Robert Champion fell in love with music at about age 6 when he saw a marching band at a parade in downtown Atlanta. So mesmerized by the festivities, he came home, took out pots and pans and started banging away like a little drummer.Robert Champion was living his dream, only to have it ended prematurely for him by ... hazing? What exactly does that mean in this case? We don't know. As a proud alum of The Ohio State University Marching Band, I must extend my sympathies to his family. No band experience should end like that.
His passion led him to marching bands from middle school through college. He was a drum major for the famed Marching 100 band of Florida A&M University, a group that has performed at Super Bowls, the Grammys and presidential inaugurations. The prestige brought along a "culture of hazing" and a secret world that played a role in Champion's death, his family said Monday.
"It needs to stop. The whole purpose is to put this out there and let people know there has to be a change," Champion's mother, Pam, said at a news conference.
On Nov. 19, after the school's football team lost its annual game with rival Bethune-Cookman, Champion collapsed on a bus parked outside an Orlando, Fla., hotel. The 26-year-old junior had been vomiting and complained he couldn't breathe shortly before he became unconscious.
When authorities arrived about 9:45 p.m., Champion was unresponsive. He died at a nearby hospital.
Authorities have not released any more details, except to say hazing played a role. An attorney representing Champion's family also refused to talk specifics.
"We are confident from what we've learned that hazing was a part of his death. We've got to expose this culture and eradicate it," Christopher Chestnut said. "There's a pattern and practice of covering up this culture."
Since Champion's death, the school has shuttered the marching band and the rest of the music department's performances. The longtime band director, Julian White, was fired.
There is talk that this tragic story is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg:
Hazing has a long history in marching bands, particularly at historically black colleges, where a spot in the band is coveted for its tradition and prominence. Band performances are sometimes revered as much as the school's sports teams.An editorial in HBCU Digest calling for the banning of the band offers some details:
FAMU has been at the center of some of the worst cases. In 2001, former FAMU band member Marcus Parker suffered kidney damage because of a beating with a paddle. Three years earlier, Ivery Luckey, a clarinet player, said he was paddled around 300 times and had to go to the hospital.
In the last five years alone, there have been several high profile band hazing cases. In 2006 at Florida A&M, four band members were arrested for paddling and punching. In 2008, seven Southern University students were arrested for hazing which caused two students to be hospitalized. In 2009, 27 percussionists at Jackson State were disciplined for hazing that included the use of boards, pipes, baseball bats, paddles, sticks, mallets, beer bottles, and a chair. This same band was suspended briefly in 2007.The Ivery Luckey case seems to have been especially brutal:
And now the death of Robert Champion, the latest in a string of hazing cases at FAMU. They’ve been widely chronicled, including a cover story in “Black Issues in Higher Education” after the Ivery Luckey case. The repeated suspensions, arrests, and overall bad publicity have done little to curb the hazing there. While Luckey’s case resulted in a $50,000 settlement, Marcus Parker was awarded $1.8 million after he was hazed and suffered renal failure in 2001.
"Back then, you could be the best player on the field, but if you did not cross over in your section, there's no way you're marching at a game," he said.Beyond Luckey, the Florida A & M Marching 100 seems to have had a particularly troublesome pattern of hazing:
Crossing over, or initiation, involved a rigorous hazing process. So Luckey started going to nighttime meetings at off-campus apartments.
"I was taken into a room, blindfolded and paddled with these wooden paddles," he remembered. "After the paddling stopped, it was actually physical blows, face slapping. Just all sorts of things to cause pain and suffering."
He said it lasted for hours. One night, he was hit with a paddle more than 300 times. As he drove home, he started to feel sick. His symptoms were similar to those Champion reportedly experienced before his death.
"I was nauseous," Luckey said. "I figured there's a huge problem when you start urinating blood."
A cousin insisted he go to the hospital, where they diagnosed him with temporary kidney failure. He remained hospitalized for 11 days.
Luckey survived and spoke out. He filed a lawsuit against the Florida Board of Regents and reached a $50,000 settlement in 2004.
Wednesday afternoon, Dr. Julian White was fired from his position as FAMU band director. Dr. White was in his first year as head director during the time Luckey was hazed. Luckey believes directors are aware of hazing practices within the band.
"I'm sure that they do [know], yes," he said. "If they don't, I don't know how they couldn't. Since my experience, I know that parents have called and reported it to them. So yes, they knew."
