- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 29, 2006

LYNCHBURG, Va. — The football team doesn’t have a prayer, and heaven knows the basketball team needs help. But the debate team at the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University looks like a mighty David in a land of rhetorical Goliaths.

Liberty’s Christian conservatives regularly place at or near the top in the national policy-debate rankings and can credibly argue the “wrong” side of the issue, if necessary, on topics such as abortion and intelligent design.

Mr. Falwell sees the debate team’s success as a way to put more messengers in the world for the religious right. More than 45 former members of the team have become lawyers during the 16 years that Brett O’Donnell has been coach, and Mr. Falwell expects some eventually will become judges.

“Every one of these 32 [current] debaters is a committed Christian,” the evangelist said. “They will use their platforms to effect moral and social change.”

Since Mr. Falwell founded Liberty in 1971, he has had a goal of putting the school on par with such large church-affiliated universities as Brigham Young and Notre Dame.

Mr. Falwell said the debate team’s success has helped advance Liberty’s image academically and has made the 23,000-student university attractive to high school students — something he also hopes to achieve through sports, despite the football team’s 1-10 record last year and the men’s basketball team’s dismal 7-23 season.

This year, Liberty became the first school to be ranked No. 1 by all three national collegiate debate organizations.

In truth, Liberty’s debaters rarely win in head-to-head debates against such collegiate giants as Northwestern and Harvard. But the team piles up the points by taking part in lots of tournaments, mostly at the novice and junior varsity level. The big schools concentrate instead on the harder varsity competition.

But Mr. Falwell was impressed enough to commit more money to the program, whose budget has gone from $14,000 a year when Mr. O’Donnell started to $500,000 this season. It now has a coaching staff of five and spacious quarters, and Liberty offers debate scholarships.

Mr. O’Donnell, a Liberty alumnus, is serving as a consultant to clients in gubernatorial and Senate races this year and advised President Bush’s campaign during the debate preparations in 2004.

College debate teams argue various aspects of one topic all season — this year, it was U.S.-China relations — and the rules of this intellectual exercise require that the debaters be prepared to argue either side of a question.

More than a decade ago, Liberty’s students had to argue in support of abortion when the overall topic was privacy rights. Liberty finished in the top 10 nationally that year.

Last month, during a competition at James Madison University, Liberty took a position against the teaching of intelligent design in public schools. Liberty finished third out of 10 teams, behind Yale and Claremont.

“Everybody knows it’s a game,” Mr. O’Donnell said. “People don’t suddenly think, ‘Oh, Liberty’s changed its position.’ ”

Indeed, Liberty students are known for staying true to their faith.

“They’re one of the few programs that gets up at 5 a.m. to do church services on Sunday mornings in a tournament,” said Pete Bsumek, James Madison’s debate coach.

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