ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Charlotte Mann-Brown stood across the street from the Citrus Bowl Stadium on Saturday, folding and refolding a stack of gold, green, orange and maroon t-shirts advertising the “Showdown of the Year” between Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman.
Normally by this time during the Florida Classic college football bowl game weekend, she would have sold several hundred shirts.
Not this year. For the first time in the game’s 32 years, Florida A&M University’s Marching 100 band won’t participate in the halftime show — which means that attendance is way down and folks who depended on the game to make money are out of luck.
“Now we know how much impact the FAMU band had,” she said with a sigh.
The band was suspended for the academic year following last year’s Classic, after drum major Robert Champion died during a hazing incident. Authorities say Champion, who was 26, was beaten to death by fellow band members aboard a bus parked outside an Orlando hotel.
Champion’s death has cast a shadow over this year’s Classic, one of the state’s biggest football rivalries.
In past years, the game has drawn upwards of 60,000 fans. On Saturday, the game was expected to draw half that, all because the FAMU band is missing.
Over the years, fans have been drawn to the game for the football — but many more came for the halftime Battle of the Bands show between the two teams. The bands would sometimes play for 45 minutes at a time, dancing and playing music.
“It represented culture and unity,” said Yvette Foster, a 48-year-old Lakeland, Fla., resident who was tailgating outside of the game on Saturday. “But this year, there’s definitely going to be a void.”
Only BCU’s band will march at the halftime show this year, and Gap Band singer Charlie Wilson will also play.
Foster, who has attended almost all of the Classic games, wore an orange t-shirt with a picture of a drum major on the front. She said it wasn’t a photo of Champion — she bought the shirt years before he died — but she wore it as a tribute to him.
She talked about how Champion’s death and the issues of bullying and hazing served as lessons to students nationwide.
“People just got caught up in the moment, and that had consequences,” she said.
The school, just like the Classic, has been haunted by Champion’s death.
The first of more than a dozen defendants charged in Champion’s death entered a plea of no contest to third-degree felony hazing in October. Ten other FAMU band members face felony hazing charges, while two others face misdemeanor counts for alleged roles in Champion’s hazing
University officials have enacted a long line of new policies, including new requirements for band membership and new requirements for all students at the school. The school’s longtime band director and university president have also resigned.
Many at the Classic agree with the school’s actions — except for suspending the band.
Edward Scott III, of Washington, D.C., said he is a FAMU graduate and brother of a defensive tackle on the football team.
“It’s unfair to punish the entire band for something that a few did,’ said Scott, who is 30 and wore a gold-and-green jersey with his brother’s name on the back. “It’s also something that Robert Champion consented to do.”
According to police records, Champion — who was one of six students to lead the band as a drum major — did volunteer for the hazing. Other band members said Champion wanted the respect he could earn by enduring a brutal ritual known as “crossing over.”
Bernard Cato Seals, 63, of Daytona Beach, thinks only the band members who were involved with the hazing and charged should have been suspended.
“I don’t think it’s right that the band isn’t here,” said the Bethune-Cookman alumnus.
Said Roy DelMcPherson, a 57-year-old football fan from Lake Wales: “This hurts us real bad.”
Mann-Brown, the t-shirt vendor, just nodded. The scene across from the Orange Bowl Stadium seemed normal — the smell of BBQ was in the air and music blasted from speakers — except there were few customers. Only a trickle of people wandered among the vendors in the hours before the game.
Normally, she brings more than 1,000 t-shirts to sell during Classic weekend. Now she’s lucky if she sells 600.
“It’s all very, very disappointing,” she said.
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