Having attended a small university with a football team that a famous scrawl in the library bathroom declared was “almost good in the worst division in the sport,” I have to admit that the traditions and mores of big-time college football elude me.
Some of my best friends, for instance, are Ohio State fans who’ve apprised me about the folkways of the Buckeyes, including the importance of dotting the I in the “Script Ohio” or how “Hang on Sloopy” became the unofficial anthem of the school.
Whatever. My interest is purely a sporting one.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not against rituals or traditions in sports. No suite of traditions, however, need be as baroque as they are at land-grant universities.
Therefore, I wouldn’t normally be attracted to an announcement that the University of Florida was canceling a chant with “horrific historic racist imagery.” That sounds pretty bad, after all.
However, what drew me to the announcement that the school was banning the “Gator Bait” chant is that Florida officials admit the chant isn’t racist — even though it has that “horrific historic racist imagery.”
The change was announced in one of those pro forma letters that have become so common in recent weeks, where prominent organizations struggle with the specter of historical racism in the wake of the protests touched off by the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
These letters are primarily of interest because, ordinarily, they wouldn’t be of interest; I’ve barely seen a single thing in one of them that addresses racism, racial equity or social justice. They almost all follow the same form.
First, there’s an introduction with vague platitudes about race and promises to address inequity, both in America and on a global scale. Then comes a list of wholly ineffectual moves that accomplish nothing. After this bullet-point list of minor deck-chair reshuffling, there’s a conclusion in which the organization promises to do better, even though it won’t be easy.
I suppose to the extent I have expectations about these things, the Thursday letter from University of Florida President Ken Fuchs didn’t disappoint.
Fuchs began with reminders of how he “urged us all to become part of positive change against racism” and “pause their normal work for a day to reflect on their personal actions and educate themselves on racism.” After this, he outlined a plan titled “The Decade Ahead” — which, predictably, was presented in bullet-point form.
So, about the chant. At sporting events, Florida fans hold their arms out and move them up and down, mimicking the chomping of an alligator, and shout, “Gator Bait.”
The chant, according to The Gainesville Sun, was popularized by player Lawrence Wright. After a 1995 win over rival Florida State, the safety said, “If you ain’t a Gator, ya Gator bait, baby.”
The phrase’s ties to UF sports goes back further, however: A fan magazine called Gator Bait was first published in 1980.
This all sounds harmless enough. In fact, there aren’t many people who would think of a racist connotation to “Gator Bait,” at least in 2020. However, as Fox News pointed out, there were racist connotations to this in the distant past.
Take a Time article from 1923, which discussed how “colored babies were being used for alligator bait” in Chipley, Florida.
“The infants are allowed to play in the shallow water while expert riflemen watch from concealment nearby,” the article said. “When a saurian [alligator] approaches this prey, he is shot by the riflemen.”
The Chipley Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, said that was a “silly lie, false and absurd.”
There were news reports and even postcards of this supposed practice.
Snopes looked at the issue in 2017 and concluded, “Despite confirming the widespread dissemination of such grotesque representations of African Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries, however, the existence of these artifacts does not suffice to prove that black children were literally used as alligator bait in the South. Neither do press reports dating back to the time period when the practice was supposedly commonplace.”
Any talk of the phrase in those terms has long since been extirpated from the cultural conversation. If you uttered “Gator Bait” in any form in the past half-century, it’s almost certainly because you were a Florida fan.
Fuchs, however, says it has to go.
“While I know of no evidence of racism associated with our ‘Gator Bait’ cheer at UF sporting events, there is horrific historic racist imagery associated with the phrase. Accordingly University Athletics and the Gator Band will discontinue the use of the cheer,” he wrote in the letter.
What’ll this accomplish? Not much.
The band won’t strike up the beginning of the cheer to prompt it from crowds. However, Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium has a capacity of over 88,000 fans. The school isn’t trying to ban them from doing the chant — nor, I think, would they achieve anything resembling compliance if they did. The “Gator Bait” cheer will likely live on in some shape or form, as well it should.
Wright, who is black, disagrees with the decision.
“The Gator Nation is a culture, too,” Wright told The Gainesville Sun. “It’s not about what happened way back in the past. How about our culture?
“Me and the president need to sit down and talk about this.”
He went on to say that the university should “[k]eep the good stuff and abolish the bad things.”
Usually, such canceling and rebranding would mean nothing to me, even as a dedicated sports fan. However, this is the kind of meaningless “reckoning” we’ve seen these past few weeks.
There are more substantive steps in Fuchs’ letter — reviewing the use of force policies for campus and city police, eliminating the use of prison labor on university farms — but the whole thing is drenched in the language of the meaninglessness of the moment.
I swore I’ve read this letter several times before this. In fact, I read a nearly identical (if shorter) letter from the Boy Scouts of America earlier in the week in which they announced a “diversity and inclusion merit badge” necessary to attain the rank of Eagle Scout.
Eliminating the “Gator Bait” chant accomplishes nothing but making the university look bad. The odds this has any meaningful legacy in Gainesville is highly doubtable, particularly when you consider the fact that the practice associated with the “horrific historic racist imagery” isn’t widely known and has no association with the chant.
Sure, the esoteric folkways of college football may be silly — but so is canceling a chant on this flimsy pretext.
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