Friday, June 4, 2010

FAIR DEALING: By now, you know the controversy that took place this afternoon, when Round 6 of the Bee was cut short and moved to the evening.

I'm not going to address the technical details of the controversy; Isaac's done that. Here's how it makes me feel, though.

As some of you know, I was a speller in the 1991 National Spelling Bee. I had participated in dozens of bees beforehand, but I had never made it out of my school until my final year of eligibility. That year, I got on the kind of insane roll that you normally see a Cinderella school get in during March Madness. I won my school spelling bee, then my regional spelling bee, and finally booked a place in the National Spelling Bee by out-dueling a fellow speller over the course of twenty-five or so words.

Anyway, making it to the nationals was one of the most thrilling events in my life. I've stood on the Great Wall of China, I've hung out on the Great Barrier Reef, and I've trod the streets of Babylon - and making the National Spelling Bee 19 years go still ranks right alongside them.

So I can totally imagine how bitterly disappointed spellers like Anvita Mishra are. When you're that age, fairness is a HUGE concept. If I were in Anvita's shoes, I'd be raising holy hell as well. I was a pretty laid-back competitor - I actually fell asleep in my chair the second day - but nothing would've made more alert, or more uncomfortable, than being told that I was getting more rest and study time simply because I was representing Columbus, OH rather than Denver, CO.

Look, life's not fair. Eventually, you find that out - I have, over and over, in good times and in bad. It's a hell of a lesson to learn when you're 13 years old, on a stage like this. While I think it's fair that the Bee is resuming Round 6 from the cut-off point, I can't help thinking that a fairer solution would've been playing out the string in the afternoon, and if you had wound up with four finalists, well, then, so be it.

Something tells me that's a solution that Anvita - and every other speller and spectator watching what ensued this afternoon - could've lived with. There's something that just not quite right about what happened - and as a result, it makes it quite wrong, at least from my perspective.


  1. Marsha4:54 PM

    Thank you for your perspective, Raf. I've said way too much on this and everything else today, so I have nothing to add here. But hearing what a former competitor has to say about it is very valuable and interesting.

  2. Here's the thing.  Round 5 ended with 19 spellers.  That's too many for primetime, and no one here said they should end.  So they had to start the next round.   I guess it's just that they didn't calibrate the word difficulty properly -- to the extent that they's consciously doing so.

  3. Here's one thing they can do:  next year, Wyoming spells first, Alabama last.

  4. Jenn.4:58 PM

    Or draw it randomly. 

  5. isaac_spaceman5:01 PM

    I would definitely watch 19 spellers in prime time, for what it's worth.  I probably would watch 119 spellers in prime time. 

  6. Back in my day at the '85 Bee, the order was random.  I was Speller #8, representing a city in Missouri.  The ordering by state/country is a relatively recent development.

  7. Charles5:10 PM

    Jenn and Adam, they used to have the spellers in a random order on the stage. (Actually, I was always told that it was the order in which Scripps received info on the regional/state winners.) That ended several years ago for some reason. It might be a good option for them to return to that.

    Raf's post hits the mark perfectly. These spellers have, in some cases, been preparing for this day for a year, and they come up against a decision that feels like it was made on the spur of the moment. That certainly stings.

  8. Marsha5:10 PM

    Here's the other thing: 19 spellers isn't too many for prime time if the next round drops down to 5 or 6 (as this one seemed likely to). And there's nothing wrong with 4, 5, or 6 spellers in prime time. The decision to stop when they stopped was entirely arbitrary and capricious.

    But if they'd stuck to their own rules, I'd be ok with it. Instead, they annointed 6 kids "championship finalists" who haven't sucessfully spelled a sixth round word, made them equal to the 4 who had, and made 9 kids who happened to be geographically undesirable feel like crap. Throwing around "fair" or "unfair" seems problematic, I suppose, so I'll leave it at (a) doesn't follow their own rules and (b) leaves a really bad taste in my mouth.

  9. True: at this rate, 19 spellers wasn't too many. (That said, for how long had r6 been going on?)  But it's not as good tv if all you're doing is watching the best kids in America all misspell words -- you'd prefer to see some success first before the winnowing.

  10. Anonymous5:20 PM

    I am staying home from a baseball game (not expected to be a particularly thrilling one, though) to watch spellers in prime time.