He filed his lawsuit in hopes that it would serve as a wake-up call to the school and shed light on the practice.
"I would not have gone to the hospital had my cousin not driven me there," Luckey said. "If Robert were in the same situation, with him being in Orlando not even near home, not even near someone to reach out, you just kind of man up and tolerate it."
Luckey acknowledged that being hazed is a choice, one students often make because they want to be accepted in the band.
University officials acknowledged Tuesday that 30 students this semester were kicked out of the band because of hazing and that there are three active investigations. Ammons said it would be wrong to allow the band to keep performing until more is known about what happened to Champion.Julian White, the ousted band director, claims he was indeed aware of hazing and did everything in his power to stop it:
"I feel very comfortable that I did everything I could to eradicate hazing," White said in a news conference at his attorney's office.The Washington Post goes to some effort to define the rather nebulous term "hazing":
FAMU president James Ammons fired White on Wednesday, citing his failure to stop hazing within the band.
"He said, 'Doc, I don't know what other way to put it, this is it for you,' " White said. "He said, 'You can resign, or you can be terminated.' "
White told reporters that he had asked supervisors for help with hazing over the years. He wanted more students suspended or expelled from school.
"Sometimes I feel as though I'm out there by myself," White said, "and by that I mean, you know, if I've given you the names, do something about it. ... If some strong actions had been taken, then Robert Champion may well be alive now."
White maintains he made ending hazing a priority even before he took over as director. Band members sit through hazing workshops during orientation and often hear speeches from top FAMU officials warning of the legal consequences, he said. Plus, each member must sign a pledge against hazing.
White has suspended 100 students over the years for hazing, he said, and word is routinely sent to the president and campus police chief, among other administrators, he said.
Two weeks before the Florida Classic, he suspended 26 students for hazing activities after the school's homecoming game. He fielded angry calls from parents who wanted their children on the field, but he thought it was worth it. He thought hazing would be over.
"I was taking something away from those students that they honestly desire so much," he said of the Classic.
Rumors are swirling about why Champion, a clarinet player who was recently named a drum major, would have been hazed.A countereditorial in the HBCU Digest, this one opposing the banning of the band, describes the insidious nature of hazing, and the history of it at Florida A & M, both inside and outside the band:
Hazing has a long history on college campuses. It ranges from binge drinking to demeaning pranks and, at its worst, beatings that have sometimes turned fatal.
At first blush, the use of the term seemed all wrong to me. In college fraternities—like the one I pledged—hazing was part of the initiation process. Those seeking to get in were at the bottom of the totem pole and, far too often, willing to do whatever was necessary to get in.
Once in, however, the threat of hazing ceased.
But friends and colleagues said that’s not the case in every organization. One, a retired Marine, wrote: “From a military point of view, hazing was a continuous thing. Although you weren’t hazed by your subordinates, you were welcomed (hazed) into your new group of peers once promoted.”
Sometimes hazing is trivial and silly. But it can also be dangerous. Universities have cracked down and so have fraternities and sororities to fend off lawsuits that have threatened to bankrupt them.
Wherever it happens, hazing typically requires the complicity of the pledge, the current chapter members and, almost always, adults in authority who conveniently look the other way.
Far too often, only significant injury or a death forces people to pay attention.
Unlike fraternities and sororities where the chapter itself participates in the initiation of aspirants, there has been no such scale in the Marching 100. All freshmen that are a part of the Marching 100 do not endure or engage in acts of hazing to become a member of the Marching 100, and those who followed the rules should not be punished because of the actions of a few rouge members of the band. Dr. Kimbrough has correctly chronicled hazing at FAMU with the case of Ivery Luckey Case in 1998 where Mr. Luckey was paddled over 300 times in an initiation process. However, the only requirement to be in the Marching 100 clarinet section is the ability to read music, play an instrument, and to march and dance. The fact is that Mr. Luckey was actually trying to become a part of an underground organization known as the “Clones.”Up until this point, this editorial makes some sense. Some. Unfortunately, in this next section it goes off the rails:
This underground organization is not sanctioned by the Marching 100 nor is it a recognized or university sanctioned organization. Instead, this organization is operated by people who also chose to become members of this unsanctioned, underground organization. A similar organization also exists at FAMU and at many other HBCUs known as “Red Dawgs,” which is an underground organization for band members who are from Georgia.
