Fans ponder FAMU future

USA TODAY, September 17, 2012

By Yamiche Alcindor

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A crowd of 17,871 cheering fans. Six electrifying touchdowns. A moment of silence for hazing victims. And no Marching 100.

As Florida A&M University hosted its first football game without its renowned band, the school turned a page in its history and stepped into a challenging and uncertain future.

The band, whose more than 350 members played at college bowl games, Super Bowls and presidential inaugurations, has been suspended for a year in the aftermath of drum major Robert Champion Jr.’s death.

“This is an extreme time of crisis, and I don’t think anyone knows how this is going to play out,” said Joe Womack, a 2003 graduate who traveled from Atlanta for the game against Hampton University. “There is so much negativity out there. It’s important to keep the family together.”

The university has been in turmoil since Champion Jr., 26, died in November after a beating by fellow band members in a hazing ritual on a bus. Twelve former band members face charges of felony hazing. All have pleaded not guilty. The president and longtime band director have resigned.

For Womack, 33, and others, the school’s ability to move forward rests on the incoming leadership, the support of alumni and the community, and students’ willingness to follow a new anti-hazing policy.

Devon Redmond, 26, of Southfield, Mich., joined the band as a freshman saxophone player in 2004, the same year as Champion and 110 others. He arrived expecting to be hazed, as he was in his high school band.

“It’s just so entrenched,” said Redmond, an executive assistant at a music firm. “It wasn’t so surprising that someone lost their life.”

The Marching 100 will most likely do away with many traditions and rituals when they return, but the change could help students focus on academics, he said.

Anti-hazing efforts, including plans to revise admission requirements for the band and other student organizations, aim to prevent another tragedy. Two staff members will work on the plans, an outside committee is looking at hazing throughout the school, and students will discuss hazing at a town hall meeting Thursday.

“Students understand the seriousness of it all,” said student body President Marissa West, 22. “If we have to make examples out of people, that’s what’s going to happen.”

Before and after the game Saturday, cars, tents and grills filled the parking lot and streets alongside Bragg Memorial Stadium. People enjoyed traditional favorites such as smoked sausages, fried conch and large helpings of banana pudding.

Some people, such as Womack, missed the band but said attending was about Rattler pride and perseverance.

Crowds cheered and swayed as the stadium filled. By the second quarter, there were few empty patches in the stands. Fans jumped to their feet as rapper Future performed at halftime.

“The majority of the time, people leave after halftime because the band is basically the game,” said Michael Brasfield, 19, a sophomore business major. “But I feel like due to everything that’s happened, we’re all forced to rally together.”

Saturday, most remained until the fourth quarter, when the winner was clear. FAMU beat Hampton 44-20.

Head football coach Joe Taylor said this season offers a chance for fans to focus on the players instead of the band. “I saw fans in the stands having fun cheering for their football team,” he said after the game. “I thought it was an outstanding thing.”

However, the energy didn’t match the exuberance the Marching 100 brought, said Brandon Cunningham, 24, a student and former band president. The absence of eye-catching dance moves, precise musical notes and performances across the field left a void.

During the game, he and other former band members sat in section Q just south of the 40-yard line, where they would have been if they were performing. The game brought home the reality that they have lost a friend and their band.

“We were with Robert every day, at least five hours a day, for about 13 to 14 weeks,” he said. “People have just accepted that there’s just a void that’s not going to be filled this year.”

FAMU faces a long road. Next month, the school is scheduled to enter into mediation with Champion’s parents over their lawsuit against the university and the company that owns the bus on which their son died.

In court papers, FAMU has denied responsibility for Champion’s death. It says he knew the dangers of hazing and willingly broke the law and school policies by participating.

Pamela Champion, the drum major’s mother, said that argument illustrates the university’s continuing problems.

“They do not have the best interest of any student in mind,” she said. “The important thing is to ensure the safety of every student within that band, not so much that the band gets back on the field. Other people’s lives are at stake.”

Larry Robinson, FAMU’s interim president, said it will take the effort of the entire school to do away with life-threatening initiation practices.

“Some of these things go back generations,” he said. “We have to get students to understand that there is no need. They should take the initiative to say, â??This is no longer acceptable. Look at what we just went through.'”