Towson debate winners

Towson University debate team members Ameena Ruffin and Korey Johnson won the Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) national championship. (Handout photo / March 26, 2014)

Two Towson University students edged out 170 other teams to win a national debate championship held in Indiana this week, the second time in recent years a Towson team has netted national debate honors.

Ameena Ruffin and Korey Johnson, both from Baltimore, bested a team from the University of Oklahoma in the final round. Their argument likened police brutality, the prison-industrial complex and structural poverty issues to a warlike violence against African-Americans in the U.S. and identified solutions.

Ruffin and Johnson are the first black women to win a national debate championship tournament, according to the Cross Examination Debate Association. Another Towson team won at the same championship in 2008.

Amber Kelsie, one of two coaches for Towson's debate program, compared the Cross Examination Debate Association national championship to the "Super Bowl" of debate championships. The students are preparing for a second challenge, the National Debate Tournament, later this week at the same location, Indiana University.

The Towson debate team was at the center of a controversy last fall when its members said the university was preventing it from participating in a tournament at Harvard University. Towson eventually relented and the team took part in that competition.

Johnson, an 18-year-old sophomore, called the win "surreal." The team spent untold hours poring over books, articles and other publications to craft their arguments, then took more time to practice their delivery strategies, she said.

"The arguments we construct are like mini-dissertations," Johnson said. "One of our strongest things is being adaptable, not just to our opponents, but when you get judges, you have to assume that they're susceptible to certain types of arguments."

Kelsie said both teams in the final round agreed that police brutality, the prison-industrial complex and structural poverty issues amounted to a "warlike violence" against black people in the U.S. But she said Ruffin and Johnson argued that the issue could be overcome not by focusing on the negative of the situation, as the opposing team did, but by imagining a better future.

Now Ruffin, 21, and Johnson are designated among the top 16 debate teams in the country. Ruffin placed second and Johnson placed fourth in the individual rankings.

"I'm beside myself," Kelsie said. "They're just amazing, remarkable young women."

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A previous version of this article gave incorrect information about how Ruffin and Johnson placed in the individual rankings. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.