Parents: FAMU hazing was retaliation

Florida A&M Marching 100 Drum Major Robert Champion during a performance at halftime of the game against Howard University at Bragg Memorial Stadium on Oct. 8, 2011 in Tallahassee, Florida. Champion became ill and died after a game on November 19, 2011.
AP Photo/Don Juan Moore

There's been a new twist in the Florida A&M hazing investigation, as the parents of a student who was beaten to death in November tell CBS News something previously unknown about him: Robert Champion Jr. was gay.

CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann met the parents, Robert and Pam Champion, in Orlando, Fla., where they made their first visit to the hotel parking lot where their son died after a hazing ritual.

Champion Jr. was a 26 year old drum major in A&M's famed marching band, and he was allegedly pummeled by his band mates.

"There's no way around it. It was wrong," Pam Champion tells CBS News.

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On Nov. 19, Champion was found unresponsive aboard a band bus after the school's biggest game of the year. Police ruled the death a homicide from hazing.

About 30 students were on the bus at the time, but no one has been charged, and the Champions have started their own investigation into how their son died.

"The truth will come out as to what happened," says the young man's mother. "I will find out how my son got there, because I know that he would not have willingly, knowingly just walked into that."

Champion family attorney Chris Chestnut says he has now spoken to "a lot" of the people who were there on the day, more than 10 potential witnesses.

Some of the students tell Chestnut they were also hazed that night, but none as severely as Champion. They say he was singled out, possibly because he was both a vocal opponent of hazing and a band disciplinarian, and gay.

"It may or may not have been" his sexual orientation which saw him singled out, says Chestnut, allowing only that it is a "possibility."

Champion's mother says her son "wasn't defined by his sexual orientation. He was just defined as being a child going to school, trying to get an education."

Florida A&M students and classmates of hazing victim Robert Champion, Jr., pose outside their travel bus. CBS

The band had many subgroups in its hazing culture. Champion was hazed aboard the marching band's Bus C - a bus with its own culture, and, his parents believe, its own hazing ritual.

Chestnut says his interviews suggest band members aboard Bus C may have been subjected to hazing violence as they were made to run from the back of the bus to the front, and left to "pray to God they make it off."

The Champions have said they'll sue Florida A&M, and next week they also intend to sue the band's charter bus company.

"We are sorry the young man died," the president of Fabulous Coach Lines told CBS News in a written statement. "Ultimately we did not have anything to do with the student dying. Our responsibility lies with transport."

But Robert Champion's parents say stopping hazing is the responsibility of everyone involved, and they're not done fighting for that cause yet.

"I'm waiting on a solution," says Pam Champion. "Our goal is not to shut down any school. Our goal is not to stop the music. Our goal is to stop the hazing."

  • Mark Strassmann
    Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001 and is based in the Atlanta bureau.