ORLANDO – Nearly two years after a drum major’s hazing death silenced the music at Florida A
It was the band’s first game appearance since a season-long suspension. The scrutiny following Robert Champion’s 2011 death thrust the school into the national spotlight and led to more than a dozen arrests and the resignation of top officials.
As the band marched into the Florida Citrus Bowl, fans stood and cheered, and some had tears in their eyes. Alumni said they celebrated the reappearance of a school symbol whose absence caused a core of its fan base to stay away on game days.
“They did have to be punished — if you want to say that,” 1985 FAMU graduate Cedric Crawford said. “But it’s great to have them back.
Champion died in Orlando in November 2011 after he collapsed from what prosecutors call a savage beating during a hazing ritual. It happened on a bus parked in a hotel parking lot after FAMU’s final football game that season.
At 126 members, the band that returned Sunday was much smaller — there were more than 400 at the time of the suspension. The band’s return began with the pregame national anthem and continued with a halftime show that brought two packed decks of FAMU fans to their feet.
“It’s a new day,” FAMU band announcer Joe Bullard said as the performance began. “Size does not matter. The sound is clear.”
But from afar, Champion’s family viewed the performance as a rushed return for a band they say has yet to reject a long-standing hazing culture. “It’s too soon for the band to be back on the field simply because there is nothing to indicate the safety of students is being considered at all,” Champion’s mother, Pam Champion, said in a phone interview from her home in Decatur, Ga. “I still feel there has been a rush to put the band on the field and that rush … has to do with finance.”
In addition to the suspension, Champion’s death led to the departure of the band’s longtime director and the resignation of the university’s president, James Ammons. School officials lifted the suspension in June.
At a news conference following the game, FAMU’s interim President Larry Robinson reiterated the school’s hazing-prevention measures, including a new student code of conduct, new procedures to report and investigate hazing and an anti-hazing website. By his side was Sylvester Young, a 1969 FAMU graduate, who was named the band’s new director.
A moment of silence before the game honored the hazing victims. Tracy Martin, father of Trayvon Martin, was an honorary captain for Sunday’s game and led FAMU’s football team onto the field.As the band returned, cases surrounding the hazing incident continue. Fifteen former band members were charged with manslaughter and felony hazing in Champion’s death. Seven have accepted pleas that included probation and community service-related sentences. Another has pleaded but hasn’t been sentenced, and the rest await trial.