The Florida A&M University Marching 100 Hazing Death of Robert Champion…just the headline of this story is un-nerving. Not just because we are speaking of death, but an incident where someone was killed during an apparent hazing ritual…and for an HBCU marching band no less. So that pretty much alienates the vast majority of the populous. I marched for a high-step band in high school and I am a former member of the North Carolina A&T State University Blue & Gold Marching Machine. I am all too familiar with the world of marching band and even the world of ingrained hazing culture that exists within the construct of HBCU marching bands. I said all that to say this: what happened to Mr. Champion is, unfortunately, not all that shocking. Don’t misunderstand me, the RESULT of what happened to Mr. Champion is shocking, but the way that it happened honestly wasn’t as shocking as maybe it should be. Let’s recap: Mr. Robert Champion, a drum major for the Florida A&M University Marching 100, was undergoing a ritual called “Crossing Bus C”. This ritual involves running from the front of the bus to the back of the chartered bus while other band members beat you in the process. Sounds extremely brutal and dangerous…and sadly, at the same time, I’ve heard about stuff worse than this. Mr. Champion, later felt weary, and eventually collapsed and passed away from the internal injuries he suffered from this ritual. I’ve heard and read all types of reactions from this story, and yet…I still feel like there are a number of questions to be answered. Why does Florida A&M have drum majors who are, at this point, undergoing ANY type of hazing ritual for the band? Why are so many members of the Marching 100 academically ineligible to be participating in anything? Why was Mr. Champion brutalized as harshly as he was while, at that point, being a leader in the band? (some speculate because of his involvement with the Red Dawg Order, but out of respect for Mr. Champion’s family, the Marching 100, and the facts that haven’t all come out, I won’t comment on that at this time). The details of this story, however, are not the issue at hand for me at this time though. People are desperately trying to make sense of the culture of hazing that exists within colleges, universities, the military, and even, in some cases high school organizations. The universal truth that I SEEM to be getting from any and everyone who has the intestinal fortitude to comment on these events is that every responsible adult on the face of the Earth is absolutely, and without regret, anti-hazing…bullshit. Many of the people saying this stuff have undergone hazing rituals, and have put others through certain things. You wear the letters proudly today, while disavowing any knowledge of anything you’ve ever been subjected to. I must admit, at this time, it is EXTREMELY difficult for me to take such a position, especially in the light of a young, black man’s death. But I firmly believe that I, nor are most people actually “anti-hazing”. I am anti-brutality, anti-hitting with foreign objects, anti-making a person go swimming in the ocean shackled to others, anti-contusions, anti-making someone binge drink, anti-beating a person until they die from internal injuries…but not anti-hazing necessarily. So where does a person like me draw the line? Hopefully, we can draw the line at having to tell another mother her son or daughter was killed by the very people they were looking to be accepted by.
The act of hazing is defined as any act meant to harass or abuse by humiliating or excessive tactics. One of the biggest problems with hazing is the subjectivity of what is actually considered hazing. Besides the extreme physical acts that we hear about sending people to the emergency rooms, something as simple as yelling at someone is considered hazing too. Making someone run ‘excessive’ laps, even the simple act of lining people up by height are all considered hazing. With this definition the line is very clear when it comes to the intake process of social or service organizations. It isn’t hard to differentiate between what is a necessary step in bringing someone into the organization and when it becomes hazing. However, with this same definition, comes the biggest problem with hazing is it relates to marching band. The truth is that having someone yell at you or being forced to endure physically taxing exercises in the name of conditioning is a huge part of being a member of a high-step marching band. Discipline is a main component of being able to create synergy and a sense of “oneness” amongst a group of 70-80 instrumentalists and auxiliary members…the Florida A&M “Marching 100” usually averages about 350-400 people. The band I marched for was never that huge (around 160-180 usually), but as a person leading a section, I didn’t have the luxury of being a passive leader. Every now and then you have to get in someone’s face or make someone run laps, or endure some type of physically taxing activity that would make them better trumpet players or bandsmen. Punching someone doesn’t make them a better bandsmen, but making them do six inches absolutely does (helps you be able to play from your diaphragm with more power and a cleaner tone). But trust me, no matter how normal what a person has to go through to become a member of a marching band, there’s always going to be someone who’s too soft to even deal with that. You will inevitably have people who sit on sidelines or sit out activities because they don’t have the heart to deal with the same hard work that everyone else deals with; it never fails. Get in someone’s face or make them run laps because of their lack of effort, and they’ll cry that they were hazed. It’s a no-win situation often times. You don’t want to help add to a culture of senseless brutality and physical punishment that might send some young person to the hospital and land you in prison…but being perfectly honest…you don’t want the soft people in the band with you: truthfully speaking, you’d prefer if some people just quit. No elite organization, band or otherwise, wants to make it easy for people to be a part of it. Especially of there is a high standard of excellence that this organization is used to producing. Buying into the program is part of the deal. Physically beating on someone doesn’t have to be part of that process. Until all organizations are willing to buy into this concept, what happened to Robert Champion is GOING to happen again, there’s no way around it.
