Texas Cowboys suspended following student death, hazing allegations

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — After investigating allegations of hazing surrounding student Nicky Cumberland’s death in the fall of 2018, the University of Texas at Austin contacted the Texas Cowboys Wednesday, informing the student group that they will be removed from campus for six years. 

These sanctions come as the result of a student conduct investigation into the Texas Cowboys, an all-male student group known for service work and for maintaining “Smokey the Cannon.”

“The facts revealed a widespread, long-standing culture of peer-to-peer abuse, or hazing, within the Cowboys,” the report from UT’s Office of the Dean of Students said. 

Back in September, UT student Nicky Cumberland, who was a new Cowboys member, was in a car with students coming back from a Cowboys off-campus retreat when the driver fell asleep at the wheel, ejecting Nicky from the vehicle. He ultimately died of his injuries, and his family believes hazing occurred at the retreat beforehand and that hazing played a role in the sleep deprivation that ultimately led to his death. 

Many of the sanctions called for after UT’s student conduct investigation reflect the calls for hazing reform made by Cumberland’s family over the past few months. 

The Cowboys have three ways they could respond to these sanctions:

  • A representative from the Cowboys can acknowledge the decision and accept the findings and sanctions.
  • A Cowboys representative can choose to appeal the decision.
  • The Cowboys representative can choose to request a formal hearing before a University hearing officer to contest the disciplinary decision. 

The sanctions from UT against the Cowboys include: 

  • Suspension for six years (from February 2019- May 2025).
  • Removal from Game Day activities Cowboys previously played a role in.
  • Moratorium on representing the university as official ambassadors. 
  • Probation for two additional years after reinstatement.
  • Additional requirements to maintain eligibility after the six-year suspension has elapsed.

Additionally, the following sanctions against the Cowboys will be in place permanently, even when their suspension expires:

  • Prohibition of separate student subgroups within the Cowboys. 
  • Prohibiting the Cowboys from using the cannon’s trailer to transport any members.
  • Prohibiting the Cowboys use of live animals for events or other purposes.
  • Pre-approval is required by the Cowboy’s advisor for all future Cowboys events that take place on campus. This pre-approval must be in writing and maintained by the organization internally. 
  • An organization advisor must be present at all future retreats or off-campus events. 
  • The Cowboys are required to use chartered buses for all members and people attending during any future off-campus events.  
  • The Cowboys are prohibited from taking away members’ ability to use various types of communication, including cell phones, smart watches, and computers during retreats, unless for purposes approved by the organization’s advisor. 

The Findings

The key details

For this investigation, UT’s Office of the Dean of students interviewed dozens of UT students, including 23 students that were new members of the Cowboys in fall of 2018 and 72 university students who were listed as active members. The investigators also took in evidence from the Cumberland family including group messages sent to new members and shopping lists assigned to new members. 

UT Investigators found based on “a preponderance of the evidence” that new members of the Cowboys were subjected to multiple forms of hazing, including physical brutality, physical activity, forced ingestion of unwanted substances, coerced consumption of alcohol, and degradation. This means UT investigators believe it was more likely than not that hazing occurred at the 2018 retreat. 

However, investigators did not find a preponderance of evidence to determine that hazing behavior in the form of sleep deprivation occurred at the retreat. 

But the investigators clarified, “even if the car accident had not occurred, it is important to note that the Texas Cowboys’ behavior at the Retreat and at the other specific occasions discovered in the course of this investigation, does, in fact, meet the institutional definition of hazing.”

The report did not go so far as to say that hazing or sleep deprivation directly caused Nicky Cumberland’s death. But it also suggested the Cowboys could have prevented the car crash. 

“However, as with many accidents, the car accident that led to Nicholas Cumberland’s
death could have been avoided had there been adequate risk management practices in place, such
as providing transportation to all members and choosing a safer location, closer to campus,” it stated.  

Biting the head off a hamster, underage drinking, new members stuffed in a cannon trailer

Investigators said they heard from several Cowboys new members that they personally experienced or witnessed hazing in the fall of 2018. 

Hazing practices UT investigators found during the fall of 2018 included:

  • Members of the Cowboys coercing a new member to bite the head off of a live hamster.
  • A cowboy told investigators he brought up the idea of using a hamster at the retreat at a meeting and that he was a part of a larger group who surrounded the new member and coerced that new member to bite the head off of the hamster.
  • Members of a subgroup used a wooden stick to strike new members from their subgroup when each of the groups branched off.
  • Members said they were forced to take in unwanted substances, from chugging a gallon of milk, to eating cat food, to Tabasco sauce, to minced garlic, to whole onions.
  • Members said they were forced to consume alcohol including finishing a bag of wine and shotgunning beers. 
  • Underage drinking was encouraged and found to be “a major facet of the organization’s culture.” Of the 25 new members in the fall of 2018, investigators found that 14 were underage at the time of the retreat. 
  • Members said they were coerced into the cannon’s trailer and dropped off a distance away from the retreat site and tasked with finding their way back. 
  • Members said they had chips and mustard poured into their shirts before competing in a relay race.
  • Members said they were required to bring items for the retreat from a shopping list which included Tabasco, gallons of milk, “copious amounts of alcohol,” tobacco, a live chicken, and a live hamster. (In the investigation, members said that the chicken was not harmed though it was carried by a new member in the cannon’s trailer).
  • Several active members said they had witnessed or experienced traditions such as paddling, striking new members with a piece of wood, dropping off new members in the cannon’s trailer to find their way, and biting the head off of a hamster. 

