Academic journal article Contemporary Economic Policy

Judging Bias in Competitive Academic Debate: The Effects of Region, Side, and Sex

Academic journal article Contemporary Economic Policy

Judging Bias in Competitive Academic Debate: The Effects of Region, Side, and Sex

Article excerpt

Debate is a "mind sport" that requires fair and impartial judging. This study examines debate rounds at the Tournament of Champions from. 2004 to 2009. We use a binomial choice model to estimate the marginal effects of regional bias, sex bias, and side bias, using transitive predictions to control for idiosyncratic quality. We find evidence of region and side bias but not sex bias. These factors may explain the significant number of nontransitive outcomes in the data. Finally, we suggest some policy remedies to mitigate the impact of biases and further applications of our methodology. (JEL C25, J16, J52, J71, L83)


The noncivic face of debate is that it is a sport that develops agile, muscular minds. The debate as sport analogy goes back to its very beginnings, as does the controversy over it" (Louden 2010). Intercollegiate debating originally had many similarities with sporting events, from the motivation of the competitors and description of debate as an "intellectual sport" to popularity with student audiences at the debaters' universities (Keith 2007). This conception of "debate as sport" is shared by modern-day debaters (Thompson 2010), as well as actors who just play debaters in movies (Kent 2007). Several of the same organizations responsible primarily for regulating sports competition also regulate debate competition (e.g., National Federation of High Schools nationally and the Texas University Interscholastic League at the state level). Debate is and always has been a kind of "mind sport."

Like any other sport or competitive activity, fair play is essential to debate. Impartial judges are necessary to ensure fairness. In this article, we critically examine the impartiality of judges in competitive academic debate at the high school level. To do this, we analyze data from 6 years of elite national championship tournament debate rounds. This national academic competition provides a unique opportunity to explore regional bias, sex bias, and side bias (i.e., a structural advantage one side--the affirmative or negative--in the debate may enjoy), as it involves multiple interactions between competitors and judges of different regions and sexes.

This article identifies factors that influence judge decision-making at the Lincoln--Douglas debate (LD) Tournament of Champions (TOC). The TOC provides an interesting and unique dataset for investigating judge discrimination due to the abundance of round-level data available and the one-on-one nature of competition. We investigate the ways that region, sex, and side can be used to predict competitor success. To do this, we collect data for all competitors and judges in every round of the TOC for years 2004-2009. We provide a number of models that estimate the marginal effects of region, sex, and side on round outcomes.


Gary Becker (1957) authored the first theoretical economic explanation of discrimination, positing that employment discrimination was based on taste differences. Arrow (1973) expands on Becker's work, focusing on discrimination in the labor market where employers face a trade-off between profits and discriminatory preferences. While there exist a number of studies on economic discrimination, most of these focus on wage gaps rather than fair play.

Discrimination in competitive forensics has been investigated frequently,

albeit not in a way informed by economic theory or particularly rigorous empirical testing. Participation and success in speech and debate has never been equal; differential participation has been a cause of concern for over 70 years (Cole 1957; Knee 1939), and early forensic competitions separated men and women into separate divisions because of "the belief that the male is generally superior to the female in forensic endeavors" (Hensley and Strother 1968). "In general, it appears that regardless of the forensic activity, male domination ranges from 'slight' to 'overwhelming" (Friedley and Manchester 1985). …

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