Family: Champion was gay, which may be factor in his hazing death

Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion was gay, which may have been one reason why he was beaten so severely during a hazing attack in Orlando last semester, the Champion family's attorney said Tuesday.

Attorney Christopher Chestnut, speaking at a news conference with Champion's parents in Orlando, said the parents came forward to discuss their son's sexuality because rumors had been swirling that the 26-year-old student was hazed specifically because of his "alternative lifestyle."

Though Champion's sexual orientation may have been a factor, Chestnut said, his own investigation indicates that it was probably one of several that caused students to beat him so violently that he died.
He insisted, however, that the overriding motivation that likely led to such a brutal attack was Champion's outspoken resistance to hazing within FAMU's famed marching band.

"Our investigation is very clear: This was hazing, not a hate crime," Chestnut said during the news conference at the Rosen Plaza hotel, where Champion was found unresponsive on a charter bus Nov. 19 after being hazed.

Neither the Orange County Sheriff's Office nor the Florida Department of Law Enforcement would discuss details of their investigations into Champion's death, including whether they are considering the hazing a hate crime.

On Tuesday, Champion's parents, Robert and Pam Champion of Georgia, described how their son had urged fellow band members not to give in to the practice — a long-standing problem at the historically black university in Tallahassee.

The parents and Chestnut think his beatings were meant as retaliation. Champion, they said, followed the university's rules that prohibit hazing. He also exemplified how a student could be successful in the band — he was slated to be the head drum major next school year — without submitting to the abuse and humiliation some students endure to become part of such a prestigious group.

"Robert was known for being a stickler [for rules]," Pam Champion said. "If I thought about it, Robert was known for being what a true leader should be."

Meanwhile, the attorney for FAMU's longtime band director, Julian White, released a statement Tuesday saying that if Champion were targeted because of his sexual orientation, then White's efforts to root out hazing could not have been prevented "such deliberate barbarity."

"Assuming that the assertions of the Champion family and their attorney Chris Chestnut are true, then it is entirely possible that Champion's tragic death was less about any ritualistic hazing and more tantamount to a hateful and fully conscious attempt to batter a young man because of his sexual orientation," attorney Chuck Hobbs wrote.

Tuesday's announcements drew strong reaction from gay-advocacy groups as well.

The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center of Central Florida joined the National Black Justice Coalition to call for a "complete and thorough investigation" into the circumstances of Champion's death.

"Even if his sexual orientation was not the sole factor in the hazing incident, the fact that is was even a partial factor makes this a hate crime and we fully expect the State Attorney to treat it as such," Randy Stephens, executive director of the community center, said in a prepared statement.

On Tuesday, the Champion family also shared some new details about the evening their son died after the annual Florida Classic football game in Orlando between FAMU and Bethune-Cookman University.

There were about 30 students aboard the charter bus, which was dark and also was running when Champion became unconscious, Chestnut said. Other students also were hazed on the bus.

"Robert was not the only person hit that evening," Chestnut said.

Pam Champion said she is in the process of establishing a national hotline to encourage students and others to report hazing events.

Chestnut also announced Tuesday that he planned to sue Fabulous Coach Lines, the bus company that transported FAMU's band, for negligence.

Although the Champions announced weeks ago that they plan to sue FAMU, that lawsuit will have to wait about six months because the university is a state institution.

Chestnut said that suing the bus company will give the family an opportunity to more quickly discover key facts about the night Champion died. As part of the legal proceeding, the company and others would be asked to provide documents and testimony that could shed more light on what occurred.

Ray Land, president of Fabulous Coach Lines, said he was disappointed that the family is targeting his company, which he stressed is not responsible for the conduct of individuals riding the buses.

"We really did everything within our power to provide safe transportation, and that's really what we're contracted for," he said, adding that the driver of the parked bus on which Champion collapsed did not notice any commotion or fighting.

She was outside with the other drivers, though, helping students unload their things at the Rosen Plaza — a process that can take as long as an hour, Land said.