What They Are Saying: It’s clear that getting rid of ‘Gator Bait’ chant was right call

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FILE - In this Nov. 7, 2015, file photo, Albert and Alberta, the mascots for Florida, do the gator chomp before the first half of an NCAA college football game against Vanderbilt in Gainesville, Fla. The University of Florida is ending its 'gator bait' cheer at football games and other sports events because of its racial connotations, the school's president announced Thursday, June 18, 2020, in a letter making several other similar changes on campus. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

COMMENTARY

On Thursday, University of Florida President Kent Fuchs announced that the band and athletic department would no longer sanction or promote the use of the traditional “Gator Bait” cheer in response to the phrase’s historic association with racism.

The decision was controversial. It was also the right one.

Now, before I explain what I am saying, I want to make it abundantly clear at the outset what I am not saying.

I’m not saying that there is any evidence the chant originates from the racist term (and Fuchs conceded as much in his statement). I am also not saying that if you participated in the chant at any point, you are a racist or acted in a racist manner.

So, what am I saying?

Well, it’s important to first understand the historical context of the phrase “gator bait” outside its context as a cheer for Florida athletics. It allegedly derives from a horrifying practice of using Black children as bait for alligators in the south in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Though the historicity of this claim is debated and there isn’t substantive evidence that this actually occurred, the phrase “gator bait,” or “alligator bait,” is a well-documented racial slur from the time period.

Cartoons and postcards depicting Black children sitting precariously on a log above a large alligator are captioned “alligator bait,” and there’s even a song from 1899 titled “Mammy’s Little Alligator Bait,” which features overtly racist lyrics, demonstrated by the chorus below.

[Chorus]

Hush-aby, don’t yo’ cry,
mammy’s little piccaninny’s gwine to get a present mighty soon,
When de stars am a-peepin’ and de moon it am a-creepin’
den yo’ mammy’s gwine to sing ‘dis tune,
Shut yo’ eye bye and bye,
mam will whip yo’ if yo’ cry,
Someone am a-comin’ thro’ de gate;
Go to sleep, don’t yo’ peep,
listen to me tell yo’,
yo’s mammy little alligator bait.

But, as previously stated, even Fuchs admitted that there isn’t evidence of a racial association with the chant at UF, and predictably, this angered many fans. It also angered some former players such as Lawrence Wright, who popularized the term in 1995 after a win over Florida State, announcing, “If you ain’t a Gator, you’re Gator Bait.” Wright told the Gainesville Sun’s Pat Dooley that he wasn’t happy with the decision to change the chant.

“Me and the president need to sit down and talk about this.”

Wright did receive a call from a University Athletic Association official to inform him of the decision.

“I’m not going for it,” said Wright, who won the Jim Thorpe Award for the nation’s best defensive back in 1996. “I created something for us. It’s a college football thing. It’s not a racist thing, It’s about us, the Gator Nation. And I’m Black.

Believe me, I understand where Wright is coming from. Certainly, he meant nothing racial in his use of the phrase. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if yesterday was the first time he’s even heard about its historical usage. And perhaps he’s right. Maybe Fuchs should have talked to former Black players before making the decision. But I also doubt it would have made much of a difference.

Because, while completely valid and worth considering, Wright’s opinion isn’t the only one that matters here. And the fact is, no matter how many times defenders of the chant wrongfully claim so, Wright didn’t coin the phrase. Sure, he popularized it and led to the official embrace of the chant. But “Gator Bait” was a part of UF canon long before the Gators beat the Seminoles in 1995.

The publication Gator Bait Magazine was created in 1980 (15 years before Wright said it), and the chant and usage of the phrase was popular even long before that, as shown in this picture from 1956, taken from the Smathers archive.

So, while we should take Wright’s opinion seriously, we also can’t ignore the thoughts of other Black people in the UF community, a community that still has a long way to go in terms of diversity and inclusion.

