The show 60 Minutes covered fraternity hazing during its November 28, 2021 episode (watch the full episode here). The hazing portion focused on the story of Sam Martinez, who died of alcohol poisoning while a student at Washington State University in November of 2019. Martinez was pledging the Alpha Tau Omega Fraternity (ATO) at the time. Anderson Cooper, who hosted the segment, interviewed Martinez's family members, attorney Doug Feirberg, ATO CEO Wynn Smiley, and North-American Interfraternity Conference (NIC) CEO Jud Horras, among others.
The episode went as one would expect. A news media personality pretends to learn about a topic in real-time and on camera. To do this, he recruits emotionally charged family members, a lawyer, and a police chief to explain how fraternities and hazing work. Then, he takes a moment to bravely challenge a few fraternity executives. It was the trauma porn we have come to expect from modern news media and the NIC and ATO put out a statement and email respectively to address that fact. They claim the segment was not meant to be fair or educational; it was meant to push a specific agenda related to fraternity organizations. To me, that is true.
(Sidebar: One must wonder if Anderson Cooper is familiar with college admissions processes. The life of a Vanderbilt is not much like the life of most working-class fraternity members, so he may be unaware that college students are almost universally legal adults. Adding "adult supervision" to undergraduate chapters was a key suggestion from the segment.)
The points and counterpoints
If you are not a member of a fraternity or have not worked for one, here is a rundown of what happens with these types of segments and interviews:
Executives agree to the interview because it's better than saying "no comment."
Executives get destroyed in the interview and made to look like boogeymen for things that are genuinely out of their control or sphere of influence.
Executives put out a communication to convince members that we were all screwed over by the news, that the executives are highly-esteemed, honorable individuals, and that we will continue fighting in one way or another.
Executives agree to the next interview because it's better than saying "no comment."
As a result, fraternity leaders become popular targets whenever the news media needs a public flogging to drum up intrigue and anger. Cooper demonstrated little knowledge of how fraternities function. Does he know they are federations with legislative bodies? If so, did he clearly communicate that to the 60 Minutes audience? Did he understand that a fraternity executive's power only extends to his time "in office" and it is not absolute (though most NIC fraternities want you to believe otherwise)? Did he explore any alternative approaches to prevent dangerous hazing? For example, some argue that hazing prohibition, like just about every other kind of prohibition on the planet, has made hazing more dangerous.
One need not be a genius to know that the main point of this 60 Minutes segment was not hazing, fraternities, or reform. No one on that show was trying to understand hazing, how hazing works, how fraternities work, and how they could work better. The segment was about blame. Who is to blame for Sam Martinez's death (and deaths of other students in similar circumstances). Was it his parents? The police? The school? The fraternity? The cold reality is that it was at least partially Sam's fault. But Sam's identity, like all people, was a combination of the people he knew and his life experiences. Compared to his friends, parents, and classmates, Sam's inter/national fraternity organization had little involvement in his day-to-day life and decision-making skill set. Still, the cold reality is rarely popular, so the show took the position of the parents. His death was certainly not their fault, but that of the most distant entity: the staff of the national fraternity he chose to join. His family provided the emotional drama necessary to keep viewers engaged and outraged. The legal experts then backed up the emotional backstory and made the case that inter/national fraternity organizations work to separate themselves from hazing incidents and to avoid liability.
Before and after the airing of this episode of 60 Minutes, ATO and the NIC distributed statements to key stakeholders and on their public websites. The NIC's statement is attached to this article (it links to their website). A document shared within that statement is also attached to this article and it includes information the NIC sent to 60 Minutes regarding its efforts to combat hazing. ATO sent at least three emails to their members. I have attached a document with the text of two of those emails; they ultimately align with the NIC's statement, but focus, of course, more on the fraternity.
Both organizations addressed all they do to combat hazing and denied that they avoid liability. They also brought up legitimate concerns with how 60 Minutes presented information related to the Sam Hernandez case, fraternity organizations, and hazing in general.
Unfortunately, if one digs into any of these reported efforts to combat hazing, they'd see that the position taken by 60 Minutes was at least partially correct.