Subgroups within Cowboys

The investigators also confirmed that subgroups within Texas Cowboys play a role in different practices of hazing. The report explained that subgroups on campus (in Nicky Cumberland’s case, the Kappa Sigma fraternity) will nominate certain members for Cowboys. During the new member retreat, new Cowboys undergo certain activities under their subgroup within Cowboys and separate from the other members. 

UT said that while some of the actions of these subgroups contributed to hazing culture, there was not enough evidence to show that these fraternities engaged in hazing outside of the Texas Cowboys initiation. The investigation also noted that the members of separate UT fraternities may have been unaware of the hazing that was going on within their respective Cowboy subgroups.  

History of Hazing

The Cowboys were banned from 1995 to 2000 after Gabe Higgins, a UT sophomore,  drowned in the Colorado River after drinking during a Cowboy’s initiation ceremony in 1995. When Higgins died, UT explained that the Cowboys were already on probation for hazing activities, including paddling. 

 At the time, UT officials said there was no evidence the pledges were forced to swim in the river, but there was extensive hazing including paddling and eating hot dogs covered with tobacco.

The student conduct report sent Wednesday compares the two events saying both “subjected new members to unreasonable risk of danger and harm.” 

“The Cowboy’s retreat has changed little in almost 25 years,”  the report said, noting that at both times the organization demonstrated the use of paddling, excessive alcohol consumption, relay drinking races and selecting dangerous retreat locations. 

“Their escalation to animal cruelty at the fall of 2018 retreat demonstrates that past lessons have not changed the Texas Cowboys’ culture of hazing,” the report said in explaining the need for more severe sanctions. 

“Two families have lost their sons and The University of Texas at Austin community has lost two of its students because the Texas Cowboys continue to perpetuate unlawful and irresponsible behavior time and time again,” the report said. 

It noted that many of the people involved with hazing at the Cowboys retreat in 2018 were likely not even alive at the time Gabe Higgins died back in 1995. 

The sanctions against the Cowboys also state that when six years have passed, in order for the Cowboys to be reinstated, each incoming member will have to read the book written by Gabe Higgins’ mother, “The Cowboy’s Secret” and write a two-page reflection paper outlining how the book resonated with them. Additionally, the requirements state that for Cowboys to be reinstated after the six-year suspension, the Cowboys must create a presentation approved by their advisor each recruitment cycle to educate new members on the events that occurred in the fall of 2018 and the spring of 1995. 

Reactions

Shawn Cumberland, the father of Nicky Cumberland, explained Wednesday that he had not read the full decision from UT yet, but from his initial understanding of the investigation he thinks the decision, “is appropriate.”

He said he was heartened, “seeing things that both increase safety — not taking away the cell phones — and awareness which is reading “The Cowboy’s Secret” book.”

“You’re not going to get change unless you learn about the past,” Cumberland said. 

UT Austin President Greg Fenves sent KXAN the following statement on Wednesday: 

“The University of Texas at Austin lost a cherished student last year — Nicky Cumberland. For the last six months, our thoughts have remained with the Cumberland family. We mourn alongside them. And we wish them peace.

Let me make clear — there is no place for hazing at The University of Texas. The mission of this university — to educate, learn, discover and serve — can only be accomplished in an environment where we respect each other. Where we look after our neighbors, peers and friends.

The Dean of Students has conducted a thorough investigation. The appeals process is still underway, and each case is judged on its facts.”

A separate, criminal investigation into allegations of hazing against the Cowboys is being carried out by UT Austin Police. That investigation is still ongoing. 

The Texas Cowboys Alumni Association told KXAN that they were, “disappointed by the University’s decision today, and are saddened that it may prevent our organization from continuing this legacy of service.”

In November the Texas Cowboys judiciary board unanimously voted to suspend three students and expel four students from their organization. UT’s Student Conduct report states that the student who coerced another to bite the head off the hamster was expelled from the Cowboys, the student who bit the head off the hamster was reprimanded. 

The statement from the Texas Cowboys Alumni Association Wednesday expresses disappointment about the misconduct of some of their student members who violated both University and Texas Cowboys standards. However, they took issue with the claim Nicky Cumberland’s family has maintained that hazing played a role in the deadly car crash:

“However, hazing did not cause the car accident that took Nicky Cumberland’s life. The University’s ruling expressly determined that sleep deprivation did not occur at the retreat. According to the University, “multiple members reported that they were able to go to sleep at various times of the night . . . as well, no one reported having been prevented from sleeping.” The car accident was a tragic event that claimed the life of an exceptional person. We continue to mourn with Mr. Cumberland’s family and loved ones. Our organization is committed to learning, growing, and using this tragedy to educate and prepare the next generation of leaders to do better – and to more effectively serve others. However, we cannot accomplish these goals if the Texas Cowboys are no longer permitted to operate as an official student organization ” – Texas Cowboys Alumni Association

The statement said that Texas Cowboys leaders will make a decision soon on how to proceed. 

This is a developing story. KXAN will update this story as more information becomes available.

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