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.
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.”
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.
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.
Shawn Cumberland called it a “sham investigation.” He believes the accident occurred because the students were exhausted from being hazed until 3 a.m. and then allowed by senior members to drive two hours home in the middle of the night.
Meanwhile, UT officials offered condolences to the family. They held a vigil for the students. But they didn’t open their own investigation until the Cumberlands asked for one last Nov. 13.
University officials didn’t start interviewing students until Nov. 27, almost two months after the Cowboys’ retreat. Bird said the university began investigating as soon as they heard the first allegation of hazing, which came from the Cumberlands.
In late March, the university announced its findings — which were far more damning than those laid out in the Texas Cowboys’ own investigation.
In an email to the UT community with the subject line “Holding Ourselves Accountable,” President Greg Fenves said the Cowboys would receive “a minimum six-year suspension” — a punishment from which the university would later back down.
Six days before the report was released, Fenves posted a picture of himself to his Instagram wearing one of the Texas Cowboys’ custom hats. Shawn Cumberland said the photo signaled the university’s loyalty to the student group in the wake of a scandal.
Bird said Fenves “had no intention of signaling support for the organization, whose actions the university has sanctioned and condemned. This was simply the hat he grabbed that day.” He said he won’t wear it in the future. Fenves, who has degrees from Cornell University and the University of California, Berkeley, was never a Texas Cowboy.
The Texas Cowboys ultimately asked for three extensions to decide whether they would appeal the university’s sanction — and with every extension, they were granted another month to carry on as usual.
In June, the Cowboys announced they would accept the punishment, but the sanction had already been softened. The university said it would consider early reinstatement in January 2022, instead of May 2025, which was the original sanction.
Bird said administrators decided to consider early reinstatement to encourage “proactive involvement of the students and Cowboys alumni in campus-wide efforts to end hazing.”
“The sanctions against the Cowboys are among the strictest the university has issued against student organizations in recent years,” Bird said. “They were based on the facts revealed in the investigation.”
But Shawn Cumberland said the move shows the university’s deference to the Cowboys.
“I think it’s horrible that the absolute minimum sentence became the absolute maximum sentence,” Shawn Cumberland said. “It sends a signal.”
Cumberland said the Cowboys are using loopholes to continue to operate, despite the ban. Next month, the Texas Cowboys Alumni Association is holding a reunion weekend with cocktail receptions, and parties across from the football stadium before and after the Nov. 9 game against Kansas State.
Eddie Lopez, president of the Texas Cowboys’ board of directors and alumni association, said the student group is “inactive, in 100% accordance with the University’s decision.” But he said the alumni association operates separately from the university and is not subject to the same ban.
Maguire said the Cowboys’ alumni event is an affront to the university.
“It’s indecent,” said Maguire, head of the anti-hazing group. “They operate under the same umbrella organization, which is the Cowboys.”
Shawn Cumberland said he’s still waiting for the university to take a bold stand against individual students who are caught hazing. He’s upset that no students involved in the ranch retreat were expelled — which he thinks is the most compelling tool the university has to stop hazing.
“You can put out a firm statement that people will be expelled. You can let them know what the consequence is, and guess what? Someone’s going to report the hazing next time,” he said. “They have the easiest tool and they refuse to use it.”
Because of privacy concerns, the university has declined to discuss punishments for students in the wake of the Cowboys investigation. But the university confirmed that it hasn’t expelled students for hazing in at least five years. Bird said 14 students have received some form of disciplinary sanction as a result of hazing in that time.
Just this week, the university banned another fraternity from campus for hazing. Pi Kappa Phi was accused of forcing students to eat unwanted substances, forcing pledges to do calisthenics and having to do acts of servitude for active members. There was no reported violence or forced alcohol consumption identified by the university’s investigation, but the fraternity will be banned for four years.
Family continues fight
This time of year is hard for the Cumberlands.
A year ago, their lives were frozen.
Shawn, Sylvia and their daughter, Alexandra — who is only 18 months older than her brother — were living every day in a hospital by Nicky’s bedside, hoping he’d wake up. They played his favorite music and read him books. They sang to him and prayed for him and scoured the internet for articles about people who miraculously awaken from comas.
Shawn and Sylvia said they’ve cried every single day this year since he died. And now they’re approaching another holiday season without Nicky.
“I just miss him so much,” Sylvia said.
Sylvia, who was born in Shanghai and met Shawn while they were living and working in Hong Kong, said the concept of hazing was foreign to her. She struggles with explaining it to her friends and family in China. She said that if she’d heard the story about how Higgins died in 1995 at a Cowboys retreat, she wouldn’t have allowed her son to join.
“If I’d known even a little bit, I’d have never let this happen,”she said through tears.
Shawn and Sylvia said they want to keep Nicky’s memory fresh so UT students and administrators can’t grow complacent about hazing again.
The family plans to file lawsuits against the university and the Texas Cowboys.
“I’m going to continue to fight this code of silence,” Shawn said. “If that means I have to rattle cages with lawsuits, I’m going to continue to be a thorn in their side.”