Florida A&M University recently played its first home game of the season — without its famous Marching 100 band, for the first time in decades. The band was suspended for the year after drum major Robert Champion died as a result of a band hazing incident. The incident took place after the last football game of the 2011 season.
This year's suspension has left a void at Rattler football games. Just about everyone in Bragg Memorial Stadium at the first home game last weekend was talking about it, like sophomore Kadeem Bin-Salamon, who's from Tallahassee.
"Not gonna be FAMU I guess without the band. That's FAMU. When you think of FAMU, you think of the Marching 100. I was shocked," Bin-Salamon said. "I didn't expect them to suspend them for a whole year."
Many students at the game say they didn't think much about hazing before Champion's death. Movia Miller is in her 60s. She graduated from FAMU and has been going to games for more than 40 years.
"Yeah, we miss the band, and we miss Robert, too. Yeah, it shouldn't have gone that far," she says.
Miller doesn't think hazing is widespread. Both of her children were in the band and didn't complain of hazing. She says the incident is taking a toll on the school and the community.
'We're Punishing The Whole Town'
"We're punishing the whole town. We're punishing the new students. We're punishing the old ones," Miller says. "We're punishing everybody though, just punishing everybody."
The stands were mostly full on game night. University officials say enrollment is down by 1,000 students this fall, in part because of fallout from the hazing death. At halftime last weekend, Interim President Larry Robinson called for a moment of silence.
"I want us to take a moment and pause in honor of those fallen Rattlers from 2011 and 2012 and victims of hazing and bullying everywhere," Robinson said.
Champion was beaten on a bus after a football game last November. He was beaten so brutally that he bled to death. The band director was fired and the university's president resigned. At a recent meeting with students and faculty, Robinson emphasized hazing incidents are serious.
"If in fact they do occur, I just want everyone to know our actions will be swift and they will be decisive," Robinson said.
Just a few weeks ago, the school suspended a dance team over an alleged hazing incident. The university launched a new anti-hazing website, and beginning next year, all students will have to sign an anti-hazing pledge.
But officials are fighting a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Champion's parents. Last week, in a response to the suit, the school said Champion was a willing participant in the hazing and liable for his own death.
"You can't be too hopeful about significant change and the eradication of a culture if you got 30 pages denying any culpability in the culture," says Chris Chestnut, the family's attorney. He says Champion's parents know the band was a big moneymaker and a huge draw, but the university has to take action.
"So many lives are affected when this band does not perform. But we can't have them performing at the cost of any one person's life either," Chestnut says.
Many at last weekend's football game said they realize it's tough to stop the practice, but the university wants students to pay attention to its efforts — so much so that classes have been cancelled for Thursday's town hall meeting. The meeting is mandatory for students.
Quentin Hester, a junior from Miami, says he'll probably go. "Now they're shutting down every class so I guess they're really putting forth the effort to make sure there is no more hazing," he says.
Florida A&M is not the only school dealing with the issue. North Carolina Central just suspended its drum line and State University of New York at Geneseo, a liberal arts college in western New York, cancelled its women's volleyball season — both because of alleged hazing incidents.