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After Scandal, Quiz Bowlers Look Forward

By D. SIMONE KOVACS and Jared T. Lucky, Crimson Staff Writers

As they meet before their Wednesday night practice, competitors for the Harvard Quiz Bowl team chat comfortably, rarely mentioning the cheating scandal that has recently rocked their program.

The half dozen players compete for a team, but they are no typical sportsmen—they gather in a classroom, not a locker room, and in a typical practice they do more toss-ups than pull-ups. In a competition short on glory, there are few fans and no monetary prizes.

But this squad of low-profile knowledge-junkies found itself in the headlines this past month when the team was stripped of four national championship titles due to the alleged indiscretions of the team’s former president.

Andrew M. Watkins ’11, who led the club from 2008 to 2011, was accused of viewing game questions in advance of multiple national tournaments, and, though he says he did not use them to cheat, he acknowledges accessing them through an online server.

But players say they have not let the media buzz rattle them. Stephen Liu ’14, the team’s current vice president, is keen to point out that the team has more important things to focus on—wtth this year’s national tournament less than two weeks away, Harvard’s squad will have something to prove in the wake of a scandal that has prompted soul searching throughout the Quiz Bowl circuit.

“I feel like we could win back some redemption,” Stephen Liu says, looking to his teammates for a nod of approval.

MAKING HEADLINES

As the team quietly fills up a small classroom beneath Memorial Hall, Harvard’s players seem a bit bemused by the way the story, propelled by Harvard’s unexpected win in the NCAA tournament on March 21, rocketed into headlines in newspapers based everywhere from Australia to Africa.

“I’m just really amazed that there are random articles from Nepal and Nigeria,” says Liu, as his teammates laugh quietly, shaking their heads in apparent disbelief.

On March 20, National Academic Quiz Tournaments, LLC, announced that an audit of its server logs showed that Watkins, a former question-writer for high school tournaments, had violated the company’s honor code by exploiting a security flaw that enabled him to view college-level questions on the company’s server.

Although none of Watkins’s former teammates have been accused of wrongdoing, NAQT revoked Harvard’s four national championships titles between 2009 and 2011 as punishment.

And while only one member of Harvard’s current team played with Watkins, Harvard’s current players were also pulled into the fray when The Boston Globe, Slate, and The Atlantic Wire contacted team members for interviews in the days after NAQT’s announcement.

Fola A. Sofela ’16, a freshman team member, says the recent media attention has been a motivator.

“The only thing that its going to make anyone do is work harder this year at nationals,” she adds.

REBUILDING, RECLAIMING

For a team preparing to compete in a national championship, Harvard’s players seem remarkably laid back.

“We’re pretty mellow,” shrugs Stephen Liu, as the team’s starting lineup filters in 30 to 45 minutes late.

But the pace picks up when team member Stephen J. Morrison ’15 starts reading questions with the speed and precision of an auctioneer. Suddenly, the players eagerly lean forward, hands hovering over the table as they prepare to “slap in”—an imitation of the electronic buzzers used in official tournaments.

Stephen Liu, a physics concentrator, handily takes the first few toss-up questions on topics ranging from Norse mythology to modern agronomy.

But David J. Liu ’15, a member of Harvard’s “A” team, suddenly “powers,”—or buzzes in early for bonus points—a question about a symphony. His buzz comes too early for anyone else in the room to figure out the composer, much less the movement, as the team rounds out its first packet of questions.

Players in the Quiz Bowl community say they think Harvard’s team dates back to the 1980s, but no one interviewed for this article was entirely sure. They won their first national championship in a tournament organized by the Academic Competition Federation in 1995, and picked up occasional titles in the early 2000s.

But in 2008—the year that Watkins joined the squad—the team embarked on run of back to back championships that would last until 2011.

By several measures, Watkins’s tenure on the team coincided with the program’s rise. Joined by two other celebrated Harvard players—Dallas R. Simons ’12 and Theodore J. Gioia ’12—Watkins played on Harvard teams that took home four national championship titles in three years.

In 2011, he helped Harvard become the first undergraduate team to win the NAQT’s Division I national championship, a title that had previously been taken exclusively by teams with more experienced graduate student players. All of these titles were revoked this past month.

But Watkins, who is now a graduate student at New York University, is long gone from the team.

The team is now coping with new challenges—specifically, the loss of Simons and Gioia, whose graduation last year left the team with holes to fill.

This year, a less experienced team led by Stephen Liu and team president Graham W. Moyer ’15 hopes to revive Harvard’s status as a rising Quiz Bowl powerhouse—without the taint of scandal this time.

“We’re definitely rebuilding, but it has nothing to do with Andy Watkins,” Stephen Liu says.

INTEGRITY IN JEOPARDY?

Rarely, a question will stump the whole team. When no one manages to answer a toss-up about American jurisprudence on eminent domain, Morrison tries to prompt his teammates.

“Come on, guys,” he says, hopefully.

Although every player’s laptop is open, none of them consult Google for the answer—to do so would be poor form.

Reluctantly, Morrison surrenders the answer. “It’s Kelo v. the city of New London.”

Despite the restraint shown by the players at practice, Quiz Bowl is a game particularly susceptible to cheating, players say.

And when competitors cheat in this sport, many say, they have an unquestionable advantage.

“You’re pretty much invalidating the entire point of the game by accessing these questions,” Liu says.

“It’s not like Barry Bonds juicing up, because [in baseball] you still have to be a good hitter,” he adds.

Accessing questions before games in a Quiz Bowl tournament, Morrison chimes in, is “like Barry Bonds playing T-ball.”

The whole team laughs, a little grimly.

Harvard’s Quiz Bowl team is not the only squad dealing with the aftermath of a cheating scandal. The same audit that stripped Harvard of its titles also implicated Scot Putzig from the University of Michigan and another player accused of cheating before a high school tournament in 2010, according to NAQT’s March 20 announcement. And in February, NAQT vacated MIT’s 2012 championship win for the alleged transgressions of Joshua Alman, who was accused of exploiting the same security flaw used by Watkins.

The recent public scrutiny has led many in the Quiz Bowl world—a tightly knit community of elite players and organizers who communicate primarily through online forums—to question the values of the game.

“There’s a problem with cheating,” says Andrew Hart, a law student who played on the University of Minnesota team that Harvard defeated in the 2011 championship. “It’s not just database vulnerabilities; there are ways to do it, if you want to.”

In light of these scandals, David Liu, the team’s music specialist, sounds a note of optimism about the future of the Quiz Bowl community.

”I think people will still trust each other, but I think they’ll be more careful,” he says.

Yet in an environment marred by scandal, Hart says, promoting honest competition is more important than ever.

“People take the integrity of the game seriously,” Hart says. “In a sense, it’s all the game has.”

—Staff writer D. Simone Kovacs can be reached at dkovacs@college.harvard.edu. Follow her on Twitter @simkovacs.

—Staff writer Jared T. Lucky can be reached at lucky@college.harvard.edu. Follow him on Twitter @jared_lucky.

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