The “Red Dawgs” organization is actually based out of Atlanta, and is not sanctioned by the Marching 100 or the Florida A&M University. No university sanctions this organization, yet hundreds of students across the country pledge this organization each year.
The 2001 paddling of Marcus Parker- who was my freshman brother in the Marching 100 -was not the result of Marcus Parker trying to become a part of the FAMU Marching 100 trumpet section, of which I was also a member. Marcus made a conscious decision to become a part of the “Screaming Demons in Hollywood Hoods.” Again, this is an underground organization not sanctioned by the Marching 100 and is not a recognized or university sanctioned organization. Instead, this organization is operated former members of the band. As a part of initiation into this underground organization, Marcus was paddled and ultimately suffered kidney failure.
We both entered the band in the same year and marched on the same field. However, our choices led to two different experiences and outcomes.
Suspending the band for a period of time will only leave these underground and unsanctioned organizations that are mainly run by alumni and former band members who are no longer enrolled or officially associated with FAMU, in-waiting to re-establish themselves in the new band when it returns. FAMU and other universities must deal with these illegal, unsanctioned organizations that pose a threat to the lives of students just as they would deal with gangs in a school. They must identify these organizations, understand their culture and structure, find its leaders, and snuff them out from where they hide. They must then punish them individually and collectively.
Shortly after the Ivery Luckey case, the Marching 100 was reconstituted in 1998 with a majority of upperclassmen members being kicked out of the band, which was Dr. White’s first year at the helm. Though the freshman at the time did not cross their sections during the year, they eventually did when the season was over with the assistance of alumni and former members of the band. By the next year, there was once again hazing in the band. No amount of punishment or controls has been able to cede the vestiges of hazing in the band, and I want to assert that none of these will stop hazing.
Hazing must stop at the level in which it is originated: students and alumni.
Not only is banning the band the wrong thing to do, it has also shown to be very ineffective when dealing with hazing for fraternities and sororities. Though chapters of fraternities and sororities have continued to suspend chapters, these chapters come back to the “yard” and still hazing has not been eliminated from the operating structures of these organizations.
Dr. Kimbrough and others simply want to suspend the band because of its prestige and to make an example out of it, but this does little to solve the systemic problem of hazing across the country. Severe punishments have yet to end or prevent hazing in Black Greek Letter Organizations (BGLO), and it will not do so in the Marching Band at FAMU. The fact is that the “death penalty” that has been proposed is truly only a reactionary measure and does little to deal with the culture of hazing. As a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., I know that many fraternities and sororities face the same challenges found in the Marching 100.
In my experience, part of the problem is that the aspiring members want to be hazed as much as the current members want to haze them. Not only is it a part of a compelling tradition, but it also a part of the sentiment that one must go through these rituals to be truly “made.” Further, those who do not engage in these rituals are ostracized for their decision to not engage in such acts. These students are shunned by those who chose to go through the process, and are seen as not a true member.Some thoughts here:
Students come to the band camps knowing they want to participate in these rituals and some even seek out the opportunity to do so. While the law in Florida only punishes the hazer, the person being hazed is let off the hook for what is a mutual decision to pledge.
FAMU must institute punishments for both those who perform acts of hazing and those who participate in these acts.
First, if you want to get very technical about hazing, the likelihood is that at least a light form of it goes on in every marching band across the country, high school or college. This is in the form of the rookies or alternates doing menial duties necessary for the band. I do not consider that hazing by any stretch of the imagination, but others could.
Judging from what has been published about previous incidents at Florida A & M, that was hazing. Of the worst nature. I strongly doubt there was any intention of causing Champion to die, but based on I have read so far absent the hazing there would have been little reason for concern over his health or well-being.
Second, the idea that someone wants to be hazed and welcomes hazing is, for the most part, preposterous. Only masochists enjoy being hazed. It's not bonding so much as entertainment for the upperclassmen.
Third, I am not sure it is fair to localize marching band "hazing" to historically black colleges. To be sure, in my time at Ohio State I saw no evidence of hazing whatsoever. And I undoubtedly would have been hazed if there had been any. I took a lot of crap, mainly for being a geek (which I still am, now proudly), because I have no athletic ability whatsoever (my running and dance training came after my time in the marching band) and wearing runners' tights at practice (because I have two loose kneecaps I wear tights for pretty much any exercise), but that was not hazing. Not pleasant, but not hazing. Not by any stretch of the imagination.
