Opinion

FAMU hazing, Robert Champion: Violent rituals don't make men stronger

They make worse human beings. The hazing death of Florida A&M marching band member Robert Champion proves it. At a historically black college especially, slavery-style abuse shouldn't be a badge of pride.

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    Florida A&M University Vice President of Student Affairs William Hudson, Jr. listens to their board of trustees conference call Monday Dec. 19, in Tallahassee, Fla. The trustees rejected a call by Florida Gov. Rick Scott that FAMU President James Ammons be suspended while the hazing death of marching band member Robert Champion is investigated.
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So here’s a quick and grisly quiz, culled from America’s recent college sports scandals. What merits harsher repercussions, killing a college student or sexually abusing a child?

If the decisions of officials at Penn State and Florida A&M Universities (and resulting public reaction) are any gauge, it appears that Americans deem child abuse the more serious crime. And we all need to think more seriously about that.

At Penn State, following allegations of sexual abuse against former defensive football coach Jerry Sandusky, head coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier both got fired. But at Florida A&M, where drum major Robert Champion died last month in a hazing incident (which a medical examiner ruled a homicide), his band director was simply put on administrative leave. And the school’s board of trustees voted to retain the school’s president, James Ammons, even after Florida Gov. Rick Scott urged him to step down pending an investigation.

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In fairness to Florida A&M, officials there had acknowledged the band’s hazing problem and were taking active measures to combat it. Earlier this year, for example, over two-dozen trombonists and clarinetists had been suspended for hazing. By contrast, it appears that Penn State tried to cover up Mr. Sandusky’s alleged crimes instead of tackling the allegations head-on.

Some may argue, too, that the hazing was a “consensual” act committed by adults (college students) on an adult victim, where Sandusky’s alleged acts include victimization of a minor.

But consider, too, that the four students who were initially expelled for hazing Champion were subsequently allowed to return to classes. The medical examiner found “multiple blunt trauma blows” to Champion’s chest, arm, shoulder, and back. After his beating, the examiner wrote, Champion complained of thirst and fatigue. Then he lost his vision. And then he died, probably of rapid blood loss.

He’s not the only one, unfortunately. Journalist Hank Nuwer has counted nearly 100 hazing-related deaths at American colleges and universities since 1970. And if you look at Mr. Nuwer’s list, one big fact jumps out at you: Almost all the victims are men. It’s a guy thing.

And it goes all the way back to the birth of American higher education. At institutions like Harvard and Yale, sophomores visited a host of terrors on freshmen. Some of the freshmen were “smoked out” of their rooms by sophomores who blew smoke through keyholes; others were stripped, bound, and gagged and left in cemeteries. Freshmen were also required to doff their caps to upperclassmen and to run errands for them.

After the Civil War, as more and more universities began to admit women, the routine hazing of freshmen began to decline. By the early 20th century, hazing had relocated into an explicitly all-male institution: the fraternity. And the goal was explicit, too: to defend a rough-hewn masculinity from the feminizing forces of modern American society.

“He is distinctly not a man,” wrote one defender of hazings in 1915, describing the typical college freshman, “and the fraternity must take up the task of character shaping where the parents left off or never began.” Hazing, he added, “is a means of determining what a man possesses, whether he has a streak of ‘yellow’ or whether he has stamina.”

Universities struck back with anti-hazing regulations; in statehouses, hazing was banned as well. Today, 44 states have laws prohibiting the practice. From the very start, however, these rules were always observed in the breach. Boys would be boys, hazing advocates said, and no bureaucrat or legislator could stop them.

“What’s the matter with K.U.?” wrote a University of Kansas graduate in 1910, blasting the school’s new restrictions on hazing. “The authorities seem to think that the University is a school for namby-pambies and Lizzie boys.... Young men of talent and energy will not go to a school which bears so close a resemblance to a female seminary.”

They did keep going to universities, of course – and they kept hazing each other. Men at historically black colleges such as Florida A&M got in on the act, too, adding a new rationale: Hazing would toughen young African Americans for the long freedom struggle ahead. At the 1997 convention of Alpha Phi Alpha, the same fraternity that enrolled Martin Luther King, Jr., civil rights warrior Andrew Young joked that his beatings at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan were nothing compared to the ones administered by his brothers at APA.

But hazing was no joke to other African Americans, who saw only pain – not humor – in Young’s analogy. “Why any organization that seeks to align itself with Black culture would mimic so closely the institution of American slavery, down to details including whippings, beatings, verbal humiliation, forced servitude, sleep deprivation, and even the branding of the flesh, is anyone’s guess,” Ebony Male magazine editorialized in 1993, blasting black fraternities.

The question remains. And whatever our race, we all need to answer it. Across our colleges and universities, men still undergo ritualized violence, abuse, and humiliation to prove their mettle. That doesn’t make them better men; instead, it makes them worse human beings. Robert Champion’s death is testament to that fact. It's time we all woke up to it, lest more young men suffer the same awful fate.

Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).

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