FARIBAULT, Minn. – The Faribault Emeralds dance team and the community rallied Tuesday to buoy a state championship team trying to shake off the hurt of a bizarre medal ceremony and social media maelstrom.
The high school held a pep rally to honor a team engulfed in controversy, and school officials celebrated the dance team’s victory during a basketball game later in the evening.
“We wanted to make sure they felt good about their championship,” Superintendent Todd Sesker said. “These are young kids. They shouldn’t have to go through what they went through last week.”
On Saturday, after Faribault’s dance team won the state high kick-dance competition, girls from five other teams stood off to the side of the Target Center floor holding hands in protest of what was alleged to be a plagiarized routine by the Emeralds. Their action left Faribault’s dancers shaken and alone for what should have been their triumphant medal moment.
The scandal has consumed the state dance community as the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) investigates the unusual public boycott of an award ceremony.
The Faribault dancers, who range in age from 13 to 18, participated in a rally that included a re-enactment of the medal ceremony in front of some 1,300 students and supporters.
Afterward, Faribault junior varsity dance coach Molly MacKay rebuked the losers.
She called the coaches from the five teams “disgraces” who should lose their jobs. “The coaches fully orchestrated this,” MacKay said. “It was full-out plotted the entire time.”
As she spoke, supporters carried balloons and sported temporary tattoos in the shape of bug-eyed aliens, mirroring the Emeralds’ costumes for their winning routine.
Parents steered the dancers away from journalists and insisted that the students not comment.
Officials from most of the competing schools did not return repeated messages seeking comment as the incident drew national attention.
But letters and e-mails obtained by the Star Tribune showed the depth of the anguished feelings among top high school athletic officials as district leaders from competing schools tried to calm the furor behind the scenes.
“What took place was totally deplorable,” Kevin Merkle, associate director of the MSHSL, wrote in an e-mail to Faribault activities director Ken Hubert. “I will never forget what happened, what your team had to go through, and the look on your kids’ faces.”
It’s not the first time a team has been criticized for its behavior at an awards ceremony.
At the boys’ state basketball tournament last year, Hopkins players lost in the last minute to a hot-shooting Lakeville North. As they received their medals, some Hopkins players quickly removed them from their necks and stood by sulking.
Hopkins faced moderate social media criticism, but nothing like the deluge following the dance event that has included a reference on deadspin.com and comparison to the plot of the cheerleading movie “Bring It On.”
The Faribault dancers used the same music and wore costumes similar to those used by the Copper Hills Azurettes, an award-winning team in Utah.
The similarities led to an anonymous complaint of creative plagiarism to the MSHSL in the week leading up to the tournament.
Based on an investigation by Hubert (the Faribault activities director) and in its own review, the MSHSL exonerated the team and allowed the Emeralds to compete in the tournament, according to a letter from Merkle to Hubert dated Feb. 11.
Merkle wrote that there were some “moves” from the Utah team used by Faribault but that “they were small in number and in most cases they were modified.”
The MSHSL found “32 counts” that could be “considered the same or similar,” the letter said, adding that this didn’t constitute a violation of the rules.
“While the uniform, and music are similar, and the theme is basically identical, these in and of themselves are also not a violation of current MSHSL Dance Team rules,” the league concluded in the letter.
The ruling did not quell whispers of a boycott by other teams. But in a e-mail to school officials dated Sunday, Merkle said that he had been told the other teams would participate in the awards ceremony and that he had no idea they would behave as they did. “Know that we will be conducting a further investigation and our staff and board will then decide a course of action,” Merkle wrote.
MSHSL Executive Director David Stead declined to provide any details about the parameters of its investigation, when it might be completed and what penalties might result.
Schools involved in the protest were Wayzata, Eastview, Chaska, Lakeville South and Eden Prairie. Only Wayzata responded Tuesday to calls and e-mails for comment. In a prepared statement, the district said it was conducting its own investigation into the incident.
On Sunday morning, Faribault’s Superintendent Sesker wrote a lengthy e-mail to officials at the other schools, saying his athletes were “set up” by the five other teams that refused to participate in the award ceremony. “I have never seen a display like this from athletes and coaches this extreme. … I am sad and angry at the same time,” he wrote. “I talked to my board chair and he assured me that if these were coaches in Faribault, they probably wouldn’t have a job next year.”
While the other schools weren’t commenting publicly, some sent e-mails of apology.
“I am deeply sorry any of this has taken place and impacted you, your team and your community in a negative way,” replied Matt Percival, Eastview High School assistant principal for curriculum and athletics.
And Neil Strader, activities director at Lakeville South High School, replied with “my well-deserved apology.”
“You are in my thoughts and please know that on behalf of Lakeville South High School I am truly sorry,” Strader wrote. “The events that spiraled out of control at the state meet was terrible for your girls and coaching staff to experience.”
On Monday, Hubert had a special request for the MSHSL. “Is there a way for us to get access to the Target Center? Our team was rushed off the court without the opportunity to take the usual championship picture.”
Merkle responded Monday that he would work something out.
Staff writer Alejandra Matos contributed to this report.