John Carroll’s debate team: the longest standing campus organization

Michael Roth ‘23 and Sara Sfeir ‘24 debate a variety of topics each year through Lincoln-Douglas competition.

Aiden Keenan

Michael Roth ‘23 and Sara Sfeir ‘24 debate a variety of topics each year through Lincoln-Douglas competition.

Taylor Anthony, Campus Editor

For as long as John Carroll has been admitting college students, there has been a debate program at the University. The John Carroll University Debate Team was founded in 1891 making it 131 years old and the longest standing campus organization. 

“In the early days, leadership rotated frequently with a young Jesuit usually tasked to run the program” said Brent Brossmann, associate professor at John Carroll and current director of the debate program. 

Since the establishment of the program, there have been four long-term directors of the program. Rev. Charles McDevitt Ryan (S.J) served as the first long-term coach for both the speech and debate team from 1921-1924 and again from 1930-1939. After the leadership of Rev. McDevitt, Vincent Klein served as the director from 1945-1957 and Austin J. Freely from 1958 through 1985. 

Ray Flannery ‘22 delivers an informative speech to the team. (Aiden Keenan)

The Tim Russert Department of Communication regards Freely as “John Carroll University’s most famous director of debate” as stated on the department’s website. Freely is best known for his debate textbook “Argumentation and Debate” which is still the best-selling debate textbook of all time along with being a founder of the American Forensics Association.  

John Carroll had the top debate team in the country for a couple years in the 1930s. Their excellence was so dominant that Oxford and Cambridge University sent their two best debaters, Tom Corrigan and Carl Burlage, here to the United States to debate Thomas and Jim Osborne of John Carroll. On Nov. 16, 1937, the debating Osborne brothers defeated Corrigan and Burlage in the ballroom of the Carter Hotel.  

Michael Walsh ’25 delivers an impromptu speech to the team. (Aiden Keenan)

The program has furthered its legacy by continuing to receive national level recognition. In recent years, there have been debaters that either won or placed in the top ten at national level tournaments such as the American Debate Association National Championships. 

Historically, the program was always debate centered until the 1930s when Fr. McDevitt integrated speech events such as impromptu, prose poetry, original oratory and more into the program. 

For the last 29 years, the debate program has functioned under the direction of Brent Brossmann, who is now the longest serving director in history.

 “I love what it does for our students,” Brossmann told The Carroll News. “I love what it does for our alums. One of the things I always tell our students; the awards are nice, the competition is fun, winning is great. At the end of the day, none of that really matters. What really matters is the skills you develop that you’ll be able to take with you for the rest of your life. So, don’t judge us based on whether we won or lost, judge us based on where our alums are now.”

Sydnie Oakleaf ‘25 and Sophia Wohlwend ‘25 discuss changes to a piece of prose. (Aiden Keenan)

Whether it be the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change authors, American Medical Association board members, tenured professors or federal prosecutors, alumni of John Carroll’s debate team have made their mark all over the world. “They are literally going out and changing the world in important ways. That’s why I’m still in it.” 

It’s no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic took a significant toll on the debate program during the 2020-2021 academic year. The remote format for every aspect of the college experience became exhausting. Many students have an optimistic outlook on the future of the program. 

“My experience on the John Carroll Speech and Debate team has been priceless so far, and the bonds I have made with my teammates makes all the hard work worth it. I’m excited for the future of our young team, as we grow as young adults and speakers” said Sydnie Oakleaf ‘25. 

Brent Brossmann, Sara Sfeir ‘24, Sydnie Oakleaf ‘25, Sophia Wohlwend ‘25, Michael Roth ‘23, Michael Walsh ’25, and Sarah Foster ’25 represent the team outside of O’Malley. (Aiden Keenan)

Brossmann also expressed his commitment to continue building and rebuilding the program. “Right now, we’re primarily, but not exclusively, a freshmen and sophomore shooting program,” Brossmann continued. “So, rebuilding in terms of the size and in the scope. We’ve got some really strong young competitors who are going to do amazing things.”