Marcus Leach has a plan to end racism. And if it's not enacted, the world will end in nuclear holocaust. It's late on a Saturday night in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and things aren't looking good for humanity. Marcus is digging through documents, trying to find the perfect piece of evidence to sway the panel of "policy makers" now staring at him.
Things had started out so well. His fellow advocate for humanity, Brandon Dial, had laid out the pair's case brilliantly. At a clip of more than 300 words a minute, Brandon offered a slew of statistics and called for an extension of the Civil Rights Act to assure "equitable and culturally sensitive" mental-health care.
Doing so, Brandon had argued, would push the nation toward freedom from racial divisions. "The walls of racism can be dismantled," he exclaimed.
If racial inequalities were not obliterated, Brandon had warned (citing scholar Clarence Munford), their underlying hatred would continue to grow until it exploded into "the ultimate catastrophe ... nuclear conflict in the coming century."
But their plan has fallen under vicious attack. A pair of political enemies has offered the judges nine reasons why they should vote against it.
Now Marcus has just one minute to prepare a final speech answering all of his opponents' claims.
He leans over a table, scratching notes onto a blank sheet of paper. A toothache has settled in. His jaw feels as if it'll explode. He's going to lose.
Then he remembers a bit of text written by Todd May, a philosophy professor at the University of South Carolina. He stuffs it in with the rest of his documents and, as a buzzer sounds, takes his place behind the podium.
Marcus speaks at a rate that seems inhuman, flicking each sheet of evidence onto the floor as he finishes reading it.
Then he gets to May's idea: "Your job as an intellectual is not to dictate the movement from above, but to stand alongside the people and their struggle," Marcus says.
The implications are clear to everyone. Both Marcus and Brandon are blacks from one of the poorest parts of Kansas City. Their opponents are whites from the opulent suburb of West Des Moines -- and in order to eradicate racism, they need to step aside and empower its victims.
Time runs out, and the officials pore over their notes. Fifteen minutes pass. Then thirty. The officials tally their ballots and pause, drawing out the tension in the room, before declaring their support for Marcus and Brandon's plan.
Civilization has been saved.
More important, Marcus and Brandon have won the debate round. For a seventeen-year-old kid like Marcus, winning here is worth more than world peace.
The win means he gets to trade a dull, dark drive down Interstate 80 for another night in Cedar Rapids, where he'll compete the next day for a chance of winning the prestigious Iowa Caucus, a tournament of 51 debate teams from high schools across the country.
It's almost midnight. In a white van, the Central High School debate squad ventures across Cedar Rapids in search of an open restaurant. Marcus leans forward in his seat and slaps his knee.
"Who bling-blinged that final speech with just a minute of prep?" he shouts.
"Marcus!" the girls reply.
"Who bling-blinged that speech with a minute of prep and a sore tooth that felt like a broken mouth?"
He sits back and rubs his cheek.
"Man, I thought we were gonna lose that round," he says. But he had remembered what the May evidence would suggest about his opponents. "I was, like, 'Nigga, you white! You can't dictate the revolution!'"
And it is a revolution. Since the creation of the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues (commonly called the UDL) in 1997, more than 12,000 urban kids -- most of whom are black -- have taken up competitive debate, a game of strategy and power that's been dominated by affluent white kids for more than a century.
Representing Central, which state education bureaucrats have branded one of the worst high schools in Missouri, Marcus Leach has emerged as one of the top debaters in the country, says Linda Collier, director of the University of Missouri-Kansas City's top-ranked debate program. He and his teammates have been consistently competitive on the national high school debate circuit, a network of elite and tough tournaments held across the country.
The Iowa Caucus is one such tournament. Its competitors have flown in from hundreds of miles away -- from Nashville's Montgomery Bell Academy (Senate Majority Leader William Frist's alma mater), from the pricy Pace Academy in Minneapolis and from Chicago's wealthy North Shore suburbs.
Central's debaters are the only blacks competing in the late October contest. And after their Saturday-night victory over West Des Moines' private Dowling High School, Marcus and Brandon are among a mere eight teams left battling for a heavy bust of George Washington.
If Vegas bookies laid odds on high school debate, they'd pick Marcus and Brandon to lose. Their top-seeded opponents went undefeated during the pre-elimination rounds.
