28th Great American Think-Off
Announcing Honorable Mentions
Read Essays Below

In 2021 the Think-Off Committee selected four honorable mentions, two on each side of the question:

Which is more important: to win or to play by the rules?

The 2021 Honorable Mention Winners are (in alphabetical order): Uma Menon, author and activist, Winter Park, FL; Matthew Pate, police officer and college professor, Pine Bluff, AK; John Smith, retired, Nevis, MN; and Craig Vosper, consultant, Loretto, MN.
Menon and Pate wrote essays arguing that it is more important to play by the rules, while Smith and Vosper wrote essays arguing that it is more important to win. [Please note: we had this information incorrect in our Think-Off program this year; our apologies!]
Read the 2021 Honorable Mention Essays Below!
You can also learn more about the 2021 Great American Think-Off debate by clicking these links:
2021 Think-Off Debate Results >> Read the 2021 Think-Off Finalist Essays >> Watch the 2021 Think-Off Debate on YouTube >>

Uma Menon, Author & Activist, Winter Park, Florida

Play by the Rules

As a student debater, I enter each tournament hoping to win as many rounds as I can, conducting hours of research to speak knowledgeably about the topic. Though I know that some of my fellow debaters have plagiarized cases, used electronic communication, and broken other rules for the sake of winning, I have chosen to play by the rules – not because I am afraid of being caught, but because I know that cheating will diminish the value of debate for myself and others. As a public school debater, rules are what have given me a chance and a level playing field to compete, so I do my best to maximize equity and accessibility in the activity.

Rules exist to ensure fairness and equal opportunity for all players. If rules are consistently broken, a game is rendered procedurally illegitimate. And what value is there to winning an illegitimate game?

Time and again, we have seen in our society that winners of lawless games are neither viewed as winners nor given the prize that they unfairly obtained.

Three outcomes may arise when one does not play by the rules. First is the possibility that cheating is discovered, causing the player to be disqualified, revoked of the win, and even punished in many cases. Take the case of Charles Ingram, a contestant on Who Wants to be a Millionaire who was discovered to have cheated. Not only was he stripped of the one-million pound prize and his title of winner, but he also had to pay steep court fees and lost his title as Major in the Army. Similarly, athletes who use prohibited substances are disqualified from the Olympics and businesspeople engaging in fraud are fined and jailed.

The second possibility is that breaking the rules severely undermines or destroys the legitimacy of the game. When rule-breaking is widespread, it is inevitable that all players become aware of this fact, either by direct knowledge or through results that consistently appear rigged. In such games, individuals lose faith in fairness and legitimacy, reducing participation and diminishing the value of the game. In countries where elections are consistently rigged by candidates and powerful individuals who break the rules of democracy, the public loses faith in the government, causing it to be corrupt or even collapse altogether. As such, securing a win without playing by the rules can have widespread ramifications that cause harms even to those outside of the game.

While it is less likely, a third possibility exists that the cheating is never discovered. While the material benefits of winning may be reaped in this case, the psychological impact can diminish the player’s sense of self-accomplishment. Regardless of whether or not the illegitimate winner experiences guilt, there is no doubt that cheating has a permanent effect on the moral character of the individual.

These three possibilities indicate how playing by the rules is more important than winning under all three of the major schools of normative ethics. The possibility of disqualification, punishment, and guilt are all unacceptable to a consequentialist. Failing to uphold universal moral principles, or rules, is in itself a moral failure according to deontologists. For virtue ethicists, breaking rules would prevent the individual from developing Aristotelian virtues of temperance and truthfulness.

But of course, the value of playing by the rules is not just ethical. Defying market rules through insider trading and speculation have had harmful economic consequences, even contributing to events like the Great Depression. Failing to play by the rules of diplomacy can have an immense sociopolitical cost and lead to war. Breaking the rules of our society can result in legal consequences as well.

As such playing by the rules is not only a moral imperative, but the best course of action when considering political, social, economic, financial, and legal consequences. True victory is not determined by the result of a Saturday night Scrabble Game or a high school debate competition. It is determined by the values and lessons we learn from life, which can only be derived by playing by the rules.

Refusing to play by the rules is much more costly than losing. It is possible to win while playing by the rules, but it is impossible to secure a legitimate win if the rules are broken. As such, given that playing by the rules is a prerequisite to a legitimate win, there is no question: playing by the rules is most important.