For example, both ATO and the NIC point to anti-hazing education provided to fraternity members and students generally. This education focuses almost exclusively on abstinence from hazing and zero-tolerance policies enacted by NIC fraternities and Greek Life generally. But those policies and the education around them are one tool for inter/national organizations to avoid behind held liable for hazing activities. ATO acknowledges this fact in their follow-up email by highlighting that Sam's chapter brothers "knowingly violated ATO Policies" (original emphasis maintained). Fraternities implement a "zero-tolerance" policy, they teach members the policy, and so members forfeit protection from the fraternity if they violate the policy.
The NIC's statement comments on its legislative efforts and victories to combat hazing with its Anti-Hazing Coalition. This includes passing criminal penalties in several states and two federal bills: The END All Hazing Act and the REACH Act. They promote these bills, and their efforts generally, as measures for "transparency" and that they are examples of the NIC and its member groups championing accountability and true hazing reform. What they do not say, however, is that the END All Hazing Act includes language to protect "multi-institutional organizations," like inter/national fraternities and inter-fraternal associations, from being held liable for the actions of local chapters.
Both emails from ATO further "shift blame" by pointing out the rates of hazing in high school and outside of the fraternity experience. This is not unreasonable, but it is another example of an inter/national fraternity averting blame. The fraternity also distributed an image/statement and requested that chapters share it on their social media accounts on the day of the broadcast. The statement affirms ATO's commitment to hazing prevention and then immediately discusses that more than 50% of high schoolers have experienced hazing in some form.
Beyond the statements, one can look to the traditional fraternity playbook for dealing with hazing and risk-management violations for further evidence that 60 Minutes did not misunderstand our leaders' intent. In the event of a hazing accusation, a chapter's activities will be suspended and an investigation will take place. If it is certain that hazing took place or if there was a serious enough incident (such as death - whether or not it was caused by "hazing"), then the fraternity will immediately close or suspend the chapter and may conduct a membership review, effectively cutting ties with those who are "responsible" for the activity. This should not be seen as unusual. There is no reason for inter/national fraternities to assume responsibility for the bad actions of members of those fraternities. The problem; however, is that fraternity executives and leaders routinely tout their ability to influence students when it comes to positive things like leadership and anti-hazing education. Does anyone see the contradiction there?
That said, there is much to like about the statements from ATO and the NIC. The NIC acknowledges that hazing is a form of bullying. That is important because fraternity professionals and hazing experts work to distance the two. In educational training outside of Greek Life, such as that offered through Praesidium, hazing is referred to as "systemic bullying." The connection to bullying opens up a space for dialogue about "hazing vs. legitimate rights of passage" (if our zero-tolerance approach would ever allow it). The ATO statements list many facts omitted from the 60 minutes episode related to the Martinez case and investigations. That said, both organizations' statements are designed to reaffirm the integrity of their respective leaders at the undergraduate members' expense. Remember, the NIC promised in 2015 to reframe the narrative around fraternity organizations. It used this promise (among others) to justify a 100%+ increase in revenue.
Your fraternity does not want to be held responsible for you. They do not even know who you are!
I wrote about my fraternity's old process for approving new members in another article about fraternity desegregation. Each potential member would have a photo, biography, and other information forwarded on to national volunteers. The volunteers would review the application and approve or deny the potential member for associate membership and initiation into the fraternity. Volunteers would visit chapters and confirm whether or not they were living up to the ideals of the fraternity, then write reports back to the leaders of the inter/national organization. This process became professionalized over time, but it became outdated or unmanageable as fraternity membership experienced repeated booms throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries.
What this means is that no fraternity leader knows who is joining his fraternity. For example, a chapter could recruit a woman who identifies as a woman and not disclose this to their national office. Assuming her name does not raise any suspicions (and it's not like fraternities run background checks or confirm new member identities), she could go on to take a leading role in that chapter and graduate without raising an eyebrow. No one would know unless someone reported her to the national office.
Your fraternity does not know why you joined, what you are interested in, your ability to pay dues, your willingness to take part in fraternity activities, or your history with alcohol. Still, most fraternities share pictures of new member classes, especially the big ones, as a celebratory measure.[1 2 3] They appear certain that their chapters are recruiting the best people. The ATO statements following the 60 Minutes interview, for example, heap praise upon their members as excellent and educated. Do they know that for sure? You are a prized possession of your fraternity so long as you pay your bills and stay out of trouble, even if they don't know who you are. If you post a racist message on your second Instagram account sometime after initiation, however, the fraternity will publicly disown you and distance themselves from you.