As a white student at Florida, that isn’t always (or even usually) apparent to me. I was raised in a county that is 91 percent white and attended a high school where the vast majority of students looked like me.

So to me, UF feels diverse. At least, more diverse than what I was used to. But my perceptions don’t capture the lived experiences of Black people on campus. UF received an “F” score in race equity in 2019 by a study from the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center. Black students account for just 6.1 percent of the student body, the fourth-lowest percentage among public schools in Florida.

But we aren’t just reckoning with racial inequity in the present. In the weeks since the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, we’ve seen perhaps the greatest coming to terms with institutional racism in the United States in decades. Protests have spurred new discussions about the scope of police brutality, but it has also led to a wider condemnation of historical relics of racism, such as Confederate iconography and symbolism in public places.

And in the wake of these protests, we must look at the past, examining traditions and deciding if the spirit of those traditions aligns with the values that we as a university community purportedly aim to uphold in the modern-day.

This is especially important at a school like Florida, which didn’t integrate at all until 1958 (mind you, two years after the phrase was documented to have been used at Gators football games). In fact, to this day there are still a number of buildings named after prominent Florida segregationists, including its student union and basketball arena.

Given this information, how can we continue to use a phrase like “gator bait,” that, though benign in its origin at UF, is still undoubtedly a racial slur? And the belief in that fact didn’t start yesterday, either. Many Black students have been aware of the history of the phrase for years and have pushed to have it changed. Is making them feel welcome at an institution specifically designed for the betterment of all of humanity really less important than preserving a 15-second cheer at football games?

UF has other traditions. And no matter what those who promulgate slippery slope fallacies say, those traditions will still exist. Even the “gator bait” chant is unlikely to disappear from the Swamp, though it won’t be officially encouraged by the school.

But if even now, armed with new information about the historical context of the phrase as a racial slur, you still feel compelled to defend the chant and criticize the change, I sincerely implore you to take a step back, look deep inside and question why that may be.


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24 COMMENTS

  1. You’re lecturing me to take a step back, take a deep look inside, and question why I don’t think that’s a racial slur? And you know me, how?

    Nobody apparently knew it even had a racial connotation, albeit 121 years ago now, until this came up in the last two days. That does not in any way, shape or form make it a “slur” as used by Florida fans since 1996. But since you seem to know my inner psyche so well despite never having met me…..go right ahead and tell me how. Just be sure your brains don’t fall out on the way to the podium to signal virtue.

    • Good to hear from you six! My day is now made. Nothing like moralizing lectures from 20 year olds! I would like someone to point out one time in the last 40 years someone has brought this cheer up as a racial slur. Go Gators! If you not a Gator you’re Gator b***!

      • Galvez, good to see you post also — trust things are A-OK down in the great state of La. As far as the slogan, our buddy Gator65 has sworn now to make it his email signature! And I assure you, that man doesn’t have a racist bone in his body.

        I’m appalled at what happened to George Floyd and supported the people exercising their 1st Amendment right to peacefully assemble and protest — but when that was overtaken by outright criminal behavior and political opportunism, I began to see what was really going on. This isn’t Martin Luther King is all I’ll say about that, but this inane, massive rush to virtue signal is not going to solve a damn thing. Sad day to be a Gator.

  2. Interesting article. I would like to make a couple of points for your (and others) honest consideration.
    1. Interesting in your use of the word “Black” to describe people – eight different times in this article you used the word “Black” capitalized (granted this was used correctly once as the first word in a sentence); and yet the two times you used “white” to describe people you did not capitalize the word “white.” Sending a signal? Subconscious speaking to you? Editor making a point? I am not saying the word black is incorrect, but what am I saying?
    2. How about we use the Gator Bait cheer to actually ‘Get Over It’? The reason NOBODY knew about the (supposed) history is because EVERYBODY now knows this is a football chant. We cannot keep living in the past with everything and make such excuses. If I write a (derogatory in some manner) song using the term Gator Nation, does that mean in a hundred years we should cancel that term too? This whole initiative reeks of the small minority cancel culture at it again. Just sayin’ but c’mon; we really can’t just leave this alone? We can continue using the Gator Bait term to mean “we will beat you in sports” and that is how history gets overwhelmed isn’t it? (not erased – we can’t erase history, we should learn from it)
    3. Love Lawrence! One of my favorite UF football players ever!
    Go Gators!

