Real Sports correspondent Frank Deford investigates the brutal hazing performed by marching bands, specifically, the death last year of Florida A&M University’s drum major Robert Champion. Visibly frustrated by his interviewees’ apparent lack of candor, Deford makes the obvious point, that “The bands make so much money for the schools and are so popular that administrators don’t punish them.”
“I was caught up in the moment,” says Rikki Wills, “I wasn’t doing it to hurt him. I didn’t want the tradition to die.” Frank Deford sits across from him, not even trying to hide his disbelief. “Why,” he asks, “is it a good tradition?” Wills has answers, none convincing. “It kind of builds up a camaraderie, builds up a brotherhood,” he says. “We play the same instruments, we ate together, studied together, and got hazed together.” Here the segment on this week’s episode of Real Sports with Bryan Gumbel cuts away from Wills, to Baton Rouge ADA Steve Danielson, currently prosecuting the murder case against Wills and 12 other individuals in the 2011 hazing death of Robert Champion, a drum major at Florida A&M University. Danielson says hazing has “gotten out of hand,” necessitating intervention by the legal system.
The intervention is late. And Deford, seasoned and still passionate, notes that the violent band hazing at historically black colleges is, in fact, old news. Specifically, it’s a story he covered for Real Sports back in 2010. Now, he speaks with the prosecutor and Ricky Jones, who has studied the phenomenon. “These organizations have really devolved into threats to black life,” Jones begins. Pressed to explain how the ritual is so entrenched at historically black schools, he offers a cursory observation, one that opens up a whole other avenue of investigation that this show has no time to pursue: “It’s about power” he says, “power for a group that’s historically been denied it.”
Deford’s interviews with embodiments of this dilemma, including Wills (who was Chambers’ roommate as well as bandmate, and to this day insisting that he only participated in the ritual in order to protect his friend) and the Rev. R.B. Holmes Jr. of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, a former FAMU trustee, are hardly encouraging. Though Holmes suggests that hazing is a “dark, secret culture,” Deford comes back with multiple incidents of victims hospitalized over the years, any one of them a good reason to shut down the process, if not the bands outright. Like Wills, Holmes is at a loss. And Deford makes the obvious point, that “The bands make so much money for the schools and are so popular that administrators don’t punish them.” And yes, this situation recalls Penn State, where another program held too much sway for too many years because of the money it made for the institution.
Perhaps the most striking interview here is with Regina Moore, of the Alabama A&M Show Band. She reveals that she and her fellow initiates decided they would endure the hazing in order to put a stop to it the next year, when they were supposed to inflict it. Deford is again visibly horrified when she says, “The pain changed us.” She doesn’t quite explain, “At the end of this process, we had changed our minds to ‘We can’t wait ‘till we’re finished so we can do this to the next girls.’” Acknowledging how strange this sounds, Moore also offers an example of how the “process” has become so accepted, even embraced, by its practitioners.
Part of the problem, Deford’s report indicates, is the ongoing lack of institutional control. So-called authorities have refused to be responsible for what happens, not so much caught up in “moments,” as in profits. Deford notes that Real Sports tried for six months to interview FAMU president James Ammons, to no avail. On 16 July, Ammons resigned, leaving with a tidy package that includes over $98,000 in performance bonuses, along with his full salary for the year, that is, $341,000. It’s hard not to feel dismayed at how well the system continues to work for those in power.