A University Band, Chastened by Hazing, Makes Its Return
By Lizette Alvarez
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Knees sprang up, way up, as the students stepped into their slow march during practice this week. Sweat cascaded down their bodies, but they held the pose, five seconds, again and again. Then, they burst across the field, horns and drums at full blast, in frenzied precision.
The Marching 100 of Florida A&M University, one of the country’s most celebrated bands, is back on the field. And if last Sunday’s game in Orlando was a warm-up, an opportunity to test the turf after only three weeks of practice, Saturday is an official homecoming, the band’s first performance of the season here at Bragg Memorial Stadium.
Its comeback is billed simply as “The Return.” But there is nothing easy about the band’s return to the home field after a 21-month suspension.
Nearly two years after the death of Robert Champion, a drum major who was beaten to death by fellow band members in a hazing ritual, the Marching 100 (more than 400 before the suspension, about 160 now) is embracing a new mantra: “quality over quantity.” The members, who are mostly new, must be full-time Florida A&M students in good academic standing; and, just as important, they must be well versed in the dangers, penalties and definitions of hazing.
“It was devastating; not only losing a family member, but we were a great institution,” Thaddeus Stegall, a senior and one of the band’s three new drum majors — now called field commanders — said of Mr. Champion’s death. “The message is sinking in.”
He added, “We are proud to be the first members of this rebirth.”
Mr. Champion died Nov. 19, 2011, after taking part in a hazing ritual called Crossing Bus C following the popular Florida Classic football game in Orlando. As the mild-mannered, good-natured, 26-year-old walked from the front to the back of the bus, which was parked in a hotel lot, fellow band members beat him, kicked him and struck him with instruments repeatedly.
He collapsed right after the beating and died of “hemmorhagic shock caused by blunt-force trauma.” The death was ruled a homicide.
For his parents, Pam and Robert Champion Sr., the band’s return after only one marching season is nothing short of rushed and misguided. Not nearly enough time has passed since their son’s death to keep students safe and root out the university’s longstanding culture of hazing, the Champions said.
“Do we know what we have in place is working?” asked Mrs. Champion, who, along with her husband, is suing the university and has set up a foundation to end hazing. “We have to remember it wasn’t proactive. It wasn’t decades they spent to come up with this. It was something that was forced upon them to do. That makes a big difference in my mind.”
In her view, the very word “hazing” should be sidelined; it is too forgiving. “We have to call it just what it is,” she said. “We have to call it abuse — physical, mental and psychological abuse.”