But Marcus has another plan.
Working the tournament's gossip mill, he has learned that Rosemount is easily stymied by esoteric, philosophical arguments. Rosemount is best at fending off straight political attacks -- the kind Marcus and Brandon usually deploy. While the two teams prep, Marcus and Brandon pretend like they're planning to follow their typical strategy, mumbling just loud enough for their opponents to hear snippets of a political case.
Rosemount starts the round. A blond kid reads through evidence suggesting that Congress pass a bill forcing insurance companies to increase their coverage of treatment for mental illnesses.
After he's done, Brandon strides up to the podium and drops the bomb.
Citing the dense writings of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, he argues that the Rosemount kids are exploiting the suffering of the mentally ill for the selfish purpose of winning a debate round, thus causing more harm than good.
The Rosemount kids drop their pens and stare up at Brandon as if he's insane. Marcus lowers his head to stifle a laugh. As the round grinds on, Rosemount tries to argue that the tactic is unfair, that such meta-arguments undermine the purity of policy debate. But the judges aren't buying it. In the end they vote for Central, and it's on to the final four.
The victory earns Marcus and Brandon a bid to the University of Kentucky's Tournament of Champions -- the ultimate goal of debaters on the national circuit. Debating with another partner, Marcus qualified for the tournament last year. But a fifty-year-old rule upheld by the Missouri State High School Activities Association kept him from going ("War of Words, Round One," May 1).
At this year's Iowa Caucus, there's some hope that the MSHSAA will lift its rule; angry Kansas City, Missouri, School District officials have vowed to fight it.
Marcus and Brandon easily dispense of their semifinal opponent, a team from North Dakota's Fargo North High School featuring a kid who's weighing college options at Harvard, the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Michigan. In the finals, they conquer a team from Edina of Minneapolis.
The judges hand the trophy to Central, and coach Jane Rinehart leaps from her chair with her fists raised high. Hers is the first UDL team ever to win a national-circuit tournament.
The Central squad heads back to Kansas City through a driving snow as Eminem shouts "White America!" from the van's stereo. By Monday morning, the nation's online debate chat rooms are buzzing about Central's win.
"Congrats to KCC for winning the tournament!" posts one St. Louis debater. "It's nice to have a team from MO representing so well on the national circuit."
But the chatter quickly turns to controversy as local debaters and coaches lament that Central probably won't be allowed to compete at the Tournament of Champions.
"Missouri's season ends on April 25-26, 2003," writes Terrance Shuman, a coach in St. Joseph. "The TOC is a week later. MSHSAA doesn't permit competition out of season during the school year."
Missouri's rules are designed to keep teams close to home. In Kansas and Missouri, rural and suburban coaches are fiercely loyal to an old-fashioned style of debate in which kids speak slowly and offer sensible, uncomplicated arguments -- and these coaches wield tremendous influence over their high school activities associations.
Here in town, the Central kids tend to lose. For instance, the week before the Iowa Caucus, Marcus and Brandon competed in suburban Kansas City and failed miserably.
They each paired up with other debaters -- Brandon with a fellow senior, Marcus with a sophomore named Ebony Rose. Though Ebony has torn up the novice division this year, he was nervous to be debating with a school legend like Marcus. During the early rounds at Shawnee Mission South High School, he froze up during speeches and dropped his evidence. At one point, Marcus passed him a note that read "Stop pussying out and being nonconfident."
Unlike national-circuit tournaments, the kids on the opposing teams offered little evidence to support their claims regarding this year's nationwide debate topic, mental health care in the United States. When challenged with an onslaught of information, they started sputtering inanities. During one round, the other team argued that "Congress and the courts are both under the judicial branch." Another team referred to it as "the jurisdictional branch." Marcus had to cover his mouth to keep from laughing at that.
When it was his turn to speak, Marcus rocketed through stacks of information while the judges nodded. But as the tournament wore on, he couldn't shake the feeling that he and Ebony were losing. So he decided to shake things up by running a bizarre philosophical case called "pet therapy." In it, the team used scholarly evidence to support a claim that high school debaters can't make politicians change laws, so debaters might as well talk about how they really can bring about change -- such as convincing average people (in this case, debate judges) to play with dogs more often.
