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Commentary: Reframing the FAMU Tragedy

It’s been two weeks since a drum major, Robert Champion, with Florida A&M University’s (FAMU) marching band died as a result of circumstances in which authorities say hazing played a role. This unfortunate—and, hopefully transformative— calamity has served to remind us of the culture of hazing on college campuses. Not only does it bring up the long and persistent history of hazing incidents among FAMU’s famed Marching 100 band or even address poor choices that were made by school administrators who seemingly turned a blind eye to past hazing allegations, but it also points to yet another occurrence at an Historically Black College and University (HBCU) that is being portrayed negatively in the media. 

It was just last year that I wrote an open letter to HBCU presidents imploring them to do a better job of telling their own stories because only a few positive news articles are written about HBCUs.  And, most recently, through our work with the Southern Education Foundation, we gathered together a select group of HBCU presidents and journalists to reiterate the collective impact and overall relevancy of these institutions. Feedback was positive. In fact, the HBCU community vowed to do a better job of speaking “on the record” and offering positive and inspiring stories; in response, several members of the media said they would love to hear them out. It was all enough to be excited and hopeful—that is, until Champion’s death

I’ve been disappointed again at how both sides are missing an opportunity to help the public understand and confront the college hazing culture.  

There is no disputing that a fatal hazing incident should be reported as a top media story. The public has a right to know all of the facts. Giving a platform to such issues usually spurs positive change—sadly even at the cost of someone’s life. However, I’ve been let down by two developments: (1) Some national media outlets are making it a race/ethnicity issue and (2) FAMU officials seem to be taking a timid communications approach, rather than putting forth a response with lead administrators taking a highly visible role. 

Earlier this week, NPR’s Michel Martin shared the incident with her listeners in a story titled, “History of Hazing as ‘Equal Opportunity Disgrace.’” She helped explain, along with a hazing expert, the culture of hazing and described how such incidents extend beyond familiar organizations, such as college athletic teams, fraternities, and sororities. That was a fine framework until Martin felt compelled to ask the expert, “…does your reporting indicate that this is something that tends to happen on HBCUs more than others…?”  Other questions mentioning the role of race in hazing were answered appropriately by the expert who said, “Unfortunately, hazing is an equal opportunity disgrace.”  Well said. 

In other media coverage, HLN‘s Dr. Drew chose to take another approach of digging deeper into hazing through an interview with Champion’s family’s attorney (they are suing).  Drew opened the conversation by sharing that his friends, who are African-American (he is White), says that at Black colleges the “beatdowns” are on another level.  Beatdowns. Really? I was amazed that Drew not only seemed comfortable using the Ebonics term several times on national television, but that he too connected the incident immediately to be race-related. Needless to say, the lawyer refused to brand Champion’s death as an issue isolated only to HBCUs.

Hazing happens across all races, genders, and institutions, according to data from the National Collaborative for Hazing Research and Prevention (NCHRP).  So, why do the media keep focusing on race? Is it because Champion was African-American and the incident took place at an HBCU?  Referring back to the NCHRP findings, there was never any mention of race/ethnicity or institutional type as being factors in its survey of more than 11,000 postsecondary students, 53 U.S. college and university campuses, and more than 300 interviews. 

My point is: If the experts and organizations examining hazing everyday never seem to connect the role of race/ethnicity with hazing deaths, why then do some journalists insist on doing so?

Equally troubling to the media’s response is FAMU’s handling of this crisis. The school’s president, Dr. James Ammons, along with the communications team are declining media interview requests citing as reasons legal advice and Champion’s death being an ongoing investigation. As an alternative, FAMU has distributed and posted on its website several statements and news releases. In an editorial board memo to the Tallahassee Democrat, for example, Ammons sends a clear message using such phrases as “hazing survives and thrives in a culture of secrecy and a conspiracy of silence” and “I am committed to illuminating this dark corner of Florida A&M University and the American culture…illuminating it and eradicating it.”

Ammons has also taken a few immediate steps to include firing the band director as well as establishing an independent taskforce to gather facts and offer recommendations.  However, with the dismissal of the band director creating another media firestorm, the question now is: Were these actions well thought out and appropriate? 

My argument is that communicating only through written messages shows a lack of true sensitivity and sympathy. It’s like saying, “no comment,” which is one of the worst of all possible responses. If Ammons (and FAMU) continue to say nothing, they are certainly not going to get a fair shake. Members of the media will go to other sources that are probably going to be antagonistic to the school and its position. Therefore, my recommendation would be to start now by giving a voice and face to FAMU’s position—at the very least offering up the school’s lawyer. 

We all must remember that managing a crisis situation takes careful balancing by institutions. It is important to understand that this incident is going to have long-term impact and is not an issue that is going away quickly. Now that most people are aware of who Robert Champion was and that hazing has been pinpointed as a factor in his death, everyone has a responsibility to prevent such tragedies from happening again. 

Tia T. Gordon, M.A., is the founder and CEO of TTG+Partners (, the nation’s only communications consultancy with the unique focus on promoting diversity and equity in higher education.  Follow her on Twitter @TiaTGordon and @ttgpartners.

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