SKOKIE, Illinois. It’s the time of the year when many teens are working on their tans or at minimum-wage jobs, but one group of adolescents can be found each night holed up in their local libraries, scribbling obscure facts on note cards. “What we do is football for smart kids,” says Todd Bemish, incoming president of his high school’s chapter of the National Forensic League, the organization that sponsors debate tournaments around a central topic each year.
“For third base, not just pizza and a movie, but also a corsage.”
But this year there is competition for the NFL, as it is jocularly known to members such as Bemish, for whom the resemblance to pro football helps dispel the stigma of nerdiness that is associated with high school debate. A breakaway group, the American Forensic League, has sprung up to challenge it, and is actively recruiting kids who like to argue about more exotic topics than the high-minded subjects traditionally chosen by its older competitor.
“Going Dutch is not a sustainable solution.”
“Next year’s NFL topic is ‘Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its exploration and/or development of space beyond the Earth’s mesosphere,'” says debater Matt Grimkle, who will head the AFL’s first chapter in Skokie at a rival high school across town. “The correct answer is ‘Who gives a crap?'” he says dismissively, as he flips through data he is compiling to argue both sides of the AFL’s maiden topic, “Resolved: That men should pay for sex.” “I was in favor of ‘Resolved: That you should pass me that joint, dude,'” Grimkle notes, “but it got voted down as too one-sided.”
ABA, not to be confused with the American Bar Association.
Upstart rival groups have succeeded in both football and basketball, where “American” leagues were formed to challenge monopolies held by “National” leagues. “Where one league holds a hegemonic dominance, it is deleterious to microeconomic consumer choice,” says debater Lawrence Compas, who decided to join the AFL after he was passed over for the position of president of the NFL chapter in Danville, Illinois. “I would say more, but I’ve used up all my vocab words from last semester.”
Semi-enthusiastic fist pump by “Affirmative” team.
In addition to sex, AFL debaters will tackle other subjects of more immediate interest to teens than typical NFL fare. “Last year their topic was ‘Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially reduce its military and/or police presence in one or more of the following: South Korea, Japan, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq, Turkey,'” says Marilynn Ester of Overland Park, Kansas. “I joined the AFL so I could argue issues like ‘Resolved: That my curfew should be midnight like all my friends, not 11 p.m. like I’m still in junior high.”