To give you an idea of the seriousness of the intellectual competition at play, please note that the AT&T Nation’s Football Classic’s debate is called The Game Before the Game. This event tests the “intellectual prowess,” as Howard alumna Rochelle Ford describes, between the two universities. Much like the history documented in Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters which tells the story of the first black debate team to challenge Harvard’s debate champions, this event serves as a means to demonstrate that Howard and Hampton universities are not just brawn, but also brains.


Historically, the debate teams and The Game Before the Game represent another bond shared by HBCUs and their collective goal to represent black culture. “It’s about leadership and intellectualism,” says Ford. “It’s about bringing together the nation’s HBCUs for a weekend of bonding and part of that is debating the nation’s issues.” In fact, the debate teams’ mission mirrors the goal of HBCUs, which serve to remind people of the sacrifices that other African-Americans made to have HBCUs. “Being part of these two entities, and everything that is HBCU, provides a sense of mission,” explains Chris Cathcart, author of HBCU Experience – The Book.

Here are nine facts about The Game Before the Game, as told by Angela Minor, director and coach for Howard University MLK Junior Debate Team, and Kamora Avent, coach of Hampton University Debate Team.

  1. In order to be part of the debate teams and The Game Before the Game, students need to be confident, great public speakers, and committed to the teams.
  2. It is a parliamentary-style debate—a member of the government, prime minister, two members of the opposition are on stage.
  3. This year’s debate topic will most likely be centered around the electoral process—the election race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
  4. Howard University and Hampton University each select two topics to debate, the coaches from each university make the final choice between four topics.
  5. There are always four debaters on each side—two debaters must argue each topic.
  6. The students prepare only two to three weeks in advance.
  7. Both teams need to study pros and cons for each resolution—they don’t know what side they’re going to get until they’re on the stage.
  8. No formal authority says who wins—they assess through social media. #gamebeforethegame #huhudebate
  9. The Great Debaters chronicles the work of poet and professor Melvin B. Tolson (played by Denzel Washington) who taught in a predominantly black college in Texas, created a team of strong-minded, smart students, and became the first black debate team to challenge Harvard University’s debate champions.

Additional reporting by Tim Hansen, Ashley McBride, Alexandra Rojas, and Amanda Silvestri.

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Sophia Melissa Caraballo Piñeiro has a master’s degree in magazine, newspaper and online journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Her favorite sport to play and watch is tennis, and she looks up to Serena Williams. Sophia enjoys writing about social justice in underrepresented communities, while also writing the occasional blog post about pop culture. She’s written for websites targeted towards college students and young adults, such as, Her Campus, and now Forever Twenty-Somethings. She hopes to continue working for digital publications, writing long-form pieces.
Hand Mellanie a magazine or poetry book and you won't hear from her for days; she enjoys the literary as much as she enjoys the factual, and can be consistently found ogling (and smelling) books. She has written for Elite Daily and Verily Magazine on topics such as relationships, lifestyle, and design. Because she was a volleyball player for 75% of her life, her favorite sports outing involves sunblock and sand between her toes. A native of Puerto Rico, she sashays through life humming salsa songs under her breath, and constantly battles with the need to stand up and twirl.