The University of Florida will no longer use the “Gator Bait” cheer at sporting events, President Kent Fuchs announced Thursday, citing the racist imagery associated with the phrase as the primary reason behind the decision.
“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,” Fuchs wrote in a UF statement titled “Another Step Toward Positive Change Against Racism. “Accordingly University Athletics and the Gator Band will discontinue the use of the cheer.”
The cheer typically follows a brief intro from the UF band, followed by fans chomping twice with their right arm over their left arm followed by a “Gator Bait” cheer. It’s unclear if fans will still be permitted to do the chomp, which became popular following the release of the movie ‘Jaws’ before becoming an official tradition during the 1981 season, following Florida’s decision.
Furthermore, Fuchs said Florida will take steps “removing any monuments or namings that UF can control that celebrate the Confederacy or its leaders.”
With the country in the midst of nationwide protests regarding the intertwining of police brutality and racism, UF is just the latest establishment to re-evaluate and reflect on behavior previously given a pass.
The representation of black children as “alligator bait” was perpetuated in motion pictures and popular song, such as the not-so-sweet lullaby “Mammy’s Little Alligator Bait,” composed by Henry Wise and Sidney Perrin in 1899, according to the Library of Congress.
Historical evidence on the subject, however, has been mixed until recently; a 2014 article in the Miami New Times concluded “during slavery and into the 20th Century, black babies were used as alligator bait in North and Central Florida.” Time magazine in 1923 reported the practice of using black children as “alligator bait” had taken place in Chipley, Florida – the town refuted this claim, calling it “a silly lie, false and absurd.”
For fans of Florida’s athletic programs, the chant has taken on a life of its own; from numerous publications, to Gator great Lawrence Wright leading the cheer “If you ain’t a Gator, you must be Gator bait!” during a large celebration at Florida Field following Florida’s 1996 national championship, the cheer has become Florida’s version of “Roll Tide”.
“I’m not going for it,” Wright told The Gainesville Sun. “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.
“What about our history as the Gator Nation? We took a program from the top five to No. 1 in the country. I think I’ve done enough, put in the sweat and tears, to get to offer my opinion about something like this.”
Former Florida player and coach Steve Spurrier understands Fuchs’ decision.
“It kind of surprised me, but I didn’t know there was anything racial about it,” Spurrier said. “But when (Athletic Director) Scott Stricklin told me about some of the history of it, I said, ‘Let’s get rid if it.’ “
As for the publication, it still exists today and recently celebrated its 40th anniversary.
David Stirt founded Gator Bait Magazine in 1980, two years after moving to Gainesville from Stowe, Vermont, for graduate school. A Gainesville native to this day, Stirt attended Florida’s 22-21 loss to Miami on Dec. 1, 1978, where he witnessed UF fans chanting “Gator bait!” repeatedly in the direction of the the ‘Canes sideline.
“To me, the meaning was absolutely clear-cut when I saw those players running out of the tunnel, and the fans were just going nuts with this Gator Bait chant, that ‘hey, these Gator players are just going to tear apart this other team today’,” Stirt told The Gainesville Sun. “It had no other connotation whatsoever, that was the one and only connotation I ever had for that saying.”
While working as a reporter the following year, Stirt began to plan out the creation of his new publication. With the help of an Ocala-based printing press, Carlson Color Graphics, Stirt was able to produce 25,000 sample copies, which eventually led to 500 charter subscribers by the time the first issue was ready to roll out in Aug. 1980.
Until Thursday’s announcement, Stirt was unaware of the controversy, too.
“I only know why I used the name, and if you’re asking me, had I known things 40 years ago that I know today, would it have been different? Probably. I have no way of knowing,” Stirt said. “But without the historical context back in 1980, I just considered it a fantastic cheer, and that’s why I picked it up and used it as a name.”
Following Florida’s announcement, fans and media began reacting divisively on social media.
— IG: @SleeperAthletes (@SleeperAth1etes) June 18, 2020
Florida created a nice new tradition basically out of thin air after Tom Petty died shouldering right up next to probably the most indelible thing fans do on gameday and nobody batted an eyelash. Do it again to replace Gator bait. Things change.
— Richard🇬🇾Johnson (@RJ_Writes) June 18, 2020
As a Florida grad, I did not know about the horrific imagery and racism associated with Gator Bait. Now that I do, I am thankful President Fuchs made this decision https://t.co/pdptL4T28Z
— Andrea Adelson (@aadelsonESPN) June 18, 2020
Just talked to Lawrence Wright. He is not happy. Story up in a few minutes.
— Pat Dooley (@pat_dooley) June 18, 2020
Fellow #Gators fans, we aren't losing anything by stopping the "Gator Bait" chant. But by stopping the chant we are acknowledging something that is rooted in racism doesn't have a place at our university and we are willing to cast it away, even if we didn't know it was racist.
— Bryan Amerling (@bamerling) June 18, 2020
I can’t believe that are famous Gator band, “Gatorbait “ chomp is “Gone With The Wind”
— SPY GATOR (@gator_spy) June 18, 2020
Alum here. Mostly, I think these changes are good and a positive step. But the #GatorBait chant removal seems like an overcorrection. It’s gonna get so much media coverage and divert attn from the great substantive policies that are listed in this statement. https://t.co/9LuHAWleR7
— Timothy A Hazen (@TimothyAHazen) June 18, 2020
A petition to keep the cheer had nearly reached its goal hours after Fuchs’ decision.
Sun sports columnist Pat Dooley contributed to this report.