The Scripps National Spelling Bee started its championship rounds on Thursday evening with 16 final spellers. Then there were 11. Then eight. Then eight again. And then that eight just wouldn’t go home. After three hours, the organization was, quite literally, without words. An announcement was made that following three final rounds, any remaining competitors would be named co-champions. And that’s how Rishik Gandhasri, Erin Howard, Saketh Sundar, Shruthika Padhy, Sohum Sukhatankar, Abhijay Kodali, Christopher Serrao, and Rohan Raja broke the Spelling Bee.
While every single one of those kids deserve the trophy and full $50,000 prize, an eight-person finish is indicative that the Spelling Bee circuit is a bit broken—if not, antiquated. Over the 92 years that the Bee has been conducted, we’ve quite literally evolved beyond the competition’s format.
That’s an incredible sight to see, even if it jeopardizes the nearly century-old competition. But it’s also not completely surprising. In the 92 years of competition, there had only been a tie three times before the 2014 competition. Then within the course of three years, there were subsequently three ties in the final round. Now, in 2019, there just aren’t enough words in the dictionary to throw the competitors off their game. Gone are the days of winning words like luge or milieu—in its place are super spellers who have cracked the code on all things definition, origin, and context.
Each of the eight winners are old pros in their own right, having made it to the national competition at least one time before. Erin Howard of Huntsville, Alabama has placed in the top 30 for the past four years, with only one placement out of the top 10. This year was an anomaly—a Spelling Bee Avengers where the absolute best bubbled past any bell-dings or misinterpreted schwas, but the octo-win throws Scripps into a conundrum. An eight person win in 2019 is a great headline. Another one is just fodder for an “everyone gets trophies” joke.
And the Bee really doesn’t need that joke piled onto a quiet problem that’s turning more than a few heads. Over the weekend, The Wall Street Journal reported that 2019 was the second year of a new rule change permitting parents of spellers who don’t make it past regionals to pay for “an invitation.” A $750 entry fee will get you in the door, with no other accommodations. The rule change curiously expanded the field that once stayed under 300 spellers to well over 500. Last year’s winner, Karthik Nemmani, was one of many “invited” guests and while Nemmani didn’t receive any extra assistance, it calls the fairness of the Spelling Bee into question.
There’s something really special (and lucky, to an extent) about spelling every word correctly from a local Bee all the way to the final round. But as the competition has become more high profile, the addition of coaches and “invitation” spots just feels a bit… i-c-k-y. What once was the purest and most American of competitions becomes a bit diluted when access is partially dictated by wealth. The path forward is dependent on a return to form—a system that rewards those who survive the grueling natural selection process at the regional level. Anything less feels like a cheat to the system.