    • CROCS: The reason the writer capitalizes the word Black is because the site’s parent company (Gannett) and The Associated Press made that style change this month.

      From AP: “AP’s style is now to capitalize Black in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense, conveying an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa.”
      And why white or brown are not: “We will not capitalize white or brown because they do not describe a shared racial identity or culture. We already capitalize other ethnic terms, such as Asian, South Asian or Latino/a, as they are proper nouns. White is a physical description of people of European descent from a multitude of cultures. We understand that this will raise questions, but we don’t want the different treatment of Black, white and brown to stop us from doing what is right, which means capitalizing Black. We will continue to listen to our diverse communities and what their preferences are with identities, language and coverage.”

      Thanks for your input.

      • What will the poor devils at AP do, tho, when they have to describe a person of mixed races? Perform a DNA test at their own expense to determine proportions before they assign their highly sought after preference? Oh my, this will get very confusing now that the cat is out of the bag. I’d say the inmates are indeed running the asylum, except for the fact that Homer Simpson must be in charge.

        • Greetings G-6 – Take it from a member of the international media and one that both produced and executive produced broadcast news for two major DMA network affiliates – the AP is the CIA, and they created all of this nonsense – they run operation mockingbird and the wartime level propaganda happening against Americans today.

          • Thanks for the insight, Hogtown — I’ve been studying what has happened to journalism for over 30 years now, and I didn’t know that. Is mockingbird the code name for propaganda against a POTUS of the “wrong” party? Haven’t heard that term before.

        • G6 – YT Operation Mockingbird doc by The Pacifist. It was started by Dulles; Obama signed a bill permitting the military industrial complex and CIA to engage in wartime level propaganda against We the People. I quit my news jobs when I realized what was happening and how everything was being controlled pertaining to national news, views, perspectives and cohesion of messaging. Here’s where it gets even better – the CIA has a script writing department for motion pictures and television; I was on the set of Homeland some years ago and had a very brief conversation with the CIA agent on the set observing all of the actions and making script approvals and adjustments. Eisenhower’s warning has never been headed.

      • Arnold, surely you realize the justification you just gave for capitalizing the word “Black” in reference to racial identity is nonsense. Not all black people share the same culture or background. To say they do is an exercise in stereotyping and generalizing, which is where racial bias begins in the first place. It seems to me to be a racial insensitivity brought about by a misguided, blinding desire on the part of the AP and Gannett to portray themselves as woke.

  3. Thank you Crocs and others for your input. History by its nature will contain information that people will find offensive whether because of their religion, sexual orientation, political beliefs or a myriad of other reasons which make us all unique. At what point is the historical context of something so repulsive that it should be erased rather than ignored. Who should make that decision and based upon what criteria?
    I believe one thing that has caused such an uproar over this action is the heavy handed approach taken by the school’s President without any apparent consultation with anyone outside of his own employees who would be hard pressed to disagree. I would like to know and as such made a public records request today under Chapter 119 Florida Statutes to his office requesting the production of the documents and materials upon which he based his decision. I look forward to his response.
    While I never attended Florida my family’s association with the school dates back to 1936. I feel as vested and proud of the school as if I held 5 degrees from Gainesville. To me this President is an outsider who has made a decision which completely ignores the feelings of many who are more vested in the school. It appears his edict and actions were based on information which is suspect at best or if correct ceased to exist 100 years ago. In my opinion you might just as well start erasing history completely if this is the standard you wish to impose by such censorship. I’m understanding of how some can be offended by statutes or symbols which idolize individuals who may have supported institutions which were oppressive and cruel. However, here you are banning a recent tradition not rooted in anything offensive but rather a few post card illustrations or folk songs whose accuracy are certainly questionable if given serious consideration and would not be considered credible by many even at the time they were created. That’s not right.

