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Florida discontinues “Gator Bait” cheer among sweeping anti-racism reforms

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This will certainly not be in any way controversial.

NCAA FOOTBALL: SEP 12 East Carolina at Florida Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The University of Florida will discontinue the use and the Gator Band’s cuing of the “Gator Bait” cheer as part of a large number of anti-racism reforms, the school announced Thursday.

Under a section subheaded “History, symbolism and demonstrating behaviors consistent with our values,” Florida President Dr. W. Kent Fuchs writes this:

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.

And in my opinion, he’s right to do so.

I have not personally participated in the “Gator Bait” cheer — most often performed by fans Gator Chomping when cued by a riff on the theme from Jaws played by the Gator Band between plays during football games or in pregame introductions at basketball games, with the former generally directed at opposing teams and the latter directed at individual players — for several years, about as long as I’ve known the history of the term, which was associated in the American South with the rumored practice of using Black children as bait for alligators. (I’m fairly but not entirely sure you’ll also find I haven’t written the term without critiquing it in any post at Alligator Army or on social media in several years.)

While evidence is scarce that that practice actually occurred, the notion of it was perpetuated in folklore and journalism from the late 19th and early 20th century, leading to racist advertising and art depicting it. (An equivalent notion of using non-white infants as bait for crocodiles in Africa and Asia also existed at the time, with equally flimsy evidence that such a practice was, in fact, a reality, much less commonplace.)

Whether that practice had anything at all to do with the adoption of the cheer or the phrase “If you ain’t a Gator, you must be Gator Bait!” — seemingly first uttered by Florida safety Lawrence Wright, a Black star of dynastic mid-’90s Florida squads, often credited as the originator of the chant — is deeply unclear.

Surely, it would seem, Wright would not have knowingly invented a cheer for his alma mater based on a racist practice or depictions of it. He said as much to Pat Dooley of The Gainesville Sun on Thursday, arguing that he and Fuchs should discuss the change — Wright says he was merely informed of it before its announcement via a call from the UAA — and that he disagrees with it.

But equally as surely, Florida’s continued use of “Gator Bait” as a cheer would be associated with the practice and its depiction — regardless of the truth of the origins of the chant or the truth of the origins of the phrase — and succeed both in serving as a fun thing for fans to cheer and a thorn in the side of fans who might want to attend and participate in a football game without being involved in or reminded of a particularly repugnant element of America and Florida’s history of racism.

At a moment in time when the University of Florida — which has all manner of other things to grapple with if it is to truly commit to anti-racism, from the names of men remembered for their racism on buildings to any of the many legacies of being a long-segregated school founded before its state seceded from the Union during a war fought largely to preserve the institution of slavery to present-day practices like the use of incarcerated Floridians as farm laborers, also announced as to be discontinued as of Thursday’s announcement — is among thousands of American institutions looking to make a change for the better, committing to forgoing beloved fan traditions that might nevertheless bring pain to members of its community is the right choice, and not a particularly hard one.

Opting not to hurt, even in situations where the hurt may be mostly notional and felt by people who are not the majority, is usually the right and moral choice. Opting to stand apart from and condemn racism instead of trying desperately to rescue elements of a whole poisoned by racism is not just an easy choice, but the correct one.

Fuchs closes his statement with this paragraph:

It is past time for UF to commit and engage in this challenging, uncomfortable, transformational work. We know that we cannot undo lifetimes of injustice and racism, but we believe we can make progress - in education, in advancing truth, reconciliation and justice, and in anti-racism, equality and working to eradicate inequities. This process will not be easy, and we will need to work together through the imperfections, missteps and complications that always accompany change. But the progress we seek is fundamental to who we are at UF and to our expectations of ourselves, and I look forward to joining all of you on behalf of our campus, community and country.

I agree with that in both word and in sentiment, and want to emphasize that we should, in fact, seek progress beyond beliefs and practices that have wrought injustice and pain.

And if your status as a Florida Gator, or a fan of the Florida Gators, was or is contingent solely or primarily on being able to jeer foes with “Gator Bait” — especially if you knew anything about the phrase’s origins prior to today — I would commend you to take a look at your beliefs, and decide what it really is that ought to be central to your status as a fan.

For my part, I’m now a prouder Florida Gator, fan and alumnus both, than I was when I woke up this morning. This — and the rest of UF’s announced anti-racism actions and proposals, many of which seem thoughtful, measured, and sincere — shows that the university that I care enough deeply about to love and critique it equally fiercely is willing to listen to and care about people who are and might be hurt by it.

And that will be crucial to our continued reckoning with the cruelty of racism.