The debate quickly became heated. Like the Rosemount kids Marcus had beaten at the Iowa Caucus, these Kansas opponents complained that Central's peculiar attack violated "the rules of debate." Marcus correctly countered that there are no rules for debate (except time limitations). A nasty argument ensued, voices rising, until one of the judges raised her hand and said, "Whoa! Stop! Get back to debating the issue!"
Marcus stopped and stared at her. A judge had never interrupted him and told him to change his tack.
Dejected, he forced himself through the rest of the round and then set out through the winding hallways in search of Rinehart, who was off watching some of his teammates debate.
"How'd it go?" she asked.
When he told her, Rinehart was shocked that judges would stop a round. Marcus slumped to the floor with his back against a wall, and Rinehart handed him the tournament's judging guidelines.
Unlike the national circuit, tournaments in Kansas and Missouri use judges who have little or no experience with debate. Often they're just well-intentioned parents who are willing to help out the school hosting the tournament.
He scanned the list of "pointers for judging debate." It placed very little emphasis on evidence -- the lifeblood of national-circuit debate -- and instead told the judges to make subjective decisions based on how the kids talk and present themselves.
"I have to have 'general appearance' to be a good debater," he griped, reading a line from the list.
The Central squad moved into the school's auditorium for the awards ceremony, settling into a few rows near the back in a darkened spot beneath a burned-out bulb. The tournament director read a list of names -- none of them Central kids. As the team got up to leave, Brandon declared in a deep, Uncle Remus voice, "Y'all out-debated our asses!"
"Magnify this by every weekend," Rinehart said later, "and that shows how the first two years were for [the Central debate program].... Finally I said enough is enough."
Rinehart hates to lose. She's not satisfied with telling a kid, "You did your best." She wants her debaters to feel the thrill of hoisting trophies over their heads.
She came to Central as an English teacher in 1997. All kids are teachable, she figured, no matter how poor they are. Years earlier, coaching in Illinois, she had routinely led her ragtag squad from a downstate school past the national debate powerhouses on Chicago's North Shore.
Her first year at Central, her teams took beatings from more experienced debaters at schools like Blue Springs and Lee's Summit. But before her second year, she managed to find some money for a few of her kids to travel to colleges for summer debate camps. They came back hyped and ready to nab some metal.
But her teams quickly fell into a pattern at local tournaments, winning their first two rounds, then bowing out after losing four in a row. Unschooled in debate, the judges didn't understand the intricacies of argument construction and tended to vote with their guts. Rinehart began to suspect that cultural biases were affecting their decisions. Central, after all, has long had a bad reputation in the metro. Its population has been predominantly black since the late 1950s. And throughout the era of desegregation, the media routinely upheld the school as an example of how urban education had failed.
"If you're judging based on how kids talk and look, our kids are always going to lose," Rinehart says.
After months of frustration, she called a debate director at a high school in Des Moines and asked what tournaments were coming up. He told her about one at Dowling, a well-regarded Catholic school in the city's suburbs. She signed up her teams and navigated the school district's bureaucracy to score some money for the trip.
Driving into the school's parking lot, her students marveled at the Benzes, Cadillacs and BMWs. As Rinehart settled into a school desk to judge a round, she began to worry that she'd made a mistake. She hadn't seen national-circuit debate since her time in Illinois, and these debaters were better than any she'd seen.
After the round, she wandered through the halls expecting to find her team dejected. Then one of her younger debaters bounced up to her shouting, "We won! We won! I love Iowa!"
By tournament's end, three of her teams had broken into elimination rounds, and three of her kids had nabbed top-ten speaker awards.
Later that school year, with graduation drawing near, Rinehart answered the phone in her classroom and began stammering to answer a litany of questions from a state high school activities official.
Fred Binggeli, overseer of speech and debate programs for the Missouri State High School Activities Association, explained that MSHSAA rules limit the number of debate tournaments kids can compete in. Her team had broken the rules, he said, and her students now faced suspension from competition for up to a year.
Rinehart almost dropped the receiver. Besides the Dowling tourney, the creation of Debate Kansas City -- the local UDL chapter -- was the best thing that had happened all season. It offered two-round tournaments every two weeks or so where her kids, stinging from their failures in the nearby suburbs, could find respite. Plus, the free tournaments were held after school and close to home, so she could bring in more kids who live in a world bereft of safe, intellectually stimulating things to do.
