Co-championship cop out

Posted on March 6, 2010. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

The nation is missing a teachable moment about race, sportsmanship and common courtesy.

When the Coca-Cola Co. decided to sponsor what it dubbed “The Largest National Step Competition in History,” it probably wasn’t thinking about controversy. The Sprite Step Off, like other public-relations events, was merely aimed at building a promotion around an event to increase the consumption of soft drinks by a certain demographic.

It was, in all likelihood, conceived as a win-win project: The competition would give step-dance teams a national stage plus raise scholarship money for the participating teams’ schools. With any luck, Sprite sales would spike, too.

For those unfamiliar with stepdancing, Wikipedia defines it as “a form of percussive dance in which the participant’s entire body is used as an instrument to produce complex rhythms and sounds through a mixture of footsteps, spoken word, and hand claps.”

“Step” is said to have its roots in school-yard song-and-dance rituals practiced by historically African American fraternities and sororities. However, on Feb. 20, the all-white Zeta Tau Alpha sorority from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville shocked everyone by winning the national championship event at the Sprite Step Off.

A celebration of diversity it wasn’t. At the announcement of their victory, the Arkansas ZTAs were booed loudly by the predominantly black audience. The jeers and thumbs-down gestures were so pronounced and prolonged that it prompted the emcee, black entertainer Ludacris, to remind the audience that the results were the judges’ scores and had been “doublechecked.” One all-black team walked off the stage.

Within hours, the Internet was overrun with racially motivated comments ranging from rants about “cultural theft” to slurs aimed at the white ZTA sisters from Arkansas and even the judges, four of whom are black. (One is an Albanian.)

A member of the runner-up team, the all-black Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority from Indiana University, used her Facebook page to opine that the competition was “rigged.”

Caught unawares in a storm of racial backlash, Coca-Cola caved and, a full five days after the event, decided that the only win-win option left for the Sprite Step Off was for there to be two winners, one white and one black. In a press release, the company made a vague reference to “scoring discrepancies” and proclaimed the Arkansas ZTAs and the Indiana AKAs cochampions, allowing each to receive $100,000 in scholarship funds.

Here’s what I wish would have happened.

Right after Ludacris, obviously surprised by the boos, had stammered through announcing the winning ZTA team, I wish a Coca-Cola executive with a booming voice and a big Sprite badge had grabbed the mike and yelled at them to stop it.

“Stop it now! Stop booing these young girls! These white girls have worked as hard as anybody to get to this final. They’ve won qualifying and preliminary competitions fair and square, and they have just won the national competition the same way by the judges’ score.

“Y’all were loudly cheering this ZTA team on just a little while ago when they performed their routine. Why are you booing them now? Because they won? Or because they’re white?

“Listen up, this thing isn’t about race, and there was never any guarantee that a black team was going to win. This should be a moment of colorblind celebration. Don’t you all realize that it was the Arkansas AKA chapter that helped mentor the ZTA teams beginning 16 years ago?

“When you boo these ZTA ladies because they’re white, you’re also booing the black ladies of AKA who helped teach them how to step. And you know what the event there in Arkansas that sparked the ZTAs’ interest in step is called? Unity. You’re booing that, too.

“There have always been pageants where the best contestant didn’t win, even Olympic events where the best figure skaters didn’t win. Sometimes judges may make mistakes, and sometimes we may just disagree, but what we never should do is boo a competitor for winning, or worse, for being the wrong color.

“Competitions can cause heated emotions, but at the end of the day that’s never an excuse for lowering standards or regressing to race-based injustice. Let’s start this winner announcement over, and everybody please join me in applauding the Arkansas ZTAs for being this year’s champion!”

Even if a corporate bureaucrat really had enough courage to try, he or she might not have been able to calm the crowd and convert those boos to applause. But had that happened, that speech is what would have been all over YouTube for the past two weeks, getting a half-million views and a national ovation from everyone interested in fairness.

Instead, embarrassing, racially intolerant booing is caught on tape for posterity, Coca-Cola looks like a wimp and we have the ridiculous precedent of two winners—separate but equal?—in the Sprite Step Off.

Anyone for a 7UP?

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