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FAMU students start 'Free the 100' campaign to end Marching 100 suspension

ORLANDO — Florida A&M University ended its football season Saturday, its first without the famous Marching 100 wowing crowds at half time.

The question is: Now what?

As the university continues to cope with the 2011 hazing death of 26-year-old drum major Robert Champion, students and university leaders are still struggling with how —and when — to allow the famous band back into existence and onto the football field.

The awkwardness is playing out in dorm rooms and classrooms and publicly through a campaign to "Free the 100."

The phrase has been chanted spontaneously during campus events. It has been a trending topic on Twitter.

And it has been splashed onto a $25 sweatshirt.

"The Marching 100 is a very integral part of not only football season but of Homecoming, and it just felt like a member of our family wasn't there," said Karl Etters, a 26-year-old senior who also serves as editor-in-chief of the Famuan student newspaper.

"They didn't have to make the whole school suffer just because of a mistake," said Kendia Ellison, an 18-year-old freshman from Miami.

Ellison's friend, 19-year-old freshman Shineice Beamon of St. Petersburg, said she also misses the band but understands why members have been benched.

"The suspension is teaching them that FAMU doesn't allow hazing and is serious about the situation, because we did lose a student over it," Beamon said. "I think the punishment is reasonable because we lost a life, and because of it FAMU has had a lot of criticism."

• • •

Champion died a year ago Monday. Six days later, then-FAMU president James Ammons suspended the Marching 100.

Since then, the band has lived in purgatory. Some Marching 100 members sit in their same football game seats on Saturdays. Though they cannot play, band members sing a cappella.

Interim president Larry Robinson, who will decide if and when the band returns, has been fielding questions all year from students who want the suspension to end.

"I think we all do, and I agree," Robinson said. "But it's important to bring them back with the appropriate conditions in place so we can sustain that decision, so that we don't have any mishaps, (and) so we don't put any members of the band in jeopardy, or the band, again."

Robinson said he has no timeline in mind, because his current focus is getting the right people hired and coming up with a game plan.

The first step is hiring a new band director, a process that university officials hope to complete before the new year.

In the wake of Champion's death, the school also created other positions that need to be filled, including a Department of Music compliance officer and a special assistant to the president who will oversee anti-hazing initiatives.

The band's suspension has hurt the school financially. The athletic department has been losing money for years, and the Marching 100's absence only exacerbates problems.

Attendance at Saturday's Florida Classic — a rivalry game with Bethune-Cookman University — was the lowest at any point since the game moved to Orlando in 1997, with ticket sales falling to 32,317.

In 2011, the same game drew more than 60,000 fans.

FAMU student body president Marissa West said she understands that students are antsy, but no decisions will be made hastily.

"I know why the students feel the way they do, but I think it's important to acknowledge that there was a tragedy that took place," said West, who also serves on the Board of Trustees. "We're in no rush or any haste to speed this process up when we could miss steps or be negligent of things that could potentially be hostile to us in the future."

Administrators also don't want to appear insensitive as they attempt to rebuild the school's reputation while negotiating with Champion's family, which filed a lawsuit against the school.

There is also the issue of precedent.

FAMU's chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity was suspended in 2006 when five members were charged with using wooden canes to beat a pledge during an initiation ritual. The fraternity may return next year.

Other fraternities and sororities have also faced multiyear suspensions because of hazing.

• • •

The athletic department tried to think out of the box as it filled the hole left by the Marching 100 during home games and football classics where the band was scheduled to perform.

The school hired popular DJs and rappers, to little success. On Saturday in Orlando, soul artist Charlie Wilson performed.

Only one marching band, Tallahassee's Rickards High School, has been allowed to take the field at FAMU's Bragg Stadium this year.

Darron Toston, a FAMU graduate who played trombone for the Marching 100 in the 1990s, attended every home game this year. He said his support of the school remains even while the band is away.

"Yes, I have loyalty to the 100," Toston said. "But at the same time, the 100 wouldn't exist without FAMU existing, so you gotta look at the bigger picture."

Toston doesn't like the "Free the 100" sweatshirts, which appeared more frequently as the season went on.

"The whole 'Free the 100' movement is a slap in the face to the university who is trying to make sure that the 100 does come back but without any incidents like this happening again," Toston said. "They're trying to make sure that the 100 is there for everybody to enjoy, from the fans to the people that actually march in the 100."

Tia Mitchell can be reached at tmitchell@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

FAMU students start 'Free the 100' campaign to end Marching 100 suspension 11/19/12 [Last modified: Monday, November 19, 2012 10:33pm]
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