  11. Emily5:32 PM

    At the very least the powers that be should let all 19 from Round 6 take part in the press conference, the Shaq thing, whatever other events are planned this afternoon, profile all 19 on the ABC website, and let those who happened to live in states at the beginning of the alphabet sit on the stage tonight until Round 6 is officially over.

  12. Marsha5:32 PM

    Given that you can't predict any of this - you have no idea how those final 6 will do, or how the first 13 were going to do - isn't the best thing to either pick 19, or what's left after the next round? Who benefits if all 6 of these kids go down in Round 6? There's a perfectly decent chance not only of that happening, but of the final 4 going down to 1 after Round 7 alone. It's just as likely that a 4 kid final group will go on forever or drop like flies as a 19 kid final group will.

    Round 6 hadn't gone on very long. I missed most of it because someone dropped by my office for a short meeting. And the rounds were being broken up by loooong commercial blocks and speller packages.

    If we're making these decisions by what's good for TV, then by all means, let's be horrible to the kids. While we're at it, let's make baseball games end in ties after nine innings no matter what, and set a fixed time on tennis games so that whoever is up at the end of 90 minutes wins.

    It's a competition, and a competition for kids at that. It should be fair. Playing by their own rules is fair. I don't like the way their rules allow for the split of a round, but it's in the rules, and I suppose it's acceptable. But they're not playing by their own rules, and it sucks.

  13. FormerSpeller5:44 PM

    I'll chime in as a former contestant. What happened today was completely unfair and seemed to be catered more towards high ratings and an easy solution rather than maintaining the integrity of the competition and the fairness to the spellers. I would have been as shocked and upset as these kids, especially given that some were lucky enough to live in Texas and Ohio and therefore receive special treatment. This decision was made in the best interest of Scripps, not the spellers. Did Scripps add a provision that they can cut off the telecast at any time and designate those standing as "Championship Finalists? despite the spellers sharing the same rankings?  

  14. SarahC5:46 PM

    The National Spelling Bee will be held in MARYLAND next year, not D.C. Apparently the hotel or ballroom now isn't big enough to hold everyone? How can that be? Looks big enough to me, and the public isn't allowed inside anyway during the bee.

    I think this will be the first time the NSB hasn't been held in D.C.

  15. SarahC5:52 PM

    They started ordering them by state so that the media people from each state can tell when spellers are coming up for their state, and they can take pics of them all at once instead of being scattered all over the place.

  16. frozentundra5:57 PM

    In fairness, it's actually exactly what their rules say will happen. Their rules specifically say kids who haven't spelled, in this situation, will "advance to the championship finals for the conclusion of the last semifinals round." It seems utterly goofy, but what they did looks like it's exactly what their rules say they'll do.

  17. Marsha6:09 PM

    That's what I mean. They advance to the TV event, but they shouldn't be considered finalists because of the next paragraph:

    "The championship finals consist of rounds of oral spelling and are concurrent with the competition's live broadcast on ABC on Friday, June 4, unless the ABC broadcast begins in a round that began during the semifinals. The championship finals will not officially commence until the last semifinals round has concluded, and prizes will be awarded accordingly."

  18. frozentundra6:22 PM

    Yeah, I hear you. But honestly, the kids aren't mad because the web site says "Championship Finalist." The kids are mad because of who does and doesn't participate in the higher-profile evening event, and honestly, I think they'd have been mad anyway.

  19. lindab12:34 AM

    The alphabetical order started in 1996 when the field was divided in two, with half the spellers doing rounds 1-3 in the morning and the other half in the afternoon.  (There was no written test.) 

  20. lindab12:40 AM

    The Grand Hyatt doesn't have enough rooms to house all the competitors, families and staff.

  21. Anonymous3:38 PM

    this is lanson, one of the spellers. this was undoubtedly the worst decision made in this year's bee. completely unfair to the kids who lived in states whose name started with an earlier letter of the alphabet. many were my friends. many of us thought they were going to redo round six completely, giving everyone a fair chance. evidently not. the bee cared more about the media than the actual purpose of the bee, education.

    the decision to reinstate the neetu also wasn't very popular. the judges were biased. they reinstated her only b/c she was a four year repeater and it would make things more interesting