Special to the NNPA from the Florida Sentinel-Bulletin –
TALLAHASSEE, FL — The fired director of Florida A&M’s famed “Marching 100” band said he repeatedly warned university leaders over two decades about the dangers of hazing and that he’s been made the scapegoat for a band member’s death in which the practice is suspected.
Julian White, 71, said he suspended 26 band members for hazing two weeks before drum major Robert Champion’s death on Nov. 19. He reported his actions to university administrators, he said.
Hazing has been “rampant on university campuses,” and the suspensions would serve notice it wouldn’t be tolerated at A&M, he said.
But instead of being supported, White said, he was second-guessed, particularly from some parents of band members, and said the punishments were akin to suspending star football players. “And so the band members were apprehensive. `Doc, you think we can go without 19 trombone players?’” said White, who replaced “Marching 100” founder William P. Foster as director in 1998. “And other folks. `Doc, do you think you can do it without them?’ My comment was, it doesn’t matter, I am not going to sacrifice the performance for the principle.”
After A&M’s football team lost its annual game against rival Bethune-Cookman, Champion collapsed on a bus parked outside an Orlando 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 allegedly played a role.
Less than a week later, White, a tenured professor, was fired by FAMU President James Ammons.
“I walked into his office and he said, `Doc, I don’t know any other way to put it, this is it for you,’” White recounted. “He said `you can resign or you can be terminated.’”
Ammons, meanwhile, met Monday with former Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who was named last week to head a task force investigating what led to Champion’s death. “If some strong actions had been taken, then Robert Champion may be alive now,” said White, who was asked by the student’s family to speak at Wednesday’s funeral service.
White, who was the lead drum major as a student, said he fears the tragedy could doom the showy high-energy, high-stepping band that has performed at Super Bowls, the Grammys and presidential inaugurations and in Paris on France’s 200th anniversary.
Since Champion’s death, the school has shuttered the marching band and the rest of the music department’s performances.
Shutting it down was a meaningful decision, White said. The band would have been the first of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities to perform at Carnegie Hall. “That hurts,” White said.
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.