"Debate Kansas City was our safe place," she says.
Besides, she had known about the tournament limitations going into the season -- and was aware of a debate league in suburban St. Louis where schools competed on an identical tournament circuit. Twenty-five years earlier, the MSHSAA had given those schools written permission to skirt the limits by counting three after-school, two-round tournaments as one typical six-round weekend affair.
But Binggeli told her he wasn't willing to grant the same exception to her school or any other in Debate Kansas City. (He claims not to have known about the St. Louis league until the Pitch told him.)
"How did you hear about these tournaments?" Rinehart asked Binggeli suspiciously.
"I seen it on the Internet," she remembers him saying.
"What do you mean you saw it on the Internet?"
"I saw it on the Web site," he said. "I saw pictures of your kids."
What Web site? she thought. She hung up and called Debate Kansas City's coordinator, who told her that the University of Vermont had a page dedicated to the UDL on its site. It might have had some pictures, but the page was hard to find. Binggeli would have had to really dig around to find it.
MSHSAA bureaucrats don't typically conduct that kind of proactive investigation; instead, they respond to formal complaints. Binggeli tells the Pitch that he contacted Rinehart after receiving a telephone complaint from Sherri Shumaker, a coach at Blue Springs High School who, in turn, was passing along a complaint raised by another coach (whom Shumaker won't name). MSHSAA rules require that charges be filed in writing. But, in response to the Pitch's request under Missouri's Sunshine Law, Binggeli offered no documentation of the complaint.
Linda Collier, Debate Kansas City's executive director and head of UMKC's debate program, was devastated when she heard the news. She thought she had done something good by helping inner-city kids improve their reading, speaking and critical-thinking skills through debate. Instead, she'd gotten a bunch of unsuspecting kids into trouble.
She scheduled a couple of meetings with Binggeli, telling him that Kansas City students are desperate for positive after-school activities. But he was unmoved. Rules are rules, he told her. And the only way to change them was to persuade all of the MSHSAA's members to vote in favor of the changes -- a seemingly insurmountable hurdle.
Besides that, Collier can't technically advocate for MSHSAA rule changes because, as a college coach, she isn't an MSHSAA member.
Binggeli now knows about the St. Louis league, but he tells the Pitch that Kansas City officials will still have to make a formal request in order to get the same kind of arrangement schools in St. Louis already enjoy.
That will be tough. The MSHSAA is stacked against urban schools. Out of the 753 member schools that have equal say over its bylaws, just 39 have significant minority populations. In the association's 77-year-history, only four blacks have served on its board of directors.
State legislators have vilified the MSHSAA over this inequality. After witnessing racist practices at the MSHSAA's office, Jane Cunningham, a St. Louis-area Republican who chairs the House Education Committee, introduced a bill this year that would have forced the MSHSAA to change some of its rules.
Responding to complaints from constituents, she had traveled to Columbia to sit in on an MSHSAA Appeals Committee meeting. There, a committee member from Sainte Genevieve (a town of 4,400 on the Mississippi River) told her that he couldn't understand why school districts from suburban St. Louis allowed inner-city kids to compete on their sports teams. Cunningham explained that the districts were part of a voluntary desegregation case and that the bused-in kids had just as much right to participate as any other student. The committee member replied that parents should sue because the inner-city kids were taking up slots on suburban schools' teams, Cunningham tells the Pitch.
Cunningham watched the appeals committee at work. In an early session, she listened as a white student from a rural school asked for permission to compete in sports even though he wasn't taking the proper class load. He explained that his newly hired counselor had given him the wrong information. The committee granted his request.
Then a black girl from Cunningham's district pleaded the exact same case. The committee -- on which only one African-American served -- denied her request. Cunningham stood up and objected. But the MSHSAA officials told her that the boy had been granted an exception because he was from a rural district, where administrators are bound to be less sophisticated. Cunningham says the committee members claimed that, because the girl was from a big-city district, her advisors should have known better.
In March, during two days of testimony for Cunningham's bill, teachers, parents and students from across the state lamented the limitations that hindered not only debaters but also track athletes and swimmers who want to compete at national-caliber events. (In Missouri, kids playing team sports like football and basketball can travel anywhere in the country to compete; kids in individual sports like debate or track cannot.)