At Ohio State we were warned strenuously about hazing, by both our director and the university administration. And hazing for "bonding" purposes seemed unnecessary. At Ohio State the band tryouts are hell. They have summer practice sessions twice a week just to prepare for tryouts. The tryouts themselves are brutal -- constant work, no matter what, a physical and mental grinder, much moreso than high school. And unlike most college marching bands, Ohio State has a set number of members for the band: 192 starters, 33 alternates. If you're not in that top 225, you are cut and have no connection to the band.
Then, you have two-hour practices, twice a day before the school year starts, then once a day during school. You also have games and other performances. That doesn't count the other time you spend going over the drill charts or memorizing your music; music must be memorized for every halftime show and, yes, you are tested on it.
After going through all that together, you've pretty much done all the bonding you need to.
So as far as I have experienced, as I know or as I have heard, there has been no hazing in Ohio State's marching band.
I am aware of it in other marching bands, most of which are not affiliated with historically black colleges.
As far as I can remember, the only one that happened while I was at Ohio State occurred at Michigan State. In 1993 the Michigan State Spartan Marching Band was supposed to come to Columbus for the Spartans game against the Buckeyes. The trip ended up being cancelled. A disappointment for us because Michigan State is a good band and we always had good experiences with them. We were told that the trip was cancelled because of a hazing incident involving members of the band. We were never given any details. Since this was before the Internet, we couldn't easily find out, either.
Much more recently there have been hazing incidents involving the University of Wisconsin Marching Band. In 2006 they were placed "on probation" for a hazing incident, then in 2008 they were flat out suspended:
The University of Wisconsin marching band has been suspended indefinitely while allegations of hazing, alcohol abuse and sexual misconduct are investigated.
The band won’t play Saturday during a nationally televised football game between the No. 18 Badgers and No. 14 Ohio State at Camp Randall Stadium.The university made the announcement at a hastily called news conference Friday night, saying the behavior is consistent with conduct that put the band on probation in 2006.Mike Leckrone, band director since 1969, said he made the decision and it was the first time in his tenure the entire band has ever been suspended and prevented from playing at a game.Leckrone said he informed the 300 band members at 4:30 p.m. Friday.“My feeling was I hit them between the eyes with a sledgehammer,” he said.No details were immediately released about the behavior, only that it involved inappropriate alcohol use, hazing and sexualized behavior. Leckrone said it involved only a small number of band members, but it was significant enough to warrant the suspension.He and Dean of Students Lori Berquam refused to discuss any details while the investigation by Berquam’s office is ongoing.The band will practice again starting Tuesday with the understanding that it will not perform again until the investigation is done, Leckrone said.Penalties for students who violate the university’s code of conduct range from a reprimand to expulsion, Berquam said.It’s the latest in a series of high profile problems for the band.In 2000 the university established a written code of conduct for the band.In February 2007 the marching band’s assistant director Michael Lorenz resigned after an internal report criticized his treatment of a female colleague during a rowdy band trip to Michigan in 2006.Reports of band members’ hazing, alcohol use and inappropriate sexual behavior prompted the university to put the band on probation after the trip.Then-Chancellor John Wiley threatened band members with losing performance and travel privileges.Wiley, in an October 2006 letter to Leckrone, called band members’ behavior “boorish to patently dangerous and unlawful.”At that time, seminude band members were alleged to have danced suggestively and there were reports of women being forced to kiss other women to be allowed to enter bathrooms on a bus.The university said in a statement that the latest allegations were consistent with the 2006 troublesome behavior.
The award-winning band has a storied tradition on campus and a special place in the hearts of Badgers fans.
At the time the story came out, most of us shrugged it off with the comment, "What do you expect? It's Wisconsin." The Wisconsin band may hold "a special place in the hearts of Badgers fans," but they are generally held in contempt by the other Big Ten marching bands.
We were also told of hazing incidents of an unspecified nature in Texas A & M's marching band that took place at about the time of the 1987 Cotton Bowl, in which Ohio State defeated the heavily-favored Aggies. Again, before the Internet. But also, Texas A & M's band consists of military cadets. Hazing is very common among cadets -- I've read about it at Annapolis, for example -- and the likelihood is that what we were told was one such incident.
