FAU tradition clouded by band member death

A horse-drawn carriage carrying the casket of Florida A&M University band member Robert Champion is led by his fellow band members following his funeral service Wednesday in Decatur, Ga. His death is believed to be hazing related.
Associated Press

By Christine Armario and Errin Haines
Associated Press

ATLANTA — Four Florida A&M University students have been expelled for their role in what is believed to be a hazing death of a marching band member, the latest blemish for a rich and cherished institution at historically black colleges.

Hazing is part of the price band members pay at historically black colleges to be part of a vaunted campus tradition that eclipses the prestige and popularity of the football team. Band members can endure anything from punching to paddling to being forced to drink copious amounts of water, all for a chance to perform in front of thousands of people at football games, parades and other high-profile events.

On historically black college campuses, band members are often given perks and treated like celebrities.

“If you were in the band, it was like you were a superstar,” said Fontreia James, a piccolo player for three years in the marching band at Jackson State University in Mississippi. “People don’t come to the games to see the football team. People come to see the band.”

In the fall, halftime is game time for the band and fans at historically black colleges, which are mostly in the South. The crowd cheers and applauds as the band high-steps out onto the field, dancing and marching in sync in elaborate formations, playing a variety of songs.

They do it week after week in heavy uniforms, holding instruments in the blazing heat. Band nicknames are almost as well-known as the school mascot: The Human Jukebox, The Sonic Boom of the South, and in Florida A&M’s case, The Marching 100.

Started in 1892 with fewer than 20 instruments, The Marching 100 has grown to over 400 members and is regarded as a pioneer, performing at Super Bowls, the Grammys and presidential inaugurations. The band even represented the U.S. in Paris at the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution.

The most revered members are the drum majors. They are as popular on campus as a star quarterback would be at other colleges. Florida A&M has several drum majors, including Robert Champion, who died Nov. 19 after he collapsed on a charter bus just a few hours after a football game with a rival.

Authorities have still not said how the junior died, only that hazing played a role. University President James Ammons referred to the student dismissals in a memo he sent earlier this week to the school’s board of trustees, but didn’t specify what they did, according to a document obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday.

According to 911 tapes, Champion had vomit in his mouth the moments before he died and he couldn’t breathe.

Champion’s death was puzzling because of his high position within the band and because he was an upperclassman.

“Drum majors are always in the front, always in the limelight,” said Jermaine Culbreath, who was head drum major at Bethune-Cookman University last year. “Walking around campus, you have a lot of people speaking to you, saying they saw you on the field. Half the people, you don’t even know who they are. You have alumni coming up to you, you have all these people who really appreciate what you do.”

The hierarchy within the band can get complex. Some members join a fraternity, Kappa Kappa Psi, founded on the campus of Oklahoma State University in 1919 to serve college band programs. Instrument section leaders also wield power in “mini-fraternities” within the band, according to Richard Sigal, a retired sociology professor at County College of Morris in Randolph, N.J.

Former FAMU clarinet player Ivery Luckey said he was paddled around 300 times and hospitalized in 1998 in order to join his section, called “The Clones.”

To perform on the field or at events, Luckey had to do whatever the older students told him to, said Sigal, who holds anti-hazing workshops at schools and was hired by Luckey’s attorneys in a lawsuit against the school.

One of the worst hazing cases occurred in 2001 and involved former FAMU band member Marcus Parker, who suffered kidney damage because of a beating with a paddle. In 2008, two first-year French horn players in Southern University’s marching band were beaten so bad they had to be hospitalized. A year later, 20 members of Jackson State University’s band were suspended after being accused of hazing.

Former state Sen. Al Lawson is a Florida A&M alumnus who was named to a university task force to look into Champion’s death, one of several investigations announced in the aftermath. Lawson said hazing was difficult to deal with.

“They’re students, but they really kind of take over. The staff is too small,” Lawson said. “You’ve got to have some people to depend on to take care of 400, 500 people. As they get to senior status, they have a lot of power. These students really don’t think they’re doing anything wrong.”

Unlike hazing at some colleges, alcohol plays a lesser role at historically black colleges and in the band, Jones said.

“They see going through this struggle, that has nothing to do with music obviously, but they see it as reaffirming of their dedication to the band, their dedication to their section, and a rite of passage,” Jones said. “It’s all about this very intense desire at that age to belong and be accepted. And it’s getting people killed and injured.”

There are perks for the band as a whole, too: charter buses with TVs, private cafeteria breakfasts before away games and a weekly allowance for entertainment.

The commitment begins long before classes start. During the summer, practices start before sunrise. Grueling outdoor workouts build strength and stamina and last more than an hour. Days and nights are spent together, forming a long-lasting bonds. The band becomes a second family.

“You looked out for your classmates,” said James, the Jackson State alumna. “I went to homecoming last month. The people I came in the band with still can reminisce, talk about how things were when we were in the band.”

That bond creates a loyalty and protective culture that is hard to penetrate. Several current and former band members were reluctant to discuss hazing at their schools. While most acknowledged its existence, none said they considered themselves victims.

“When I look at some of these instances where people have been hurt, it really bothers me,” James said. “Most of the people that do that tend to be these rogue people. This had nothing to do with the band. You’re just a thug. You’re bringing yourself into the band, which removes the whole unity element.”