West Virginia's Marshall University has kicked running back Steward Butler off its football team after he was caught on video punching a gay couple whom he spotted kissing.
The assault occurred April 5, the two men told police in Huntington, W.Va., of the assault. According to the criminal complaint, the two men were walking on a downtown street when they stopped to kiss each other. They told Huntington TV station WSAZ that they were in town visiting friends and were headed to their hotel after dinner and visiting a few bars.
Butler, who was a passenger in a passing car with two fellow Marshall students, spotted their public display of affection and told the driver to stop. Prosecutors say he then got out from the car, "approached the two men, shouting derogatory words toward their sexual orientation." Butler is accused of punching one of the men in the face with a closed fist.
The men told WSAZ they were not seriously hurt. They were named by the television station, but The Advocate is withholding their names because they say they fear retaliation.
Butler was was arrested Wednesday morning and charged with two counts of misdemeanor battery. He was arraigned before a Cabell County magistrate and released on $10,000 bond.
Butler, who according to ESPN
is 5 foot 9 and 195 pounds, said he was the one who felt threatened and told police it was the gay men who approached the car. He is claiming self-defense.
One of the factors that led to his arrest was that member of the gay couple had the presence of mind to use a cellphone camera to record the assault -- as well as the car's license plate. Huntington Police Detective Chris Sperry told WSAZ that the evidence was crucial to charging the Lakeland, Fla., native.
In the video, which police have not released, Sperry said Butler can plainly be heard making derogatory comments to the couple.
"It's not a pleasant thing to watch," he said. "If it wasn't for the video, it would have been his word against theirs and we wouldn't have had anything," said Sperry. "But luckily, they videoed it and that's why we're here today."
Shortly after his arrest, Marshall's director of athletics, Mike Hamrick, announced Butler had been suspended indefinitely from all team-related activities.
"We are aware of the situation involving Marshall running back Steward Butler and are currently in the process of gathering all available information. We will handle the matter internally and appropriately," said Hamrick. "We take all accusations against our student-athletes seriously, especially those of such a sensitive nature. We hold all of our 350+ student-athletes to a high standard, on and off the playing surface, as ambassadors of Marshall University."
But that was before school officials saw the video. About two hours later, Butler was cut from the team. Hamrick made the announcement via Twitter:
If convicted of the charges, Butler could be fined $1,000 and/or jailed for up to two years.
But losing his spot on the roster and the local misdemeanor charges may be just the beginning of troubles for Butler.
WSAZ reports that his case has been forwarded to the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI to determine whether Butler committed a civil rights violation. West Virginia law does not consider crimes based on sexual orientation to be hate crimes, but federal law does.
Marshall University interim president Gary White issued a statement condemning Butler's alleged actions and adding, "The type of violent, bigoted behavior reported to have been perpetrated by this student is not tolerated at Marshall University. Period."
Condemnations also came from Huntington city government and LGBT group Fairness West Virginia, also noting that the incident points up the need for an LGBT-inclusive state hate-crimes law.
"We are pleased with the response of the Huntington Police Department and its recognition that, since LGBT residents of West Virginia are not protected by state hate crime laws, the incident may fall under federal civil rights laws," said a statement issued by Mayor Steve Williams's LGBT Advisory Committee. "We trust that they will continue to seek justice."
"With the passage of The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009 and Huntington's adoption an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance in 2013, it is abundantly clear that West Virginia and the nation as a whole have taken huge steps toward the acceptance and fair treatment of LGBT people," said Fairness West Virginia's statement in part. "However, there is still work to be done."