Meanwhile, MSHSAA officials sent a mass e-mail to its mostly rural membership, urging school administrators to blitz their legislators with missives against the bill. The bill died in committee.
But Cunningham plans to reintroduce another version of it next year. "Kids are being abused," she says. "Freedoms are being overlooked. This is America. And [the MSHSAA] has taken our tax dollars -- with no oversight from the state -- and broken the hearts of kids."
By the time Marcus Leach joined the Central debate squad in the fall of 1999, his new teammates were pissed about the MSHSAA limitations.
The Central kids knew they were the bomb on the national circuit, and they wanted to send a message to their slow-talking Missouri brethren. On the drive back from a successful second appearance at the Dowling tournament in 1999, they devised a plan to let their Missouri peers know exactly how they felt. They conjured a "ban debate" case they would run at the district qualifying tournament for the state championship.
"We started talking about arguing that debate is too stressful, too harmful, destroys too many trees," Rinehart says. "That year the topic was education. We decided to argue that debate wasn't including anybody's education. And we should eliminate debate. And we should take the money that was used for debate and create a series of festivals, and they would all be held in tropical locations.... We would just join hands and sing 'Kumbaya.'"
The following spring, they showed up at Rockhurst High School, eschewing the formalities of dresses and suits and ties in favor of sweatshirts that read "Debate Is Life" with black tape forming an X over "Life." They hit Raytown South High School during the first round. "They were just skunked," Rinehart says of the opposing team. "They didn't know what to argue. They were furious when they came out of the round. They were purple they were so angry."
Soon after the first round ended, the tournament's director approached Rinehart and said, "I think you should know that a protest has been filed against your team." He explained that one of her debaters had spoken beyond the time limits, and thus broken the only real rule of debate.
"Why didn't the timer stop her?" Rinehart asked.
"Well, the judge was afraid of being accused of being a racist," he replied.
Rinehart shrugged it off. By the second round, word of their innovative tactic had spread across the tournament. Debaters from other high schools swarmed Rinehart's squad in Rockhurst's lunch room, telling them, "You guys are so cool!" Their adult coaches, however, were not pleased.
As rambunctious as the tactic seemed, it was in line with current trends in competitive debate. At the college level, teams across the country have recently begun employing "nontraditional" or "performance" strategies. For instance, University of Louisville debaters play rap songs as evidence. And debaters at Kansas' Fort Hays State, which last year won a national championship, have been known to jam their rounds with a cacophony of music and recorded speeches or to simulate sex and then pretend to give birth to a book by Nietzsche.
Such creativity doesn't fly in Missouri. A few weeks later, Rinehart received a package of letters from the MSHSAA. It included the results of the tournament director's investigation of the formal complaint -- which yielded no findings of wrongdoing -- and scathing screeds from the Raytown South coach and Shumaker of Blue Springs.
Rinehart was called to the principal's office for a conference call with Becky Oakes, the MSHSAA's executive director. A few days later, Oakes shot off a scolding letter to Rinehart's principal. "Adults involved with our young people must be role models," she wrote. "It is our responsibility to encourage our students to have respect for an activity which they have chosen to participate [sic]."
Midway through the first semester of his senior year, Marcus receives a package he's been waiting on for months. He waves the stiff white envelope in front of his partner Brandon Dial's face. "Let's look at this bling-bling!" he says.
Marcus rips the envelope, and out pops a cardboard folder bordered with ornate silver inlay. It's an invitation to the elite Southern Bell Forum held each January at the Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville. Only seventy teams in the nation are asked to compete.
"Look at this," Marcus says. "Southern hospitality. You gotta dress up for this. Look at this. Hors d'oeuvres. Dinner." He tugs at his collar like a pimp. "Playing video games. Man, we be just kickin' it! Stayin' up till midnight!"
A couple of weeks later, Marcus' coach is slamming down the phone. Rinehart has just received a call from Phyllis Budesheim, a top Kansas City School District administrator, who has told her that the Southern Bell Forum -- which is hosted by William Tate, board president of the National Forensic League -- is not sanctioned by the MSHSAA. Unless Rinehart can get it sanctioned, Marcus and Brandon won't be going.
