BYLINE: LYLE V. HARRIS
SECTION: FEATURES; Pg. 92 Vol. LXVI No. 5
LENGTH: 1883 words
HIGHLIGHT: When it comes to star performance, HBCU bands can bring the funk like no other. The flip side? They can also bring the pain.
“There are two things I learned at Grambling,” says Michael Cofield. “How to dance while playing and how to get my ass kicked.”
As a freshman tuba player for the university’s “Marching Tigers,” Cofield says, he was slapped, punched, pummeled with drum sticks and forced to march atop a mound of stinging fire ants during unsanctioned hazing sessions led by upperclassmen.
“I was put in the hospital several times because of the band,” he recalls. “My kidneys were bruised and I was urinating blood, but I didn’t tell anybody because I didn’t want people to think I was a punk.”
Cofield didn’t report the abuse, not even to his mother. Eventually, however, school officials launched an investigation and disciplined the students who beat him.
After leaving Grambling State University in 2005 (for unrelated financial reasons), Cofield transferred to Norfolk State University (NSU), where he’s now a drum major with the “Spartan Legion,” the school’s marching band.
As an upperclassman and bandleader, Cofield, 25, has vowed to stand up and speak out against hazing in marching bands, a practice that, he claims, is commonplace at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
Most of the 105 HBCUs nationwide boast marching bands whose reputations and halftime exploits often outshine their schools’ athletic teams. The growing popularity and high-pressure intensity of this art form was memorably portrayed in Drumline, the 2002 movie starring Nick Cannon.
Long before the movie hit theaters, the inside joke among HBCU students and alumni was that football games–unlike those at predominantly White schools–are merely a sideshow. For many, the main attraction is the marching band’s halftime performance.
However, hazing–defined as any initiation ritual that entails abuse, harassment or intimidation–is no laughing matter for the HBCU administrators, band directors, students and parents who have been dealing with its consequences.
The practice is expressly illegal in nearly every state. On top of that, schools such as Grambling and other HBCUs have all students sign contracts that require them to report abuses, even if they are victims. The schools have also adopted strict policies to protect their students from being hazed and implemented anti-hazing penalties that include suspension and expulsion for violators.
Despite those sanctions, hazing remains a persistent problem on college campuses, including in the close-knit community of HBCU marching bands. Although the best of these bands have earned worldwide fame for fusing precision drill routines with stadium-shaking music and exuberant dance numbers that range from classic to crunk, a number of them are confronting hazing traditions that have proven difficult to eradicate.
In recent years, high-profile incidents involving HBCU marching bands have resulted in students being sued, jailed and, in some extreme cases, hospitalized for serious, life-threatening injuries.
The show focused on the case of Marcus Heath, 20, a former freshman at Southern University in Louisiana. Along with two other band-mates, Heath was hit repeatedly with wooden two-by-fours during an initiation into Mellow Phi Fellow, an unofficial fraternity of French horn players.
Heath, hospitalized for organ failure and other injuries, was released along with another student hurt in the same incident; a third victim did not require treatment.