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The Texas Cowboys and the Death of Nicky Cumberland

Here is the link and an excerpt from the Dallas paper–article by Rebekah Allen

 

Nicky Cumberland died after a car accident on his way home from the group’s retreat, where recruits were paddled and plied with alcohol and one student bit the head off a live hamster.

HOUSTON — Fraternity pledge deaths associated with hazing rocked college campuses across the nation in 2017. University presidents at Texas State, Louisiana State, Florida State and Penn State sounded the alarms by temporarily shutting down Greek life activities until they could get their arms around the problem.

Some students suspected of hazing were arrested — a sign of changing cultural attitudes about the dangerous initiation rites. Some were kicked out of school. Commitments to zero-tolerance policies for hazing abounded.

But on the anniversary of the death of their son, Shawn and Sylvia Cumberland are still waiting for that sense of urgency and willingness to take action from the University of Texas.

Nicky Cumberland, a 20-year-old academic standout, died Oct. 30, 2018, after spending a month on life support in a coma. He was severely injured in a car accident on his way home from the Texas Cowboys’ annual retreat, where recruits were paddled and plied with alcohol and one student bit the head off a live hamster. The driver of the vehicle fell asleep at the wheel after the long night of activities.

The Texas Cowboys, an elite student organization at the University of Texas, are in charge of firing Smokey the Cannon during home football games.
EDUCATION

Hazing and a hamster: What happened at the Texas Cowboys retreat the night before UT student’s fatal car crash 

Hazing and a hamster: What happened at the Texas Cowboys retreat the night before UT student’s fatal car crash 

BY 

No Texas Cowboys have been arrested or expelled. The university didn’t start investigating the student group until almost two months after the accident — only after the Cumberlands’ prodding. The university later suspended the Cowboys until at least 2022, but the group operated virtually without restrictions for eight months after the incident, even after the university confirmed evidence of hazing.

As the Cumberlands ramp up their efforts to end hazing across the country, they are starting with UT. They say the school has been slow and soft at every turn of the investigation into the powerful Texas Cowboys organization.

“I gave them the benefit of the doubt while the investigation was going on, but as the investigation went on longer and longer and longer, they continued to do nothing during that time,” Shawn Cumberland said in an interview at his Houston home, where Nicky grew up. “I want the university to do something that’s better than what they’re doing right now.”

No probation

The Cowboys’ retreat and the car accident happened in September 2018. But the Cowboys kept partying until they were officially shut down in June, eight full months after the incident.

The elite, all-male student group hosted events at bars and invited their “Sweethearts,” the Cowboys’ sister organization. They held their formal induction ceremony with families, where new members received their custom Cowboy hats and chaps. They marched before cheering crowds in the Texas Independence Day parade. On Saturdays in the fall, they stood proudly on the football field and shot Smokey the Cannon when the Longhorns scored.

The Texas Cowboys, an elite student organization at the University of Texas, are in charge of firing Smokey the Cannon at home football games. (Cal Sport Media)
The Texas Cowboys, an elite student organization at the University of Texas, are in charge of firing Smokey the Cannon at home football games. (Cal Sport Media)

They did all this with Nicky’s initials monogrammed on their shirts, a tribute to his memory.

“They should have been put on probation immediately,” Shawn Cumberland said. “They shouldn’t have been allowed to keep going to parties during the investigation.”

J.B. Bird, a university spokesman, said the administration did prohibit the group from recruiting new members. However, university emails show officials had conversations with Cowboys leadership after hearing rumors that members were violating even that rule.

Jay Maguire, Austin-based founder of Parents and Alumni for Student Safety, a nonprofit dedicated to ending hazing, said it’s standard protocol for universities to place student groups suspected of dangerous behavior on social probation, banning parties and recruiting, while they’re investigated.

“It’s just best practice to hit the pause button until a thorough and proper investigation is conducted,” he said.

In some recent cases in which a student has died after suspicion of hazing, universities have responded by temporarily shutting down Greek life or the offending student group and doing wholesale revamps of policy.

At LSU, after a pledge died in fall 2017 after a long night of binge drinking, the university assembled a commission that studied best practices. The result: The university banned liquor and kegs at fraternity and tailgate parties and announced that any student caught hazing would be expelled.

Recently, universities have become stricter about hazing, even in the absence of a fatality.

Last month, Ohio State University suspended all fraternities after allegations of hazing surfaced against several of its chapters. And last April, UT-Arlington froze social activities for all Greek life after a raft of allegations about hazing, alcohol abuse and sexual assault emerged.

Slow to get started

Maguire said UT-Austin had no reason to give the Texas Cowboys the benefit of the doubt, considering the organization’s long history of hazing and branding members. In the 1990s, Gabe Higgins drowned in a river during a Cowboys retreat, which should have automatically triggered the university to investigate after Cumberland was first hospitalized, Maguire said.

Besides Nicky Cumberland, at least six people have died in hazing-related incidents at UT since 1986, according to a database of hazing deaths kept by Hank Nuwer, a Franklin College professor who studies hazing.

A law firm the Texas Cowboys hired first investigated the accident that killed Cumberland, reporting after a four-week review that his death should not be linked to the group’s hazing.

“It appears that the accident was just that, a terrible and unfortunate accident,” the Cowboys investigation concluded. Some hazing may have happened, they conceded, but the perpetrators were just “a few individuals that did not reflect the organization” and were kicked out of the group.

By Hank Nuwer

Hank Nuwer is the Indiana-based author of Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His new book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press.

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