I think one of the most telling statements about Mr. Robert Champion was when his mother stated that Robert’s dedication and loyalty to the band was so pure, that HE would not have told anyone about what he was being forced to endure. The above picture is actually the casket of Mr. Champion as he’s being taken to his funeral…the casket is being escorted by 2 of his fellow drum majors (who sadly are actually both being accused of being responsible for his injuries that lead to his death.) That’s a powerful piece of information; not just because it is a window into the heart of Mr. Champion…but because it’s a mentality that is all too familiar. Many of the people reading this right now, aren’t just familiar with the concept of hazing, but are first-hand witnesses not only to being on a line and getting hazed, but hazing some people that came behind you. I’m not judging, because I am too, but let’s ask ourselves this question: At what point would YOU have told or dropped had it been you and your “process”? See the answer for some of you is after it got a little crazy, some could tolerate more, some of you even more…then there are many of you who would answer this question simply “AT NO FUCKING POINT…” For many of you, the truth is at no point would you have told or dropped from your line, for whatever it was. The answer is you would have toughed it out and got your letters…and as much as I respect that, that’s unfortunately the mentality that killed Mr. Champion. Whatever level of respect he felt like he was going to receive for “Crossing Bus C”, he was up for it. We don’t understand why, in his mind, the process was worth this brutality (or honestly if he even knew what he was in for) but he went through it. And unfortunately, half the nature of why hazing takes place is because people want to prove themselves. Prove that they can belong to whatever. And listen, this isn’t the time to thumb your nose and take a pompous attitude about what YOU pledged and the letters YOU wear today as a result of your process. Make no mistake about it, the Florida A&M Marching 100 is honestly a bigger NATIONAL deal than any individual chapter of any Greek lettered organization that a person may endure hazing to be a part of, or anything else. The fact of the matter is that hazing within the construct of HBCU marching band is shocking and seems weird to most people because MOST people didn’t attend an HBCU…nor one with an ELITE marching band program…nor did they participate in that marching band. It gets deep; many of these programs have existed for decades as not only symbols of pride for the Universities they represent, but as a symbol of hope and a NEEDED distraction for young black kids in low income neighborhoods. Is it still stupid to you? That instead of an AK-47, an adolescent black kid in a rough neighborhood picks up a trumpet, or a saxophone, or a mellowphone, or some sticks…which sounds more productive to you? It’s honestly an honor to take the field with the colors of an elite marching band on you while you perform for a crowd. Florida A&M has performed for some of the hugest crowds in their history. Super Bowls, presidential Inaugural parades, summer Olympics, the reality of the matter is that if you’ve had eyes and access to a television, YOU have seen The FAMU “Marching 100”. This band is the equivalent of Alabama Crimson Tide football. It’s an honor to take the field as a member of this group (it was an honor to compete against them), so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there is a long history of hazing culture within the Marching 100. To be perfectly honest and real…pretty much ANY elite HBCU marching band has some form of hazing, whether it’s in reference to a particular section or any organization within the construct of that band. Trust me, you’re not just going to roll up in a high profile marching band and be respected simply on the strength of your playing ability. Devin Miles (Nick Cannon) pretty much had a cakewalk getting into Atlanta A&T’s band in the movie “Drumline”. It was a joke. An HBO special just came on last year speaking about some of the horrible injuries people have suffered from coming into the Southern University “Human Jukebox”. It was out of control. But again, Southern University is one of the elite HBCU marching bands, so it’s a culture that’s ingrained in their history and contributes to their intensity. And this is why I feel that this type of brutal hazing is going to have to come to an end. More people are telling, more people are sending complaints to school administrators now. Hazing isn’t getting worse, it’s just reported more now. You hear about it more now. This is the information age, things just come to light significantly faster.
It’s odd; years ago, when I was still a student at NC A&T SU, I used to talk about the “Drumline generation”. I used to say that because of the nature of that movie and how it was somewhat of a Hollywood depiction of the marching band world, that it was actually going to adversely affect black college marching bands. My theory was that it was going to cause many people to enter marching bands with a sense of naivety about the harshness of making it in this world. I was right; the VERY next freshman class after the movie came out (fall 2003) showed exactly that at A&T and a number of other schools. Young folks came in thinking the work wasn’t going to be as hard as it was, and it was a rude awakening for many. And that was just practice and band camp…so God-forbid some of these folks were going to get put through a “process”. To be perfectly candid, the main reason that people get so skittish when dealing with this subject of hazing is this new movement towards anti-bullying. Hazing is a form of bullying in most people’s eyes…despite the fact that most hazing that takes place is mostly by choice. Most organizations don’t force you to go through it, you choose to. The point is that times are changing: these new young people are not exactly ready to deal with same type of hazing that a number of our parents and even many of us endured, and truthfully, they shouldn’t have to. The fact of the matter is that even though more young folks are telling authority figures about their particular hazing processes, this is not the time in history where we need to be beating and brutalizing young people who are in college to get an education. The world is going to do plenty of that once they walk across the stage and receive their degree. This isn’t just about HBCU marching bands…it’s about everything. Every form of hazing has to get re-examined (Much to the chagrin of many of you). It’s ALL tradition when you ask someone who’s involved in it. You can’t have it both ways: you can’t be appalled by what happened to Robert Champion, but then turn around and rationalize what people go through in the name of a Greek lettered organization…that would make you hypocrite. As I stated earlier, there is still A LOT more information that needs to come out about what happened, and my gut instinct tells me that there’s a lot more beneath the surface of what happened to Mr. Champion. The most important thing, right now, is that the Champion family sees justice served for their son. Nevertheless, I look forward to seeing the Florida A&M University Marching 100 return and be spectacular. My prayers are with the entire Marching 100 family.