Dr. Donald Klopf

University of Hawaii

Dr. James C. McCroskey

Pennsylvania State University

The following material was specially prepared for Rostrum readers by the authors following their survey of all coaches, both high school and collegiate. This report contains only the results of NFL coach responses. The collegiate results will appear in the January issue of the new Journal of the American Forensic Association.

The problem of ethics perplexes most debate instructors and coaches. Practices deemed ethical by some are considered unethical by others. In interscholastic competition, misunderstanding occasionally results from this difference of opinion. Among coaches, controversy over what is right or wrong frequently transpires.

At their 1961 convention the members of the American Forensic Association adopted a resolution which directed the president to name several members to create, distribute, and collect a questionnaire to discover which practices high school and college debate instructors believed to be ethical, unethical, or questionable. This paper presents the results of the survey of the high school instructors.

While a study of debate ethics certainly is not new, no attempt to survey the ideas of the nation's debate coaches on the subject seems to have been made. No listing of questionable and unethical practices appears to be available.

The absence of such a list is most likely the result of the difficulty in isolating and identifying questionable or unethical practices. This difficulty is caused by three variables--intent, degree, and the circumstances of each individual debate situation.

While these variables prevent absolute isolation and identification of questionable or unethical practices, the coach and the debater want to know what practices might be considered unethical or questionable in spite of the variables. Knowing that a practice could be placed in either category may cause the coach or debater to avoid the practice entirely. This could contribute significantly to the improvement of ethical standards in modern debating.

The question, then, is, "What practices can be classified in this manner?" This survey attempted, within the limitations of the variables, to isolate and identify certain practices which can occur in debate, and to discover high school coaches' reactions to them.

The questionnaire for this study consisted of the forty items noted in the results below. It required the respondent to decide whether each practice was (1) ethical and good debate procedure, (2) ethical but poor debate procedure, (3) questionable, or (4) unethical.

For the high school division of the study the questionnaire was sent to the sponsors of the 195 largest National Forensic League chapters. The results below indicate the attitudes of the 149 NFL respondents. All figures are rounded off to the nearest percent.


The purpose of this survey was to discover and identify practices which debate instructors consider to be ethical, questionable, or unethical. A few conclusions can be drawn from the results.

1. The unusually high return (76.4%) of the questionnaires by those NFL sponsors surveyed suggest that high school coaches are very concerned about the problems of ethics in competitive debate.

2. Considerable disagreement exists among NFL sponsors as to what is ethical or unethical, even on items that can be isolated and identified. On only one item, number 33, was there complete agreement.

3. Twenty practices covered by the questionnaire were considered by over half the respondents to be unethical or at best questionable. These were items 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11, 15, 16, 18, 23, 24, 26, 27, 29, 30, 33, 37, and 39.

4. Fifteen practices covered by the questionnaire were considered by a significant minority of the respondents, at least twenty percent, to be ethical or at best questionable. These were items 10, 12, 13, 14, 17, 19, 20, 21, 22, 28, 31, 32, 35, 36, and 40.

5. Respondents' reaction to item 34 is noteworthy since the ethics of debating both sides of a proposition has been controversial. Ninety-six percent believe the practice is ethical, one percent questionable, and only three percent unethical.

The results of this questionnaire should not be considered as a code of ethics which all should follow. While these results may establish a guide for personal action and a base for future research and writing on this problem, and possibility the eventual development of a code which all can follow, they certainly do not represent such a code in themselves.

(1) (2) (3) (4)
1. The debate coach preparing cases for his debaters. 1% 20% 17% 62%
2. The coach writing the first affirmative speech. 1 13 16 70
3. Debaters or coaches listening to potential opponents and recording their cases to obtain advance information for later use. 6 4 25 65
4. The debate coach discussing with his debaters the case of an upcoming opponent whom he has judged earlier in a tournament. 13 9 42 36
5. Either the affirmative or the negative failing to adapt to the opponents' arguments. 3 83 6 8
6. The debate coach doing research for his debaters. 9 28 18 45
7. Either the affirmative or negative using the "shotgun" case, i.e.: offering many arguments with little support in an attempt to gain an advantage over the opponent. 12 69 14 5
8. Either team introducing a new issue in the rebuttal. 2 21 14 63
9. Breaching normal courtesy, such as heckling, grimacing, or loud whispering while opponent is speaking. 0 4 12 84
10. Substituting emotional appeals for argument on a specific issue in the debate. 4 64 19 13
11. Using sarcasm. 3 41 34 22
12. Failing to identify sources of information given in the debate. 1 63 19 17
13. Failing to demonstrate qualifications of "authorities" quoted. 1 72 16 11
14. Quoting from obviously prejudiced sources. 4 67 19 10
15. Citing opinions or facts out of the context in which they were written. 1 7 27 65
16. Fabricating evidence. 0 1 1 98
17. The affirmative failing to present a prima facie case in its constructive speeches. 1 70 15 14
18. The affirmative defining the terms of the resolution in such a way as to give them a competitive advantage not inherent in the resolution. 8 30 35 27
19. The affirmative defining the terms of the resolution in such a manner that they are vague and unclear. 2 54 31 13
(1) (2) (3) (4)
20. The negative quibbling with the definition of terms without showing valid support for their disagreement. 1% 67% 20% 12%
21. The affirmative failing to present a plan on a resolution that is not clear without a stated plan. 1 71 11 17
22. The affirmative waiting to present the plan until the very end of the second affirmative constructive speech. 20 43 21 16
23. The affirmative waiting to answer important issues until the final affirmative rebuttal. 3 28 24 45
24. The negative waiting to present a counter-plan until the second negative constructive. 17 24 24 35
25. The negative shifting their main attack from the need to the plan in rebuttal when it appears the affirmative is winning the need. 53 30 11 6
26. Injecting personalities into the debate. 1 23 23 53
27. The witness taking unnecessary time in answering questions in cross-examination debate. 6 35 41 18
28. Asking tricky and/or leading questions in cross-examination. 36 23 30 11
29. The witness conferring with colleague in cross-exam before asking or answering a question after the exam period has begun. 2 11 16 71
30. The judge deciding the debate on the basis of his personal opinions on the topic. 0 1 3 96
31. The judge not writing comments on the ballot if space is provided. 7 50 25 18
32. The judge refusing to give an oral critique if time is available and the tournament rules permit such critiques. 14 49 23 14
33. The judge awarding a decision to a team on the basis that he is a close friend of their instructor. 0 0 0 100
34. Debaters being required to debate both sides of a position. 95 1 1 3
35. Debaters using canned speeches after the first affirmative. 1 70 9 20
36. Bombarding the opposition with a series of oral questions all of which obviously can not be answered in the allotted time. 10 50 25 15
37. Using personal letters as evidence. 14 32 17 37
38. Using charts and graphs as evidence. 79 18 2 1
39. Debating the debate after the debate with the judge or opponents. 1 26 30 43
40. The first affirmative constructive speaker presenting an historical or philosophical background to the proposition without touching need which the second affirmative constructive speaker presents.

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