We've come a long way since the days of minority segregation in sports. It has been 74 years since Jessie Owens won gold and Matthew Robinson won Silver in the 200-meter dash at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, right under the nose of Adolf Hitler. Matthew's brother Jackie would break the color barrier in Major League Baseball 11 years later. Doug Williams was the first black quarterback to win a Superbowl when he played for the Washington Redskins, a traditionally white-led team even in the mid-1980s. In a majority of traditionally "white" sports and competitive events today, minorities playing hardly causes one to bat an eye. It is hardly true the other way around, however.
It seems that the winners of the first ever Sprite Step Off competition will have to share their first-place trophy. Coca-Cola made the decision on March 1st after reviewing hundreds of comments when a white sorority from the University of Arkansas won the competition at the end of February. Citing a "scoring discrepancy" Coca-Cola (the major sponsor via its Sprite brand) awarded Alpha Kappa Alpha, a team from Indiana University, the first-place tie.
Message boards were filled with vitriolic comments after the ladies from Arkansas won, much of it racially charged. According to the Associated Press:
The uproar began when the all-white Zeta Tau Alpha team from the University of Arkansas beat out five other sorority teams to win last weekend's national final in the Sprite Step Off competition. A YouTube video of their performance, inspired by the movie "The Matrix," generated hundreds of comments.
Posters questioned everything from whether a white group should have been allowed to compete to whether judges wowed by the unlikely competitors inflated their scores to let them win.
"Good Job but let the Black folks have their own thing for once!!!" wrote one commenter posting under the name "titetowers" who said the Zeta Tau Alpha team did well but should not have won.
This is a lose-lose situation for Coke. Because of the racial component of the controversy, they can't take one side or another. This isn't baseball or the NFL, after all. Nor is it even gymnastics, where the official competition, its rules and scoring procedures have been established for decades. This is the very first year of the competition and so every rule or ruling is easily challenged as arbitrary or even biased. If Coca-Cola sides with the white Arkansas team, then they could upset minority sensitivities and lose 20% or more of their market share to Pepsi, Royal Crown and Cadbury-Schweppes. That loss could last for a generation or more. If they side with the black Indiana team, whites might get upset about racial preferences and the company could face a similar backlash. So Coke took the only ground available to them: Straight down the middle, awarding first place to both teams.
From my moral perspective, I'd like Coke to have taken a stand and said, "No, our competition was fair, and a white team has just as much chance as a black team to win." Realistically, the backlash that could have resulted was too dangerous for the company's leaders to explain to their shareholders.
Still, the idea that members of minority groups would be upset about whites winning in "their" competitions is disturbing. One supposes that, by this standard, minorities should not be allowed to compete in hockey, auto racing, baseball, or, say Country Music. It's not like non-African cultures have ritually or culturally significant dance forms, even ones that involve rhythmically stepping with one's feet.
Lawrence Ross, author of "The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities, said the increased interest in stepping is a natural evolution, much like other urban staples such as rap music that went from an underground phenomenon to mainstream.
"Others are always going to be attracted to what you're doing and are going to want to participate," said Ross, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, a historically black fraternity.
He said the nation is integrating more than ever and blacks who embrace President Barack Obama making inroads into previously all-white bastions can't have a double standard.
"If (black Olympian) Shani Davis was prevented from speed skating simply because traditionally, no African-Americans were in the field, we African-Americans would be up in arms," he said.
I couldn't have said it better myself, Mr. Ross. Fortunately, the girls of Zeta Tau Alpha aren't disappointed with having to share:
Arkansas senior Alexandra Kosmitis said she and her teammates had worked hard and were very excited when they heard they had won Saturday. They didn't feel their title was diminished when Coca-Cola told them they'd have to share it.
"We feel truly blessed to have been part of the competition and to have gotten scholarship money to further our educations," the 21-year-old Pine Bluff, Ark., native said. "The AKA chapter from Indiana University were really nice girls throughout the competition, and we're glad they are also getting scholarship money too."
It's unfortunate your detractors couldn't show that kind of class, Ms. Kosmitis. Very unfortunate, indeed.
Cross-posted at The Minority Report.