All that's required is for Tennessee's equivalent of the MSHSAA to sanction the tournament and fax proof to the bureaucrats in Columbia. But Tennessee, like most states, doesn't sanction debate events. Elsewhere in the United States, sanctioning is used to ensure that athletic events won't expose kids to undue risk or physical exploitation; all but a few states realized years ago that academic activities don't require the same controls. (By season's end, Rinehart manages to get the Southern Bell Forum sanctioned -- but not a popular tournament in Omaha, where Central and other Missouri schools have competed for years.)
It's been like this for Rinehart all year. Since this past fall, when Kansas City School Board members instructed district officials to look into changing MSHSAA rules, Central's coach has been facing increased scrutiny from the MSHSAA and from school district administrators. Now she has to make sure that every tournament her squad attends is sanctioned, even ones at which other Missouri teams have competed for years without a hint of controversy.
After the Pitch wrote an article about the MSHSAA's denial of Marcus' request to compete at last year's Tournament of Champions ("Highly Debatable," May 30, 2002), board President Al Mauro, his colleague Duane Kelly and Budesheim met with the Kansas City region's MSHSAA board representative, Dennis Littrell, at the Blue Springs Freshman Center. As Littrell explained how MSHSAA rules are changed, the district officials quickly learned that they faced a daunting task.
The majority of Missouri's debate coaches, who would vote on the rule changes, "don't cotton to national-circuit debate," says Randy Pierce, a St. Louis-area coach who serves on the MSHSAA's speech and debate advisory committee. He claims that most debate coaches dislike the fast, complicated style that wins bids to the Tournament of Champions. The arguments are "repugnant," he says, because they often trail off toward absurd, catastrophic conclusions -- like nuclear war -- or into bottomless philosophical pits.
Budesheim turned to the MSHSAA's administrators for help, striking an ongoing dialogue with Kent Summers, its associate executive director. Summers warned Budesheim that Central would face serious trouble if Rinehart continued to take her teams to unsanctioned tournaments. The school, he said, could be banned from participating in all MSHSAA-controlled activities, such as football, basketball and track.
But Central has once again qualified for the Tournament of Champions (thanks to its historic win at Iowa Caucus), and by late March Budesheim is still on her mission to win them an opportunity to compete there. She feels confident as she drives to Columbia on a gray Tuesday. Her rapport with Summers has been good. He has assured her that the best course of action is to ask the MSHSAA Appeals Committee to grant an exception to the rules -- even though this is the same group that perfunctorily denied Central's request last year.
Budesheim straightens her suit and enters a large conference room in which school administrators from across the state sit around a broad table. Just one black sits among them -- an administrator from Westport Edison Senior Academy. "We have a long agenda," says John Ihms, the committee chair, "so we ask that you be as brief as possible."
Budesheim has brought a list of prestigious tournaments where MSHSAA rules prevent Missouri kids from competing. "Being invited to participate in the Tournament of Champions is rare," she adds. "Missouri teams have only been invited two times in the last 32 years." (Both teams were from Central.)
She concludes with a short, impassioned speech about the difficulties kids in her school district face and how an opportunity to compete at national tournaments can have a huge impact on their lives. "I think we're all familiar with the research on poverty and generational poverty," she says. "For many, college is only a dream. Like many of my colleagues, I consider my work to be a mission field."
Afterward, one of the board members says, "We've had this before us three times -- 1998, 2002 and now again. What have you done to try to get the rules changed?"
Budesheim stammers, "I cannot speak to all that has been done before." She recounts her meeting with the principal in Blue Springs. "That led me to Mr. Summers, and he apparently said this was the best course of action," she says.
"As chairman, maybe I can give you some guidance," Ihms says. The appeals committee grants exceptions to kids who demonstrate some sort of hardship, he says. (Generally, school administrators consider a hardship to be, for example, a kid needing to move out of an abusive household. But the MSHSAA has no official definition of hardship, and it grants appeal requests arbitrarily.)
"To say your district has a greater hardship than others in the state," Ihms tells Budesheim, "you would have a hard time convincing this group."
At that, the committee unanimously agrees to deny her request.
Budesheim pledges to keep up the fight until the rules are changed.
But it'll be too late for Marcus and Brandon, the best debate team in Central's history, to realize their dream of competing in the Tournament of Champions (which was held this past weekend). Rinehart might not ever see a team this good again.
