After a nearly two-year hiatus, the famed Florida A&M University Marching "100" band returned to the football field Sunday -- albeit a much smaller version of its former self.
It was the band's first appearance following a season-long suspension in the wake of the death of band member Robert Champion in 2011, which thrust the school into the national spotlight and led to more than a dozen arrests and the resignation of top officials. At 126 members, the band is much leaner -- its ranks had swollen to more than 400 before Champion's death.
Champion died in Orlando in November 2011 after he collapsed from what prosecutors say was a savage beating during a hazing ritual. It happened on a bus parked in a hotel parking lot after FAMU's final football game that season.
In addition to the program suspension, Champion's death led to the departure of the band's longtime director, Julian White, and university president James Ammons. Larry Robinson, FAMU's interim president, lifted the ban on the band in June.
On Sunday, as the band marched into the Florida Citrus Bowl, fans stood and cheered, and some had tears in their eyes. Alumni said they celebrated the reappearance of a school symbol whose absence caused a core of its fan base to stay away on game days.
"They did have to be punished -- if you want to say that," 1985 FAMU graduate Cedric Crawford told The Associated Press. "But it's great to have them back. It's almost not football season without the band -- especially at FAMU."
Robinson said that a moment of silence before the game in honor of all hazing victims was sincere.
But from afar, Champion's family viewed the performance as a rushed return for a band they say has yet to transition away from a longstanding hazing culture.
"It's too soon for the band to be back on the field, simply because there is nothing to indicate the safety of students is being considered at all," Champion's mother, Pam, told The Associated Press from her home in Decatur, Ga. "I still feel there has been a rush to put the band on the field, and that rush ... has to do with finance. They are putting profit before safety."
The band may be back, but the cases surrounding the hazing incident are still working their way through the courts. Fifteen former band members were charged with manslaughter and felony hazing in Champion's death. Seven have accepted pleas that included probation and community-service-related sentences. Another has pleaded but hasn't been sentenced; the rest await trial.
Pam Champion said she hopes sentences for the remaining defendants will send a message to stop future incidents.
"What I would say is what I've said all along. There is an opportunity to send a strong message, and it's the only thing that will be a deterrent," she said. "So far, that message has not been sent to eradicate hazing altogether."
The Champions have filed wrongful-death lawsuits against FAMU and the company that owns the bus in which the hazing took place.
Since Champion's death, FAMU has implemented a sweeping wave of policy changes in an effort to shift the university's attitude toward hazing.
Revisions have been made to the university Board of Trustees' anti-hazing policy and to the student code of conduct. FAMU has launched a new website, StopHazingatFAMU.com; awarded funding for faculty and students to conduct research on hazing prevention; and scheduled hazing-prevention training sessions and forums.
There have also been several key staffing changes, including the implementation of a special assistant to the university president specifically for anti-hazing, and the hiring of a new band director. And there are new procedures to report hazing.
"Hopefully we're coming out of that much smarter and much stronger than we were prior to that, and it's a totally different mindset in being a student in this band," FAMU marching-band director Sylvester Young told Al Jazeera.
FAMU is not alone in dealing with hazing. According to the nonprofit organization Hazing Prevention, 1.5 million high school students are hazed each year, and around 55 percent of college students who are involved in a club, team or organization experience it.
"People accept [hazing] as common practice," said Charles Hall, the director of Hazing Prevention. "There probably has been hazing going on forever, but because it is becoming more serious and certainly with the media attention that has been caused from the more recent incidents, there is much stronger awareness of the issue."
Dexter Mullins contributed to this report, with wire services