Seventeen days after Indiana University’s Alpha Kappa Alpha step team took second place in a national step competition sponsored by Sprite and the Coca Cola Company and 11 days after IU’s team — belonging to a predominately African-American sorority — learned it was being bumped up to share the first place title with Zeta Tau Alpha — a white team from a predominately white sorority at the University of Arkansas, IU’s team was awarded an additional $50,000 to make its winnings equal to those of Arkansas.
Sprite officials see the check delivery as the last step in a complete effort to clear up any unfairness in the competition’s original outcome.
But on the day they received their check, IU’s step team members said the short ceremony was a victory, helping to pay their way into graduate schools and affirming their feeling that they‘d won the competition. But the presentation left on-lookers with questions—questions to which Sprite officials aren’t giving any answers.
And a statement on the competition’s website provide doesn’t say much besides mentioning an unexplained “scoring discrepancy” and an “extremely narrow margin” between the winning scores—a lack of transparency that—following a negative reaction from any angry crowd after the competition—has led some to feel the company’s recent decisions may have been based on race.
Jasmine Starks, captain of IU’s team says she thinks that what the situation “boiled down to.”
“I think that’s what the simplicity of it became,” Staks said. “ It initially may have started as someone thinking. Oh they stepped better so we are mad that Zeta Tau Alpha won. But then instead of saying whatever their reasoning was—‘oh their steps were more complex’, or ‘their steps were better’—instead of saying that every time to someone else it dwindled down to, ‘yes the white girls won.’”
Starks added Arkansas’s team members were also impressive and deserve recognition for saying they have no qualms in sharing the title. But neither of the teams seems to have been given much information about how or why the decision was made.
Alexandra Komitis Arkansas’ co-captain also said she’s certain race was not a factor in the company’s decision. Starks said she assumes an error in calculating the scores led to the elusive scoring discrepancy.
But, if that’s the case, why not release the scores—clearing up any possibility of racial implications once and for all?
Indiana University African American History Professor Khalil Muhammad said the situation likely isn’t that simple.
“If they had an easy solution they would have exercised it at this point,” Muhammad said. “So I think there must be a there, there. I think they are banking on short term memories and therefore that this will just blow away and then next year it will be interesting to see if they make any substantive changes to the competition and there I think we will be able to reflect upon what might have actually have gone on.”
But John Philips, judge administrator for Drum Corps International, which hosts many large national competitions of its own, said Sprite’s actions don’t represent standard judging procedure.
“Typically in any event, even in these contests where you’re putting your name into a drum and you’re drawing something out they always say the decisions of the judges is final,” Philips said.
And Sprite’s official rules make that same statement several times—in bold print. But Philips said Sprite’s methodology seems even more unusual in the context of what should be a precisely judged competition.
“I can’t understand why that particular organization made this decision to review it and also to even come forward and say we made a mistake and that’s just probably a part and parcel of the system not being designed in such a way to prevent that from happening,” Philips said.
Philips added in his experience there are no circumstances in which judges would review a competition after awards had been given and can’t imagine an organized event like this could let something like a calculation error slip by.
While Sprite’s tight-lipped policy may keep anyone from finding answers, Khalil Muhammad suggests the outcome has actually been positive—causing people to ask questions and evaluate implications of race—that is, he says, unless later outcomes appear skewed.
“To say that white people can’t step is absurd,” Muhammad said. “It’s just a form of reverse racism. But to have a larger conversation about what this means in the future and how history may inform practices that even with the best of intentions going forward could produce disparate results with white step teams becoming the favorite sons and daughters of the art form as it goes national and even global would be a legitimate focus of critique by African Americans, absolutely.”