GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) - When Leonard Spearman heard the racist history of the phrase “Gator Bait” years ago, he was upset at its association with his alma mater, the University of Florida. He couldn’t shake the disturbing images and postcards of Black babies being used as alligator lures, even if there was no direct connection between them and the school’s well-known cheer.
As offended as Spearman was, the 1975 Florida graduate and alumni association past president didn’t feel comfortable calling for the cheer’s removal out of the blue.
“It had been burning inside for all those years,” Spearman told the Tampa Bay Times. “But I knew the timing, so to speak, was not there.”
That changed in June. After George Floyd’s death sparked nationwide conversations about racism, Spearman decided to speak up.
The 66-year-old great-grandson of a slave fired off an email to Florida’s president, Kent Fuchs. That note, according to the Times’ review of 198 pages of records, helped justify the school’s decision to discontinue one of its famed football traditions.
Spearman, who lives in the Houston suburb of Katy, saw athletes at the University of Texas advocate this summer for renaming buildings and replacing the The Eyes of Texas as the school song because of its “racist undertones.”
Texas and Florida are academic and athletic peers. If Texas was rethinking its past, Spearman figured his alma mater should, too.
The father of two Florida graduates sat down to write on a Saturday morning. Spearman started by praising Fuchs’ commitment to diversity and asking him to look into buildings’ names before turning to the cheer.
“I have struggled with this chant for several years and discussed this with a few other Gators, with no conclusive answer,” Spearman wrote on June 13. “I wanted to at least bring this to your attention.”
It was the first mention of “Gator Bait” in Fuchs’ inbox or outbox since Floyd’s death. But not the first he ever received.
In March 2016 - about a year after he started - Fuchs received an email from a recent graduate, Anthony Timoti, who called it “antiquated and foolish to keep using terms like this so casually.”
Fuchs replied that he “wasn’t aware of the history of the phrase” and asked for more information to share “with those at UF in charge of our athletic cheers.” He also discussed the topic with university historian Carl Van Ness.
Like Spearman, Fuchs said his opinion on the cheer changed once he heard its racist history. But the handful of other emails he received over the years weren’t enough to trigger its removal. The timing was not there.
“I had already made up my mind that we should eliminate the Gator Bait cheer if the opportunity arose and if athletics supported the decision,” Fuchs told the Times. “I felt the national protests, along with the other actions we were announcing, gave us the best opportunity.”
Fuchs wrote back to Spearman on Sunday morning to thank him for his note. Two hours later, Fuchs emailed Mark Kaplan - the university’s vice president for government and community relations - an initial list of race-related changes Fuchs wanted to announce in the next few days. “End ‘Gator Bait’ cheer at athletic events” was among them.
Fuchs reached out to Van Ness early Monday for another historical discussion about the phrase, including the collection of postcards in the university’s archives. Van Ness passed along an explainer from Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, which Fuchs shared with athletic director Scott Stricklin.
“To be clear, the image is not associated with UF, but it is an historic racist image and phrase…” Fuchs wrote to Stricklin. “I am currently planning on announcing Thursday morning nearly a dozen or so actions we will be taking, and eliminating the cheer is something I would like us to consider.”
A half hour later, Fuchs forwarded Spearman’s letter to Stricklin.
“I agree there are not protests at UF to make the change,” Fuchs wrote, “but the historic imagery is real. Let’s talk again.”
No other communication between Fuchs and Stricklin was included among the emails the Times obtained through an open-records request. Stricklin referred the Times to Gators spokesman Steve McClain, who said the athletic department “supports the comments our university made when this decision was announced.”
That announcement came on a Thursday, five days after Spearman’s email. In an open letter to the UF community, Fuchs outlined 15 race-related actions he was taking, including discontinuing the Gator Bait cheer.
It wasn’t the only long-time Gators tradition discussed.
At least one administrator asked to change We Are the Boys, the song played after the third quarter. As fans lock arms and sway together, they sing:
“We are the boys from old Florida
Where the girls are the fairest
The boys are the squarest…”
“I know this is too much for now, but might we consider changing the words to “We are the Boys of Old Florida”?” wrote Angela Lindner, Florida’s associate provost for undergraduate affairs.
Chief diversity officer Antonio Farias responded: “(Every) time I hear the “we are the boys” song I look around to see if anyone realizes we’re well into the 21 century.”
After Fuchs’ announcement, an associate professor, Stephanie Bohlman, asked the university to reconsider its use because “we don’t need to perpetuate this sexist song as the school song to represent all of us.”
Farias replied that the song was “brought up, as were a long list of other efforts” but wasn’t addressed as UF focused this effort on racial matters, not sexism.
Initial reactions from the Gator Bait decision were mixed in Fuchs’ inbox.
One fan asked for Fuchs’ resignation. “You are Gator bait Fuchs…” Brandon Watson wrote from his iPhone. “As a black man I’m offended by you taking this away.”
UF alumnus Joe Tanner said Fuchs was “bowing to the cancel culture.” He signed his note “Always a Gator. Never a racist.”
Douglas S. Jones, the director of Gainesville’s Florida Museum of Natural History, called Fuchs’ detailed announcement an “excellent message.”
As for Spearman’s reaction? Although he knew his old fraternity brothers supported him and the move, he wondered if his email was the catalyst for the university’s decision - and what would happen if it became public.
“I took a big breath and said, ‘Oh my goodness,’” he said. “I’m mud now in the state of Florida for all the Gator fans.”
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