What would happen if members of a high-profile college football team were accused of hazing one of its captains so badly that it later resulted in his death?
And for the sake of argument, let's say this was the high-profile team's third serious hazing incident in the last 13 years. On the previous two occasions, one player was paddled so badly he suffered kidney damage, and the other was hospitalized for several days because of a beating.
There would be incredible outrage, obviously. The incidents would demonstrate a destructive pattern and a clear institutional failure. The NCAA would have to get involved. And shutting down the program would be reasonably considered.
These incidents aren't hypothetical. But they don't involve a college football team, but instead Florida A&M University's famed marching band, the Marching 100. The band has performed for U.S. presidents and at numerous Super Bowls, been featured in nationally televised commercials and is just as visible and powerful as any big-time college football program.
If we've learned anything from the fall of Joe Paterno and Penn State's dismantled reputation, it's that there can be a stunning lack of accountability when entities are allowed to become bigger than the institutions they serve.
Last week, Robert Champion, a first-year drum major, collapsed on a bus and later died at a nearby hospital following FAMU's loss to Bethune-Cookman at the Florida Classic in Orlando. Champion, who didn't immediately attend FAMU out of high school, was 26.
Orlando police are awaiting the results from Champion's autopsy, but they believe hazing caused Champion's death.
No charges have been filed, but since Champion's death FAMU has fired band director Julian White. All band activities, including performances and practices, have been suspended. And FAMU president James Ammons has vowed to get to the bottom of this, appointing a task force that's being headed by a former Florida attorney general.
If Champion's death were merely a singular, tragic incident, FAMU's response might be considered sufficient. But FAMU has twice settled lawsuits because of hazing. (The Champion family announced Monday that they plan to sue the school also.) Even more damning, White revealed at a press conference Monday that he had to suspend 26 band members two weeks before Champion died, making it apparent that the current culture is toxic and administrators seem either unwilling or incapable of changing it.
"When you have cases that are high-profile, you have to really start making statements," said Dr. Walter Kimbrough, a hazing expert who testified during the 1998 hazing case of former FAMU clarinet player Ivery Luckey, who was hospitalized for 11 days with kidney failure and eventually reached a $50,000 settlement with the university. "You have to expel people. You're going to close that organization. Those are the kind of stances that have to take place. But the question becomes, is the band too big to be banned?"
FAMU hasn't indicated how long the band will be suspended, but if police officially determine that Champion's death was a result of hazing, the Marching 100 shouldn't be allowed to perform for at least the next five years.
Maybe that sounds too harsh to some, but not when you consider the Marching 100's track record, or that other universities and colleges have permanently banned fraternities and sororities from campus for equally serious hazing incidents.
"This is the most prominent band, period," said Kimbrough, who also is the president of Philander Smith College, a historically black college in Little Rock, Ark. "That's why it's important. This is the SMU football situation, where the band should get the death penalty."
Certainly those who were responsible for Champion's death or have willingly hazed others deserve the worst punishment, perhaps even a prison sentence. But the only way this sickening culture can be reversed is if those in power choose to issue serious consequences, rather than preserve the benefits, status and public relations windfall that a revered marching band provides.
If FAMU sends a stern message, other universities will be pressured to set a no-tolerance standard. And if the university doesn't, it will reinforce its own trivial role.
Jemele Hill can be reached at email@example.com.