Updated: Jun 19, 2020
A note from our editor, Buddy Martin: Although we are not bound by any policies at UF except media guidelines, we will be talking to our current customers and consulting with minority members about anything regarding our name or brand that they might find offensive or feel that it could be construed as racist.
As the Florida Gators and all of college football continue to grapple with how the sport might look different this fall in the midst of a global pandemic, the Gators now know at least one major change will take place in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. As of Thursday, University of Florida President Ken Fuch’s has instructed the Gators marching and pep band along with the cheerleaders, to no longer lead and play the “Gator Bait” cheer, citing a “horrific historic racist imagery associated with the phrase.”
Other schools have faced changes this week and in recent years as well. The University of Georgia revealed on Thursday their band would no longer play Tara's Theme from "Gone With the Wind." And several years ago, Ole Miss was led to end an official adoption of the Rebel mascot, although fans have long held on to the image.
The UF cheer has long been used by Gator fans aimed at opponents before and during games and to describe opponents after a Gator win. It’s been a part of the lexicon since the mid-century and was even given as the name of this publication in 1980. Former Gator Lawerence Wright coined the phrase, “If you ain’t a Gator, you gator bait” following a 1995 win over FSU in The Swamp.
In a letter outlining a comprehensive plan to create positive change against racism, Fuch’s said of the cheer, “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.”
You can read Fuch’s entire letter here.
Following the pronouncement, Wright told Gainesville Sun’s Pat Dooley, “The Gator Nation is a culture, too,” said Wright, who is Black. “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.”
Dooley reported that Wright received a call from the University Athletic Association to let the ’96 National Championship team member know about the decision.
“I’m not going for it,” said Wright, who was planning a line of merchandise based on his phrase.
“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.”
It should be noted, as mentioned above, that Wright created the catch-phrase, not the original saying/cheer.
The cheer is often used in moments meant to inspire intimidation within The Swamp, either a third down or crucial play on defense. It’s started by the band with a five chord progression and punctuated by cheerleaders leading the crowd in a yell of “Gator Bait!” However it is part and parcel separate from the Gator Chomp, which is instead just music—typically two punches that mimic the Jaws theme—and the right over left chomping motion by fans. That was not mentioned by Fuchs and given that it doesn’t rely on the “Gator Bait” phrase should not be affected or banned.
The racist imagery Fuch’s mentioned stems from a label oft given to Black babies, especially during the time of slavery. They were called “gator bait” or “alligator bait” alluding their usefulness as bait while alligator hunting. There were reports widely circulated throughout newspapers in the United States in the 19th and even early 20th century of the practice but no evidence was ever given to confirm it was accepted and practiced for real. One such infamous report came out of Chipley, Florida, a town in the panhandle about three and a half hours from Gainesville.
As recapped on snopes.com the article warped through American newspapers:
“The headline in the September 21, 1923 Oakland Tribune reads ‘PICKANINNY BAIT LURES VORACIOUS ‘GATOR TO DEATH. And Mother Gets Her Baby Back in Perfect Condition; Also $2’. In the article T.W. Villiers chronicles the entire process of using black babies as bait and how ‘these little black morsels are more than glad to be led to the “sacrifice” and do their part in lurking the big Florida gators to their fate without suffering so much as a scratch.’ Villiers is quick to point out that the babies are brought out of the ‘water alive and whole and come out wet and laughing’ and that ‘there is nothing terrible about it, except that it is spelling death for the alligators.’ In a strange twist, Villiers reports on the hunter’s attempts to rationalize the motivation of the alligators to ‘jeopardize every hope of life for a live baby, and in the matter of color, the additional information is vouchsafed that black babies, in the estimation of the alligators, are far more refreshing, as it were, than white ones.’
“The article describes the process of placing the babies near the alligator’s haunts, with the hunters hidden behind the brush with their rifles. When the baby ‘attracts’ the gator and it exposes his ‘head and forequarters’, the hunters shoot the gator and claim their ‘prize.’ And, just in case someone happens to care about the welfare of the baby, the reader is assured that ‘Florida alligator hunters do not ever miss their targets.’ After the baby is returned to its mother, she is paid the set price of two dollars (Villiers, 1923).”
Snopes—a website often used to research internet rumors, shocking claims and theories went on to explain that the article was found to be political satire, with even “Time” magazine having to print essentially a retraction a few weeks later.
Whether or not Black babies actually were used to hunt alligators, evidence that sits at the Ferris State University Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia in Big Rapids, Michigan that they were at the very least referred to in such a way.
Postcards, pencils and other everyday items depict Black babies, splashing around swampy areas as alligators lurk under the water with the words “alligator bait” on the product, indicating a derogatory label placed on the children.
David Stirt, founder of GatorBait Magazine in 1980, told Graham Hall of Gainesville Sun, “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.”
Postcards displayed at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia
Zach Aldridge is a 2012 UF graduate, a long time Gator fan and a Black man. He covered the Gators program with WCJB TV20 in Gainesville for three years and is now with WCCB in Charlotte, North Carolina. He sat in the stands as Florida beat South Carolina on the blocked field goal in 2006, pledging his allegiance to the orange and blue from that day forward. He says he's often chanted Gator Bait in the stands or yelled it at opposing fans as they left the stadium. But after hearing of Fuchs decision and the history behind it, he feels the origin of the phrase historically is "way more than enough" to have it banned.
"I guess we don't 100% know who was the one that started the Gator Bait chant to make it a cheer," said Aldridge, "so we don't know what that person, what they thinking when they thought of it. we don't know if they know about Black babies being used as bait. So you can't tie it to 'oh UF says Gator Bait and it is because of this.' But I think being that UF is Florida, Florida is where the majority of these Black babies were killed, that is a hand-in-hand correlation and that is more than enough in my opinion to stop saying that.
"Even if, 'we're just saying it for football standpoint,' well yea but it's still racist and invokes times from not even 100 years ago...learning the origins of what gator bait really means in history—even if it has nothing to do with whoever created Gator Bait as a University of Florida athletics cheer, knowing that now, never, ever again do I want to say that."
Other fans and alumni feel it's the school's way of "kowtowing" to political correctness and have pulled support and donations in the wake. And, as Aldridge says, "at the end of the day it's a football chant" meaning opinions will vary and all are entitled to them as such. But for Aldridge, the fact that UF was willing to take the hit for a chant is symbolic to him that they're willing to make bigger changes as well.
Since the murder of George Floyd and subsequent nation wide protest, Dr. Fuchs has vowed to lead for changes at UF that will create a more open and unified environment that isn’t—even unknowingly—oppressive towards UF’s Black students and alumni. The banning of the “Gator Bait” cheer is just one of many changes Fuchs revealed on Thursday.
It’s those changes that Aldridge see’s as one of many small steps forward needed to create a big change on a campus of 50k+ that has only a 6.7% of Black students.
"Today I can certainly say that I am proud to be an alum of the University of Florida. For them taking and making a stance against racism and I'm hopeful for the future and look forward to the plans that Dr. Fuchs has to truly address some of the bigger issues of UF like the lack of diversity and Black students in the campus population."
"At the end of the day it's a football chant. I certainly don't care that they got rid of it, I'm not upset that they got rid of it. I'm proud of them for taking a stand. I just wanna see more actionable items happen in the future."