Matthew Pate, Police Officer & College Professor, Pine Bluff, Arkansas

Play by the Rules

It is always more important to play by the rules. I’m a police officer in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. For a town of barely more than 40,000 people, we have big city crime. Gangs, drugs, robberies, homicides and just about any crime you can imagine. Being a cop there is tough. You always go home exhausted. Last year, our homicide rate was more than thirteen times the national average. If ever there were a police force with a motivation to bend the rules, we have it. Which is precisely why we can’t.

Being a cop under these conditions is often very frustrating. We routinely deal with people on the worst day of their life. Either they’ve been the victim of something horrible or they’ve done something horrible. In neither instance are cops seen as heroic. We are interlopers – tourists in the drama of human suffering.

I teach police recruits in rookie school. I tell them they better love doing paperwork because police work is dominated by forms to be completed, boxes to be checked and blanks that must be filled. I stress the need to be detailed and accurate. These forms are the backbone of all that follows. This isn’t romantic. This doesn’t look like the chases and explosions on SWAT. It’s nauseatingly bureaucratic but absolutely necessary.

It’s necessary because complete and accurate recordkeeping is the way we ensure the integrity of the process – the process which every American is due. Because a fair, evenhanded and impartial process is guaranteed by the Constitution.

It’s hard to convince many young officers that the integrity of the process, which is to say, playing by the rules, is always more important than any particular outcome. We all want the bad guys to face justice, but real impartial justice demands that everyone – no matter how terrible their crimes – be afforded all the protections the law provides.

Every step the officers take in the course of their investigation must follow the rules. The evidence must be collected and stored following the rules. The suspect must be advised of his rights – told what the rules are. The trial must be conducted under the rules. The sentence must be imposed under the rules. Every aspect of the process which could lead to the revocation of another citizen’s freedom or deprivation of their property must be absolutely inviolate and pure.

If we trespass against the integrity of this process, everything that issues from it is corrupt, unjust and invalid. Still, some young officers remain unconvinced. They will ask things like “Detective Pate, what if you know… like really know… this guy is guilty, but you just can’t quite get the evidence to line up?” They don’t like the answer: You have to let him go.

Young officers are overly focused on outcomes – winning, if you will. Rather than the process, the rules.
I often have to make it personal for them. What if you were the suspect here? Would you want me to bend the rules just because I was morally certain you were guilty? After all, if I know you’re guilty shouldn’t that be enough? One could certainly make the case that the ends justify the means if this protects society from someone dangerous, right?

Wrong. Justice doesn’t work that way. Justice is never completely blind. Nor is it completely balanced but it must work within certain tolerances.

In the same way a freight train can travel to many different destinations, our system of constitutional protections can yield many different outcomes; and just like a train, that flexibility is always predicated in staying on the rails – playing by the rules. When a freight train leaves the rails, it can be catastrophic. So can sending an innocent person to prison.

None of this should be taken to mean that the police should just do their job and be happy about whatever happens next. That’s not reality or human nature. Cops should strive to do their best and be confident in the process, even if that process occasionally yields results we don’t like.

Without rules, justice is capricious, undependable and often brutal. The rules are the only thing that saves us.


John Smith, Retired, Nevis, Minnesota


As a boy, I would have done anything for my widowed mother. Each day, I had to wait at a local restaurant after school for her to pick me up after she finished working long days at the local box factory to support us. As Valentine’s Day approached one year, the restaurant ran a contest to win a box of chocolates by having your name drawn from the entries deposited into a box. I wanted to win the chocolates for my mother so badly that I would spend the time while I waited for her writing my name on the entry blanks and putting them in the box.

Instinctively, I knew that the unwritten rule allowed one entry into the box but by the time the contest concluded my chances out of hundreds of entries were probably more than 50-50. Unsurprisingly, I won the chocolates. I made my mother so happy when I gave her the chocolates that I never regretted for one minute that I might have bent the rules to win.

In high school we had a magazine drive each year as a fund raiser and the top salesperson received the best prizes. Every year before the magazine drive began I would go around town and ask people if they would buy from me when the drive started. By the time the competition started no one else had a chance to win and I became the top salesperson three years straight.

This admittedly lax attitude about rules may have been adopted because of my upbringing. My mother was a war bride and lived through World War II when the Nazis invaded her hometown in France and made the rules. My uncles broke these rules by joining the Resistance to help defeat their oppressors. My mother and her family frequently broke the rules by protecting Jewish refugees fleeing to the South of France.

To those oppressed, following the rules was not important; surviving was what mattered.