And there have been persistent rumors of it in Stanford's marching band, which is a "rogue" marching band like Wisconsin's. I've never seen any specifics, however. From what I've been told, Stanford's band is held in contempt by the other Pac-12 bands like Wisconsin is in the Big Ten.
(Of my other favorite marching bands -- USC, Penn State, Texas, Purdue, Michigan State, Pitt, Florida State and Michigan (yes, I like Michigan's marching band) -- the only one I have heard about having any problems with hazing is Michigan State. Haven't heard a peep about the others.)
None of those schools are "historically black colleges." These are big, predominantly white schools. Wisconsin is a very respected school. Stanford is among the top schools in the country -- and typically only for the rich.
So I would not think that this is unique to historically black colleges. Could there be a different connection?
I would examine two avenues.
First, on most college campuses, the marching band is considered a joke. Ohio State is a major exception -- the marching band is huge at Ohio State -- as is most of the Big Ten. From what I've been told, campuses with the top marching bands in the country, like USC and Texas, are also exceptions.
At Ohio State the band is respected because it is the best in the country. It is the best in the country, in part, because of its rigorous training schedule and tryouts. And its exclusivity -- you're either in the 225 or your not. As I said earlier, that fulfills much of the need for "bonding."
But that is not the norm among marching bands. Based on my conversations with alumni from other bands, most bands don't have the summer sessions that Ohio State does. Tryouts are often to determine just who gets a starting spot, not who is in the band, period.
Does that, psychologically, leave a hole that twisted people try to fill with hazing rituals?
Second, perhaps the influence of the Greek system on campus deserves a look.
Hazing has always been common for fraternities and sororities. Not as part of official policy in recent years, certainly, but still very, very frequent:
All of the things that make Greek-letter organizations gratifying to join -- the tradition, the rituals, the secrecy, the challenges, the brotherhood -- are the same attributes that create a fertile atmosphere for abuse.Over the years, the vast majority of Ohio State students have not found the Greek-letter organizations "gratifying to join." At one point the Columbus campus had the lowest percentage of Greek students of any major, non-commuter school in the country. When I was at Ohio State fraternities and sororities were viewed with contempt. Whatever floats your boat, I always say, but at least once a week we would read a story in The Lantern about some fraternity guy doing something incredibly stupid or some fraternity party that involved arrests and property damage. At one point the basketball championship banners were stolen out of St. John Arena as part of a fraternity prank; most of us longtime Buckeye fans found that particular incident extremely offensive and testimony to the "value" of Greek organizations. The Greek members looked down on us "GDI's," as they tend to do, but to us the fraternities and sororities were a running joke.
As a college-fraternity member, if you want to haze a pledge, it's not very hard to do. You simply form a conspiracy with your fellow fraternity brothers and agree to keep your illegal activities secret. Often you can get the tacit approval of alumni brothers, particularly those who recently left the chapter and continue to interact with the chapter, and then you tell the pledges that if they want respect, they'll pledge illegally.
Most of our hazing abusers are not interested in creating a great fraternity member. For one, it's the height of arrogance to think that you, as a fraternity member, are going to change someone who has been formed by parents, teachers, community members and so on for the past 18 to 21 years. But we hold on to this myth of transformation as a convenient excuse for abuse.
Hazers want and seek the power that comes with being able to order subservient pledges to do whatever they want. And for the pledges, the feeling of validation as a man, having gone through some trials and tribulations, is what motivates their continued participation in hazing activities.
Usually hazing incidents on college campuses involve fraternities. Sometimes sororities, but usually fraternities. The resistance of Ohio State to the Greek system may have helped prevent serious hazing from creeping into the band.
To what extent Ohio State's low percentage of Greek members is an anomaly I cannot say with any certainty. Generally, smaller schools and private schools tend to have a much larger percentage of Greek students than larger schools and state schools. (Since I know some of those Greeks I would have to assume that the Greeks on smaller campuses tend to be better behaved than they are at Ohio State.) At some of those private schools, the Greek system basically defines social life on and off campus.
And so a proportionally larger part of the culture of the Greek system, including hazing, could spread into other parts of the school.
Just some things to think about, as we look for justice for Robert Champion and his family, and as we look to prevent such tragedies in the future.