The Florida A&M University (FAMU) band, the “Marching 100,” is legendary for its precision and on-field craftsmanship. The band is world renowned and is considered the cream of the crop among marching bands at historically Black colleges and universities, and ranks among the top for college bands nationwide. That legacy is now threatened by the death of 26 year-old drum major Robert Champion, Jr. The drum major was found unresponsive on the band bus November 19 following a game against Bethune-Cookman University in Orlando, Florida. Champion was pronounced dead later at a nearby hospital.
Florida A&M has suspended the band and launched an investigation led by a former state attorney general and former police chief of Tallahassee, the university’s home. The longtime band director Julian White was dismissed. The university has already suggested that hazing was the cause of Champion’s death; a charge the parents of the drum major have also alleged. This is not the first time FAMU has been at the center of a hazing controversy. In 2001 a band member suffered kidney damage after a beating with a paddle and several years later another student claimed to have been hospitalized after a severe beating. For a program as prestigious as FAMU’s marching band, the university appears to have tolerated a climate of violence for the privilege to step on the field.
The death of this young man is just another reminder of misplaced priorities on our college campuses. Like the scandals at Penn State University and Syracuse University, it appears that “school pride” and allegiance to a warped notion of honor put a human life in jeopardy. No student should have to die for the opportunity to be a part of a university community. Champion’s death is all the more poignant because press accounts indicate that he was a young man who had a passion for music and a natural gift as a drum major. FAMU was fortunate that a young person the caliber of Robert Champion, Jr. took his talents to its campus but apparently has done little to protect its students who contribute to the university’s prestige and reputation.
We expect those directly responsible for the death of Robert Champion, Jr. to face criminal charges and be held accountable. The administration of Florida A&M University must also be held responsible, from the university’s president to administrators who oversee the music department at the university. As is the case at Penn State and Syracuse, accountability means dismissals and in some cases could also mean university officials will be subject to civil lawsuits.
As occurred with fraternities and sororities on Black college campuses, hazing as a band initiation must cease. It contributes nothing to the culture of the institution and is simply an excuse to subject vulnerable students to violence. This is not a problem that is unique to historically Black colleges, as hazing deaths and serious injuries have occurred on campuses across the country. When students understand that their behavior will result in their arrest and prosecution, and not simply a warning from a campus official, this nonsense will stop.
Our thoughts and prayers are with Pamela and Robert Champion, Sr., the parents of the deceased. No parent of a college student should have to experience receiving a phone call informing them that their child is dead and that the cause was likely physical abuse by fellow students. The Champions sent their son to Florida A&M University to receive an education and to parlay his musical gifts into a promising career. Every parent is entitled to sleep securely knowing that a university is looking out for the health and welfare of a son or daughter on campus. Florida A&M University has violated that trust and must be held accountable.