A year ago, Robert Champion was poised to move up in the hierarchy and become the lead drum major for Florida A&M University’s celebrated Marching 100 band. Champion wanted to go through the hazing rituals that were the stepping stones to success and part of the famed musical group’s culture, band mates told investigators.
But instead of “crossing over,” as part of the hazing rite was called, Champion, 26, was pummeled so hard by band members that he died of hemorrhagic shock caused by blunt-force trauma, according to the medical examiner’s report, part of a cache of documents released in May. The death, a year ago on Monday, changed the face of the historically black college and its band that built a reputation as stellar performers over the years.
The band’s activities have been suspended. One of the dozen band members who was on the bus where the hazing took place has pleaded guilty to his role in the affair. University President James Ammons and longtime band director Julian White have been forced out, and the school has taken steps to halt the culture of hazing. The school has also offered to settle a civil suit filed by the parents.
On Monday night, Champion’s parents will host a memorial service in Decatur, Ga., the family’s hometown. Champion graduated from Southwest DeKalb high school there.
Over the weekend, FAMU played rival Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black university based in Daytona Beach, Fla. Champion would have led his band onto the field to perform during the game this year.
The game, which last year attracted 60,218 fans, drew just 32,317, continuing a pattern of poor attendance that has plagued the school throughout the year. Without the drawing power of the band, many fans simply decided to stay away. Local merchants reported memorabilia sales are down, as are hotel bookings.
It was after the same matchup last year that Champion entered the band’s vehicle, called Bus C, parked in front of an Orlando hotel where the players and band were staying.
Once inside the bus, Champion sat in a “hot seat,” where he was covered with a blanket and beaten with drumsticks and bass drum mallets. Then came the “crossing over,” in which he ran from the front of the bus to the back as the others kicked and hit him. Champion and the two others hazed that night were hit with “straps, hands, sticks and a big orange traffic cone,” according to the reported statements of witnesses, released in the spring.
According to band members, Champion wanted to be hazed so he could advance, a possibility that his mother, Pam, has repeatedly rejected. “He was murdered on that bus, and no one signs up for that,” Pam Champion has said at news conferences.
Pam Champion has rejected a $300,000 offer from the school in connection with her son’s death. That amount represents the maximum FAMU can pay without seeking the Florida Legislature's approval.
The school has sponsored school forums and started an anti-hazing website. It has also made it easier for students to file complaints, which are investigated.
On the criminal side, the first defendant, Brian Jones, 23, of Parrish, Fla., pleaded guilty last month. He avoided jail time but was given six months of restricted probation, called community control, during which his movements are sharply limited. He will also serve two years on regular probation and perform 200 hours of community service.
Judge Marc Lubet said Jones' role in Champion’s death was minimal; Jones did not beat or hit Champion.
Eleven other band members are awaiting trial on felony hazing charges, while another band member faces a misdemeanor hazing count.
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