When my mother became a widow several years later with two small boys and no formal education, she had to live on a small amount of Social Security. Due to restrictions on the amount of money she could earn without losing benefits and because she wanted her children to get an advanced education, she worked for cash so that she could save enough for her sons’ educations. She broke the rules in order to win a better future for her family.

I understand the importance of rules, but I must confess that to this day I often am not afraid to bend the rules to my advantage. Is this morally wrong? The objective of most everything we do, whether in games, sports, or life is to win or achieve a goal.

It should be remembered that most of the great accomplishments in history have been made by those who did not follow rules and conventions.

Great explorers who ventured out and found out that the world was not flat challenged convention. Scientists such as Galileo defied the rules and proclaimed that the earth was not the center of the universe. Impressionist artists broke the conventional rules of painting to create artistic masterpieces. Modern innovators such as Steve Jobs changed the world by being unconventional and changing the way we lived our lives.

Furthermore, it is not the losers that make the rules by which we live, but the victors or those in power. Consider Las Vegas Casinos. Play long enough by their rules and you are sure to lose in the end. The same is true in politics. The rules and laws by which we live today are determined by whomever is in power. Specific examples include who can vote, who has the right to obtain an abortion, who can use medical marijuana, and how much an individual pays in taxes. Who decides? Not the losers.

Is it important to have rules? Of course, it is critical to an orderly society. However, in deciding whether it is more important to follow the rules or to win, I opt for winning. Rules are the guidelines by which we live, but they are the guidelines and not the objective. The objective is to win.


Craig Vosper, Consultant, Loretto, Minnesota


It is more important to win than to play by the rules; as a matter of fact, it’s often even more important to lose than play by the rules!

As I contemplated this question for the Great Debate, I realized it is not intended to ask if we should deflate a football to throw it better or steal signs from opposing catchers to help us win the World Series. Those cases are too simple a discussion, they are too clearly a violation of personal integrity in order to win a game or gain favor with other people. In any sport or game that a person willingly joins they should follow the rules of that game. They are typically clearly understood, and a person is joining that game or activity on their own volition. No, the questions about cheating in sports are better left for the local bars and taverns and I’m happy to engage with folks about this over a beer any day.

This question isn’t about is it ok to cheat, no, that question is too simple as well. This question requires us to define what we mean by winning and what we mean by the rules.

This question is about how you choose to live your life and what you are willing to do to achieve it. This is about defining what the rules are for your life and how we as people agree to live with each other and those around us.

For instance, during my time as a Platoon leader in the Army I defined winning as keeping my soldiers alive. During one operation, we were clearing a hotel room to room to capture some bad dudes. One of the rules we were to follow was to minimize collateral damage within the hotel. While I clearly acknowledged this rule, I was not going to write a letter home to one of my soldier’s parents or wife telling them he died because I was worried about getting in trouble for breaking a door.

As I thought of my own situation, it led to me to think of some extremely important events in history that would not have happened had people followed the rules.

In 1776, a group of colonists within the British empire decided the rules that governed them were not fair, and they decided to break those rules. What if they had simply followed the British rules and had just paid their taxes?

In 1955, Rosa Parks didn’t give up her bus seat and broke the rules of segregation laws in Alabama. What if she had just followed those rules and moved to the back of the bus like she was supposed to?

Closer New York Mills, 30 years ago John Davis decided the social norm rules that small towns didn’t want or need art in their towns didn’t make sense, and he opened a cultural center in the middle of rural Minnesota. At that same time a small-town banker in that town decided, highly encouraged by his wife I understand, that traditional lending rules don’t always need to be followed, and he took a risk to give him the loan to do it.

Some of you might not be winning at your own life because you’re living it based on someone else’s rules. Maybe you are following the rules of others expectations you can’t meet or don’t want to meet; maybe you are following the rules of a political party that no longer represents you; maybe you are living under the rules of a mentor, leader or teacher that asks you to hate those who are different from you; maybe you know of another set of rules that are unfair or cause others pain or harm.

Our world is full of rules that need to be broken, that aren’t fair, that pull us apart. Ask yourself, should you follow these rules or should we gather the courage to take a stand, to make a situation right, to love others regardless of their differences?

You may not even win when you break the rules, you may end up losing, even losing big. But if the rules aren’t fair, if they aren’t right, if they need to be broken, then breaking them is your only real choice, isn’t it?

In the end, if we don’t break the rules and make the world better, who is going to do it?


Congratulations to the 2021 Great American Think-Off Honorable Mentions! Learn more about the Think-Off here: https://www.kulcher.org/think-off/the-great-american-think-off/