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Friday, January 13, 2012
Robert Champion deserves justice

By LZ Granderson
ESPN.com

Each year, the country takes time to reflect upon the life and work of one of my heroes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and in that reflection it is common place to ask: How close are we to achieving the dream?

In the world of sports, the black community likes to take inventory of things such as opportunities for blacks to be head coaches, the image of the black athlete and team ownership. These are valid achievements to measure, but I find that accounting somewhat limited in scope and lacking in introspection.

After all, King's own words suggest the world he dreamed of was not just about blacks and whites.

Robert Champion
Robert Champion was a drum major at Florida A&M.

Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.

We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Race was the backdrop -- not the sole impetus -- behind King's dream that one day everyone will be judged solely by the "content of their character."

Obviously we're not there yet.

Just this week, a Cincinnati landlord lost her appeal of a ruling that hanging a "Public Swimming Pool, White Only" sign at her duplex was racist and against the law. But no matter how often we read such headlines, or athletes or their agents try to compare contract negotiations to slavery, it's safe to say we are getting closer.

At least in terms of blacks and whites living together as brothers and sisters.

As for the deeper meaning behind his dream … well, that's another matter.

Take, for example, the Robert Champion murder at Florida A&M, the country's oldest historically black college.

To refresh your memory, Champion was the young man who died of internal bleeding in November after allegedly being hazed by his bandmates. Champion was a drum major for FAMU's highly regarded marching band and reportedly opposed hazing. The attack happened in a hotel parking lot, on a chartered bus, after one of the biggest games of the year. Champion is said to have dropped the baton, and band members were upset. There were 30 students on the bus at the time of Champion's death.

I repeat: 30 witnesses on a bus.

But, so far, no one has been fired. No one is in jail. Only band director Julian White was been put on administrative leave with pay.

Why?

FAMU Band
Other members of the band were present when Robert Champion died, but to this point no one has been charged.

This week, Champion's parents held a news conference announcing that they are suing the charter bus company and revealing that their son was gay. Although they said they didn't think this was a hate crime, their lawyer, Chris Chestnut, said Champion's sexual orientation could have played a role in the vicious beating. Chestnut said he interviewed several students who said that they were also hazed that night but that Champion's treatment was far worse. They told Chestnut they believed Champion was targeted in large part because he was gay. Meanwhile, Chuck Hobbs, the attorney for White, said his client believes the incident was a hate crime.

Again, nearly two months have gone by. The autopsy concluded that his death was a homicide, but no one is in jail.

No one has been fired. Four students who were initially suspended from FAMU have been reinstated. How is this even possible with so many witnesses? How can school officials and parents have peace knowing there might be killers roaming free on the FAMU campus? Is it OK because it was hazing? Is it OK because the victim was gay? Or is it OK because hypocrisy says it's OK?

I don't think I need to tell you what Tallahassee, Fla., would look like right now if Champion had been beaten to death on a bus full of white students at a predominantly white university. And yet the rallying cry for justice from some of the nation's most prominent black leaders such as Jesse Jackson, politicians such as U.S. Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., and organizations such as the NAACP has been pretty much mute since Champion's sexual orientation became part of the story.

U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., spoke at the school Friday in honor of King's birthday. Waters' office said the congresswoman, who signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act, was to talk about the murder but didn't provide further details. As far as I can tell, only the National Black Justice Coalition, a Washington, D.C., based nonprofit serving the black LGBT community, has been a consistent national voice since the hate crime element was introduced.

"I wonder what would Dr. King be thinking about right now in light of the purgatory we find FAMU to be in," said Sharon Lettman-Hicks, the executive director of the NBJC, in a phone interview. "There is such a thing as right from wrong, and the injustice done to Robert Champion must be made right.

"I think right now everyone is in the state of how do we avoid the maximum liability, just like what we saw at Penn State. I think it's an attempt to protect everyone who is alive with a complete disregard for the lost life. We are watching survival of the fittest play out, and it's pretty barbaric. I want humanity to prevail."

Robert Champion's parents
Pam Champion and Robert Champion Sr. are suing over their son's death.

No one who was not on that bus that night will know for sure what role if any Champion's sexual orientation had in his murder. But we do know there are a lot of unanswered questions that deserve the black community's full and undivided attention. The same level of attention that would be granted if the suspected perpetrators of this crime were white or if the victim were straight. For example, how did someone who was known to be against hazing end up on the parked bus where hazing took place?

And if Champion's sexual orientation was a factor, what kind of environment is FAMU promoting? I can tell you that, when you go to the school's homepage and search the word "gay," the only thing that pops up is a link to a section about sexual assault resources. If you type "homophobia," you come up with zero. I can also tell you that, when I called around campus this week and asked about LGBT student support groups, there was a lot of dead silence on the phone and one staffer who works with a student group actually hung up on me. Homophobia is still a very touchy subject for the black community, and it seems as if, no matter how big the story is -- from the rise of HIV/AIDS in the black community, to the Pastor Eddie Long sex abuse accusations, to the bullying and eventual suicide of 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover in 2009 -- as a community we prefer to look the other way than deal with our junk.

But I still believe we shall overcome someday… We just lost sight of what it is we are trying to overcome. It isn't racism. That's too small. It's injustice. Hate. Prejudice. And all those things come in various wrappings, just like love, dignity and respect. To truly honor King's life's work, to honor his dream, we can't just count head coaches or even President Barack Obama's presence in the White House. We have to get where we can see past what someone is and see who they are … even when doing so isn't very popular. For, as King said: "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

Turning a blind eye to what happened to Robert Champion at FAMU is falling short of King's true dream.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.

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