A funeral procession Wednesday for Robert
Before they even arrive at Florida A&M University here, the freshmen who are hand-picked for the famous marching band know all about the hazing, an unsanctioned
tradition that goes back decades.
In the ultracompetitive atmosphere of the Marching 100, as the band is called, the verbal, emotional and physical pain that is doled out is viewed as an extra source of pride and strength among the relatively small number of band members who participate in hazing, former members say.
Punching, paddling, slapping and forcing band members to eat certain things, do certain favors and endure verbal abuse for mistakes is part of the code, carried out by subgroups within each section: “The Clones” in the clarinet cluster, for example, and “The Soulful Saxes” in the saxophone section. Drinking is seldom involved, former members say, and much of the hazing is voluntary.
“A lot of people who come to the band come expecting these things,” said Phillip Stewart, 29, a former university drum major who said hazing was part of a subculture within the band. “They think that in order to be amongst the best and to be accepted they have to do certain things. This isn’t true.”
But those decades of tradition — a longtime concern of the university administration — are now the focal point of an investigation into the death of a drum major 10 days ago, and the reaction so far has been significant.
The band’s longtime director, Julian White, has been fired, and four separate investigations have been ordered, including one by Gov. Rick Scott, who asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to step in, and one by the university president, James H. Ammons. The marching band has been suspended from performing indefinitely.
The death of the drum major, Robert Champion, 26, also raises a perplexing question: Why was a drum major — a campus celebrity whose position reflects outstanding leadership skills and talent — being hazed, if that is what in fact contributed to his death? No cause of death has yet been determined but the Orange County Sheriff’s Office in Orlando, where Mr. Champion died, said it suspected that hazing was involved.
“I vow as the president of FAMU that Robert’s death will not be in vain,” Dr. Ammons said Wednesday at Mr. Champion’s funeral in Decatur, Ga.
The church was packed with 500 mourners, including many band members and Dr. White, who also spoke at the service. Promising to “end hazing on the campus of FAMU,” Dr. Ammons told mourners that he would introduce his own brand of R & D to the university, “and I don’t mean research and development; I mean respect and dignity.”
Mr. Champion, a hard-working clarinet player, tried out twice before being selected as one of six drum majors in the spring of 2010. He died just hours after marching on the field at the Florida Classic, a football game between Florida A&M and its longtime rival, Bethune-Cookman University.
He collapsed in a bus parked at an Orlando hotel, where the band was staying. It was evening, and the buses should have been locked, Dr. White said. After interviewing band members, he said, it appeared that Mr. Champion had been punched repeatedly by a small group of band members on the bus as part of a hazing ritual, then vomited and passed out. When others in the bus could not revive him, they called for an ambulance. He died a short time later at a hospital.
His parents have hired a lawyer and said they planned to sue the university to prevent such a thing from happening again.
“It’s kind of a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ culture,” said Christopher M. Chestnut, the family’s lawyer. “No one’s shocked. Everyone knew it happened.”
Dr. White, a tenured professor who was been at the university for four decades and became band director in 1998, has also hired a lawyer, saying he had done everything he could to stop hazing over the past two decades.