When award-winning sportswriter Frank Deford pulled together his first report on the physical brutality of hazing in marching bands at historically black colleges for HBO’s Real Sports two years ago, he was amazed at the response.
Absolutely nothing happened.
“It didn’t seem to make a ripple of difference,” said Deford, who showed plum-sized bruises on one woman’s backside and had another hazing victim show how hard band members could be hit, swatting a chair with a huge plank of wood. “I was shocked that it didn’t seem to resonate. Nobody seemed to care.”
Then, Robert Champion died.
Champion, 26, was a drum major for Florida A&M University’s well-known Marching 100 band who died in November after a hazing ritual. The death has sparked felony hazing charges for 11 members of the marching band, a lawsuit by Champion’s family and the resignation of the school’s president James Ammons (who still gets $98,000 in bonuses and his more than $341,000 president’s salary while technically on sabbatical over the next year, according to the Associated Press).
One of those charged was a fellow drum major, Rikki Wills, who says that he tried to protect Champion from the beating, which led to his death, as part of the ritual. But because participating in a hazing ritual is a crime, he was charged right along with those who beat his friend; his lawyer reached out to Deford to get his client’s story out.
So Deford returned with HBO’s cameras to Tallahasse, Fla. for an updated report airing in tonight’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel at 10 p.m., featuring what the show says is the first defendant in the Champion hazing case to speak publicly.
And it’s telling that the one question Deford couldn’t answer, despite all the press attention, prosecutions and Ammons’ resignation, was the simplest:
Has this finally brought an end to the hazing?
“Has the death of Robert Champion caused the whole band culture to change itself?” Deford asked. “I don’t know the answer to that. I would hope the good alumni of these schools would put pressure on their presidents to say ‘We don’t want this to happen here.’ But it’s so deeply embedded, I’d be afraid to venture a guess.”
Wills told Deford that he endured the hazing in ways Champion did not, initially. “I did it to show them that ‘Hey, I’m nobody to play with,’” he said. “I’m tough. Don’t try me.”
Band members who didn’t submit to hazing were socially isolated; in November, Champion submitted to a ritual called “Crossing Bus C,” in which subjects try to walk the length of a parked bus while band members hit them with a barrage of fists, belts and sticks.
But after the beating, Wills said, “Robert started panicking…He was like: ‘I can’t breathe, can’t breathe…His eyes were wide open. He was looking at us. He said he couldn’t see. He started saying ‘Oh Lord, Jesus please help me. Please help me.’ Those were probably the last words he said.”
Deford’s story also features footage from his 2010 report, showing youths from other marching bands detailing the hazing rituals they endured, including beatings in dark rooms and competition to see who could hit band members the hardest.
He also featured a researcher from the University of Louisville who said such rituals are about demonstrating power by enduring punishment and sacrificing for an institution you love – deeply ingrained habits that many colleges, which see the popular bands as big moneymakers, are hesitant to challenge.
But such talk about the culture of marching bands at historically black colleges also earned Deford some criticism from those who wondered if he was making a comment about African American culture in general.
A commentary he presented on National Public Radio in December, based on the facts he gathered in his 2010 Real Sports report and inspired by Champion’s death the month before, led NPR anchor Michel Martin to write, “Does anyone get to respond to Frank Deford’s racist commentaries, or is he so ‘important’ we just have to sit here and take it?”
NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos quoted Martin, tracing the objections to one segment of Deford’s piece, noting how band directors at historically black colleges attacked his initial HBO report: “The band director at Florida A&M, Julian White, responded to my report by saying that I was just a prejudiced outsider who, quote, ‘made it seem like black schools are the only places where it’s happening. That’s just not the case.’ I’m sorry, but that is precisely the case. It is the culture.”
Deford says he meant the culture of marching bands at historically black colleges, where the intensely physical hazing rituals seem drawn from similar practices at black Greek organizations – and one expert said might stretch back to the impact of surviving slavery.
But some listeners felt he was referring to black culture in general, reinforcing stereotypes about the violence of African American people. Schumacher-Matos concluded Deford wasn’t being racist, but should have provided the context that violent hazing rituals also occur in other types of colleges.
This highlights the minefield some reporters and commentators face in trying to talk about this issue and uncover details participants might want to keep hidden.
It’s easy to characterize journalists as outside interlopers unfairly singling out black colleges; that kind of response can help people minimize the problem and ratchet up the risk for those trying to uncover the truth. No one wants to be accused of racism in today’s society, and navigating it all requires a deft touch.
Which may help explain, at least in part, why Deford’s earlier piece got so little reaction; if people are determined to hurt themselves, will the wider world feel compelled to intervene?
“It’s just amazing to me that these practices continue to exist,” he said. “Music is supposed to be sweet and tender. To have it connected to this kind of violence is amazing to me and sad.”
Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the Tampa Bay (Fla.) Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. He also provides regular commentary for National Public Radio and has been published by the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.