Months before Marcus' hope of competing in the Tournament of Champions evaporates in a matter of minutes, Marcus slides into a desk in a classroom on the University of Southern California campus and watches a debater take her place behind a podium. Her skin is light brown, like his. She inhales deeply and unleashes a torrent of words: "TheUnitedStatesFederalGovernmentShouldSignAndRatifyAndImplementTheSecondOptionProtocol-
She takes another breath, cocks her head back and says, "Now that you know we can do it, let's discuss something real."
The room fills with the thumping sounds of Nas -- Black zombies. Walkin' talkin' dead, though we think we're livin'. Black zombies -- and she sways side to side to the beat. When the chorus ends, she shouts out a litany of examples of American cops shooting and killing African-American men.
"And here I sit alive and well, able to see another day, a privilege in itself," she says in her conclusion. "And in this privileged position, on a college campus, debating with tomorrow's leaders, my mission is for you to try and understand, at least partially, the pain that resides in the streets and that ivory towers ignore."
The debater, Elizabeth Jones of the University of Louisville, is saying that the game, which has defined Marcus' life for the past four years, is racist.
She argues that speed-reading through the works of white scholars is an elitist construct of white power structures. She warns that if the future policy makers who rule the debate community fail to embrace the voices of "organic intellectuals" -- street sages like Nas, Tupac and Dead Prez -- the walls of institutional racism will remain solid.
It's a few days before New Year's Eve. Louisville's coach, Ede Warner, one of the only African-Americans to lead a major college program, has flown Marcus to California to see firsthand how his team is shaking the foundation of competitive debate.
Warner's invitation came after Marcus' historic win at the Iowa Caucus in October, when he posted his credentials on a college debate Web site and was soon inundated with inquiries from colleges across the country.
During the early rounds at the USC tournament, he sits on the edge of his chair, absorbing Louisville's angry call for change. It resonates with him. His entire senior season, he's been arguing a way to end institutional racism.
It won him a lot of tournaments, and it made him think about race in ways he never had before.
This year, he's pondered his mother's halting rise from a cotton plantation in Mississippi to a tiny duplex on Kansas City's tattered east side and his status as the only child of nine who's ever had the opportunity to attend a top-notch four-year university. He's raged against the MSHSAA, posting a picture of its all-white, all-male board of directors on the Internet and typing the question "What's missing here?" And, after a massive tournament north of Chicago, he's heard that one of the most popular girls in his school has died randomly in a gun battle. "Wow," he said. "She had a future."
At first, he connects with Louisville's mission. Marcus acknowledges that the style of debate favored by colleges and the national high school circuit is elitist. "It keeps others at bay," he says.
But he gained access to this game of the privileged, and now he has a chance for a prosperous life. And as the day wears on, he grows bored with Louisville's argument. Then, in a round against New York University, Marcus watches Jones explode with rage when her opponent argues that the civil rights movement did essentially nothing.
"That is fucking repugnant!" she yells -- and it's not against the rules to swear in college debates.
Marcus sneaks out of the room at the end of the match and whispers, "That was intense." He's not sure he can conjure that kind of commitment to Warner's call. NYU's argument, he thinks, was not so unreasonable when taken in context. It was just another strategy in his beloved game without rules.
As the Southern California sky goes deep blue with dusk, he and Warner head off along palm-lined Figueroa Boulevard. The skyscrapers of downtown L.A. and the green glow of the Staples Center line the horizon. If Marcus joins the team, Warner says, there'll be no place for speed and squirrelly political arguments about nuclear war on Louisville's purposeful path toward disrupting the entire discourse of debate.
His number one rule, he says, is "to sacrifice winning" by staying committed to Louisville's mission whether judges vote for it or not.
As they pull to a stop beside one of the thousands of tiny taco stands that dot this metropolis, Marcus tries to convince his potential coach that he's down with the plan. "I want to find something that'll be, like, a bridge to the next level," he says with all the sincerity a seventeen-year-old can muster.
But in the coming months, he'll eschew Louisville's offer of a full-ride scholarship, deciding instead to stay close to home and enroll free at UMKC. There, Linda Collier is beefing up the coaching staff, getting set to make a run for another national title. And there, they debate in the style that has made Marcus a champion.