through college debate, she’s quick to say, ‘Oh yes. And I beat him twice. 2-0,’” Kall says. “But we’ve finally reached a détente. She’s now a very successful lawyer. And I’ve had a very successful coaching career at Michigan. I love teaching debate and I love analyzing it. I couldn’t think of doing anything else, anywhere else.”

(Top image: Joe Krakoff and Will Morgan. Image courtesy of Aaron Kall.)


  1. Mia Gutierrez - UM 1991

    As a former debate coach, I can attest to the long hours, hard work and brilliance of debaters. Good luck and go blue!


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