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February Madness

February Madness

by Bridget Newell

Westminster Ethics Team #2 in the Nation.

Westminster Ethics Team #2 in the Nation.In late February, a Westminster College team competed with Texas A&M, the US Naval Academy, and Clemson University, among others—all in one day. And they won. The competition was tough; in most cases, Westminster’s four team members went up against a five-member team, and many of those teams had been to the national playoffs before.

The night before the tournament, Westminster players were excited, anxious, and nervous. Who would their opponent be? Had they trained enough? Was their experience in the regional match adequate to prepare them to compete with teams from the east? After a long day of traveling to Cincinnati, they were tired, but sleep didn’t come easily.

At 8:30 am, the tournament began. Each match started with a flip of a coin. Then teams faced off against each other at a distance of no more than six feet. Some matches began with a 10-minute stint on offense, followed by a defensive struggle against the opponent. Next came a 10-minute bout with the judges—master players who had years of experience in this sort of competition. Other matches required that the team begin on defense, mapping its strategy as the opponent laid out its offense.

The first match ended in victory over Texas A&M; the second, a victory over Navy. By the end of the morning, Westminster was 3-0. After a midday break, all teams filed into a hotel hallway to learn who would move on to the elite eight, an elimination round leading to determining which of the initial 32 teams would be the National Champion. “Westminster College” was on the list!

As players from all teams examined the list, one pointed to “Westminster College” and said, “I hear that Westminster is really strong.” Blending into the crowd, Westminster players smiled and said nothing, resolving to “lay low” as the tournament newcomers who hoped to go all the way. As a Westminster player traveled alone, incognito, in a hotel elevator, he heard others discussing Westminster’s prowess.

“Where did they come from?” I hear it’s their first time to even get to the championships, and they’re undefeated.”

“Maybe it’s a Mormon thing. You know, they’re from Utah.”

Before leaving the elevator, the Westminster player edged out from the corner and said with pride, “No, it’s not a Mormon thing. Westminster is a small private nondenominational liberal arts college in Salt Lake City.” The other passengers fell silent, looking to the floor as he left the elevator.

This unexpected admiration from others was uplifting, but the team remained focused and spent part of the afternoon strategizing to ensure that it was prepared for its next opponent. This was time well spent. The evening’s opponents were more practiced and sophisticated. But Westminster held its ground, moving easily from the elite eight to the final four. A 34-point victory over Clemson sealed the deal. Westminster would play in the championship match against the University of Miami, the only other undefeated team in the tournament.

Westminster lost the coin toss. Miami chose to begin on defense. So, Westminster’s final challenge began: Is it morally justifiable for a Deaf couple to intentionally select a sperm donor with a history of Deafness in his family to ensure that their child would be Deaf? Sitting on a stage facing its opponents, the Westminster College Ethics Bowl team had one minute to prepare its case.

Westminster College’s ethics bowl team—senior McNair Scholar Asia Ferrin (philosophy); junior Ali Jahromi (psychology, biology, and art); junior Honors student Blakely Neilsen (philosophy and economics), and junior McNair Scholar Nissa Roper (philosophy with minors in anthropology and gender studies)—had made it to the final match in the Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl National Championship Competition in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Focusing on the value of preserving Deaf culture and on the abilities of Deaf people, they argued, yes, seeking a Deaf sperm donor is morally justifiable. Their argument was strong, and their responses to Miami’s incredulous objections were focused and clear. They met the judges’ questions with answers reflecting solid reasoning. Judges scored each team on clarity and intelligibility, focus on ethically relevant factors, avoidance of ethical irrelevance, and deliberative thoughtfulness. Unfortunately, Miami’s case, which addressed computers and privacy rights, was judged to be stronger. Westminster had its only defeat.

As disappointing as the loss was, the team was proud of its accomplishments. They knew they were prepared but had no idea that they would take second place in the nation. With each win they gained the admiration and support of the other players, as well as the respect of the coaches and judges. They were, by most informal and official feedback, the most well prepared of the schools competing.

On February 22, 2007, they matched wits with other Ethics Bowl teams, all of whom (like Westminster) advanced through local and regional competitions to earn a slot in the national championship. Rather than screen passes and fast breaks, they used critical and analytical thinking skills to struggle over moral challenges and dilemmas associated with issues such as cage fighting, policing of prostitution, affirmative action in post-apartheid South Africa, military recruitment strategies, and parents’ rights to track children’s actions via cell phones equipped with GPS devices.

Chaperoned and cheered on by philosophy professor Bridget M. Newell, coached and supported by philosophy professor Michael Popich, and prepared by training on their own for several months, the team brought home a large and not-easy-to-get-through-security trophy, as well as the well-deserved respect of their peers and a secure place on the national stage of ethics competitions.

Despite a sparse turnout at their Friday night arrival at the Salt Lake International Airport (could have been the snowstorm), these students deserve the thanks of the entire Westminster community for using their Westminster educations so well and for concretely advancing the College’s efforts to gain national recognition.