Just over two years ago, I interviewed Florida A&M President Dr. James Ammons, spending just under an hour quizzing Dr. Ammons on the method and magic behind black college athletics, the Florida Classic, and more. It was, and remains one of the highlights of my career as a journalist and HBCU advocate.
In that conversation, the topic of the Marching 100 came up. Dr. Ammons was unequivocal in his assessment of the 100′s influence on his personal life, attributing his decision to attend FAMU directly with seeing the Marching 100 in performance as a youth.
The Marching 100, one of the world’s most renowned and beloved musical ensembles, shaped the direction of its institution through its impact on a child who would become its president, and ultimately lead it out of financial despair, waning support and the brink of accreditation loss. Ammons, with a hand-picked leadership team and support of Rattlers everywhere, helped return FAMU back to glory days as one of the nation’s best universities.
And now, Dr. Ammons stands at the crossroads of path forged out of one of the school’s most trying times, the death of drum major Robert Champion by way of hazing from fellow band members. It is the latest and most tragic occurrence involving Marching 100 hazing since 1998, and it stands to wreak havoc on the university in community faith, political capital, and financial solvency in the face of potential lawsuits.
There are only two paths for Ammons to handle this unenviable situation in protection of his beloved alma mater. He can ban the band for a minimum of four years, bringing a quick and reasonable start to the effort to end hazing within the band’s ranks.
Or he can resign.
Banning the band for four years would create an immediate and passionate backlash from those who share Ammons’ same loyalty and love for the Marching 100. Students would lose scholarships, relationships with high school music programs nationwide would be frayed, and outreach opportunities throughout Florida made possible by the travels of the 100 would end, all in the name of phasing out all classes of students who endorsed hazing through participation or through silence.
Some students and alumni have insisted that an entire band shouldn’t suffer from the transgressions of a few, and undoubtedly, those constituents would not accept a long-term ban for the Marching 100 easily. Their passion, their loyalty to FAMU, its traditions and its potential exceeds faith in even its biggest and most capable leader. Unquestionably, the FAMU Board of Trustees would be under pressure from some influential groups to fire Ammons.
Maybe it escapes some supporters that years of hazing with potentially thousands of Marching 100 members involved or knowledgeable of its pervasive culture has the very real possibility of millions of dollars in lawsuits, book deals, expose’ interviews on national morning shows, and more. The nature of the group and their alleged crimes within are larger than life.
And larger than Ammons, who has been a change agent for good at every stop in his professional career.
FAMU has treaded water in the weeks since Champion’s death with plausible deniability of the hazing culture in the Marching 100. Students have been thrown out of the band and expelled. It’s fired band director, Dr. Julian White, has quickly and throughly demonstrated his personal efforts to end hazing culture in the band. FAMU, with great legal acuity but in detriment to supporters needing answers, has remained silent.
That same silence, in the court of public opinion, is regarded as guilt. While Ammons is in no way personally guilty for Champion’s murder or years of hazing discovered and undiscovered, he is the man at the front and back-end of responsibility for the band and its members.
The Marching 100, you could argue, should have been suspended years ago. They weren’t. And now a drum major is dead with the harrowing, shameful details of his death yet to emerge. Ammons, for all of the good he has done for FAMU to preserve its rich legacy as its venerable chief executive officer, is responsible for this dark chapter in its history.
If there’s any leader that can navigate his school through this kind of crisis, its Ammons. But an accidental death by way of dishonorable measurement of loyalty can’t transcend even his magic touch. If situations of grave misconduct at Penn State and Syracuse are any indication, this situation stands to grow larger before it shrinks away.
This situation needs to shrink, and it needs a large-scale change to accomplish that feat. The band should be banned, or Ammons should resign. Anything else is just delaying the inevitable, however regrettable it may be on either side of support for FAMU.