June 19, 2020
By: Martin Fennelly
Is nothing sacred?
In a word, No.
In three more words: not even close.
The University of Florida is ending its “Gator Bait” cheer at football games and other sports events because of perceived racial connotations. This might be the breaking point for many people, especially orange and blue ones.
But is a football cheer, any football cheer, ever that sacred in the first place?
UF President Kent Fuchs said in a letter that the Gator Bait cheer, a Florida staple, has a “horrific historic racial imagery” involving African American people, especially children, being used as bait for alligators. The historic link is as real as the times in which we live.
It’s easy to see this is a step too far, classic overreach in a time of racial unrest. There are those of you out there in your Gator heads who are saying, “What do they want, everything? Now they want my Gator chomp?”
The step is one of several moves the university is taking to combat racism in the wake of the death of George Floyd. The reverberations continue across the nation, and now that includes Gator Nation.
Monuments are coming down across the land. Names are coming off buildings. The “Eyes of Texas” might not be the song of choice anymore at the University of Texas.
There is no real evidence, Fuchs noted, that the cheer has been used in a racist manner. To a lot of people, this is no more than knee-jerk politics, overreaction-ism at its worst. Former Florida defensive back Lawrence Wright, who is black, was upset that there was no general discussion. It was Wright, a member of the Gators’ 1996 national championship football team, who famously said, “If you ain’t a Gator, ya Gator bait, baby” after a win over Florida State.
“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. … It’s a college football thing. It’s not a racist thing, It’s about us, the Gator Nation. And I’m black.”
History, convulsive and ever-changing, has us swimming upstream. I see Wright’s point, but it’s important to acknowledge the times in which we live, right or wrong. All these years, thousands of people at Florida’s stadium doing the chomp and yelling “Gator Bait” didn’t make a dent. Probably the same for you. But we didn’t know the history.
Be honest: If we knew how the phrase “gator bait” originated, would we ever have embraced it? We all know the answer to that. This really isn’t that difficult a call. If this is the price of history, its many deep and troubling turns, so be it. It is not going to stop fans from chomping or yelling those words. Nor is it going to make Florida football any less enjoyable. If you want to turn this into a First Amendment campaign, go right ahead.
All I know is history is not on our side. All I know is that the University of Florida is first and foremost a center of education. Hokey as that sounds, it is exactly true.
I can hear the counterargument. This is going to end racism? We don’t have bigger problems than who cheers what at a football game?
Forget that. And understand: This is where we are going. I, for one, do not lie awake at night worrying over somebody tearing down Jefferson Davis’ statue. Know what I mean? I think we will surprise ourselves with how quickly we adjust to this new day. Nothing wrong with a little more education. That’s what college is for, right?
There is a petition here in favor of keeping the Gator Bait Cheer and Chant.