  4. I am a Hogtown native, played two years at Buchholz and started going to Gator games in the 1970’s. The UF and Gators are dead to me now. My allegiance to the USA Constitution as a Marine and Army veteran, as well as my love of justice and truth, together with my disdain for Communism – which is precisely what this is – leaves me no other choice but to let the Gators and UF die to me. I have lived in the formed Soviet Union, I have family from that area that fought Nazi’s and were murdered by Communists, and this is the same “spirit” behind BLM and this global Maoist orchestrated anarchy. This Republic is at war, though most are too ignorant or cowardly to admit it – our history, our Republic, our freedom, our way of life is under Communist/Globalist assault, and where this is going will leads to millions dead in this country – and UF will go down in history as having aided and abetted this destruction.

    What is obvious, is that the writer of this article, the UF, and the left in this nation are a clear and present danger to our Republic, to my family, and are no different that those that have murdered millions for Communism in the course of human history. Bowing to terrorists and aiding and abetting them, is as un American as you can get.

    RIP UF and Gator’s Football, June, 2020

    • Hogwash hogtown. While I did not start going to Gator games until the ’80s when I was a student, I share a bunch of your pedigree. I am an Army veteran I served in the shadow of East Germany for two years of my life. I too swore an allegiance to the constitution when I enlisted. I too played HS Football for Niceville HS and my parents actually LIVED through WWII in occupied Belgium while losing an uncle in the process. While I do necessarily agree with Fuchs on this (Because as PVSurfer stated, it is a heavy-handed decisions), it is not born out of “communism”. Totalitarianism perhaps, but not communism. Get yer facts straight.

      What this Republic is at war with it truth and honesty. And it is a sad day when the Commander in Chief of this Great Nation is the leader in this assault on truth. Hogtown, we will not miss you. While the loss of this cheer hurts me, I can suffer the loss if it helps one Black family feel better about their station in life and it can propel their children to a better station. It’s a damn cheer, a fine one to be sure, but it is just a cheer. I value Mr. Two-bits for sure over “Gator Bait”, but be sure I will always be a Gator.

      • David, even though I post infrequently anymore I was wondering how long it would take you to get to the podium. Sure hope you didn’t hurt yourself or anyone else on the way!

        I’m curious about which black family whose feelings you’re so anxious about, but that curiosity pales next to my astonishment over your wholesale dismissal of one of the most salient ingredients propelling the American left in the most recent power grab. Likewise, I’m afraid that I previously gave you far too much credit for intellect given your accompanying blanket statement about our current president.

        I do however thank you for your service on the IGB.

  5. One cheer (out of 3) for the UF president’s virtue-signalling. It’s not nothing, although promulgated a bit imperiously. But you know what would be something? Something would be ending UF’s affiliations with corporations that discriminate economically, through their policies toward low-wage workers, who are over-represented by people of color, and their hiring, promotion and boardroom policies, which perpetuate white privilege. Don’t worry, won’t happen.

    “Communism” is dead as a bogeyman. Has been for decades and will justifiably remain so. As a Gator who identifies with the political left, I chuckle at the notion that my policy preferences — Medicare For All, high wealth tax, free college tuition, etc. — are in any danger of being enacted any time soon, much less a threat to American values. (They’d actually strengthen them.) “Neo-liberalism” — the lawless, global reign of terror of big corporations — remains firmly entrenched; the culture wars (“Gator bait”) are largely a distraction that perpetuates the economic status quo.

    • The communist intent is still as viable as it ever was, Jersey, but it has indeed changed faces. Regardless, your identification with the left sounds more like an old fashioned American liberal that a contemporary cultural Marxist, so it is actually refreshing to read your commentary. Go Gators!