This selective blindness carries into alumni membership. Many fraternities claim that they have networks of tens or hundreds of thousands of alumni members willing to drop anything at a moment's notice to help the fraternity. That is not true, far from it! For example, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, as I pointed out in this article, touts 206,000 living alumni members on their website. Fewer than 0.5% donate annually to their foundation and their volunteer base is likely not much more impressive. How many of those 206,000 men joined SAE for four years and agreed to the lifelong stuff in the same way they "agree" to the fraternity's alcohol and hazing policies? How many up-to-date addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses does SAE maintain? They would be lucky to have relevant contact information for half of those people, but the number might be as low as 40% or 30%.
Your fraternity will only know you as an alumnus if you volunteer, if you are loud (heyyy), if you become rich, or if you become famous. If you have money, they will try to convince you that you owe your wealth to your fraternity experience and to donate to whatever pet projects your foundation supports. If you are famous, and so long as you do not pull a Joe Kennedy and quit, they will proudly list you as someone who benefited from the fraternity experience and a shining example of the fraternity's values. This is not just NIC fraternities, of course; It is how almost all fraternities and sororities operate. We have no idea who joins our organizations because we prioritize big numbers, exhaustive "Standards of Excellence" checklists, and wealth.
A different way forward, free from strong man CEOs, prohibition, and systemized unaccountability
We should not be surprised by the latest episode of 60 Minutes. It is how news media organizations treat fraternities. ATO's and the NIC's respective responses were equally predictable. The issue, as I see it, is that fraternity leaders are disconnected from their members and organizations. The fact that ATO, in the same statement, explains how chapters are on their own but also claims credit for all of the great things happening within their chapters as it relates to hazing prevention is telling. This, as previously discussed, is by design. Fraternity executives and professionals have worked so hard to draw a line between themselves and the negative aspects of fraternities and society that they:
cannot relate to those problems and only discuss them in self-protectionist, legal-speak, and
sacrifice the formation of relationships with their members for fear of knowing too much (even as they say "we are in the relationship business")
So, how do we get out of this mess? First, inter/national fraternity leaders and professionals need to stop taking credit for the positive outcomes of the fraternity experience. Most successful alumni are not successful because of their fraternity experience (and certainly not because of their inter/national fraternity organization). Furthermore, inter/national fraternity programs are not preparing students to become leaders any better than we are preparing them to quit drinking and hazing. We must acknowledge that if we are ineffective in one area, that we must be ineffective in other, related areas. In other words, fraternity leaders need a lesson in humility. They do not run the show and their influence is limited. I would argue that few undergraduate or alumni members know the names and positions of their fraternity's respective leaders.
After acknowledging those limitations, fraternity leaders should be honest with their strategy. It does not make practical sense for a federation-style organization to take responsibility for the negative actions of its members any more than it should take credit for the positive actions. Moreover, fraternity members are smarter than NIC and fraternity leaders seem to think they are. Members understand that fraternity insurance and risk policies are protective measures for inter/national organizations. They understand that fraternity leaders do not control the narrative. So, let's own up to it instead. Yes, our efforts are designed to protect inter/national fraternities. Yes, we acknowledge that the media will not allow for debate on the topics associated with fraternities. Yes, most journalists have little knowledge of fraternity organizations and no interest in creating positive fraternity experiences. Yes, inter/national fraternity leaders cannot take responsibility for the successes or failures of their self-governing chapters.
Third, I would suggest we take serious efforts to encourage selectivity. This strikes fear in the heart of many fraternity professionals and alumni leaders. If taken seriously; however, controlled organizational shrinkage along with liberalized rules around who can create new fraternities can offer immense rewards. Re-integrate volunteers into the recruitment process and learn about the people joining your organization. That cannot happen in any reasonable way if we keep up the charade that all fraternities and sororities share the same 40 values and that they need 10 executive board members and 30 chairmen to bring those values to life. No one cares which fraternity collected the most service hours in 2012. That information is irrelevant. Focus on relationships. Building relationships within our organizations and our communities is the only way to win the trust and support of our members and their respective communities.
Finally, Fraternities need to stop playing the part of whipping boy for these segments. Whichever public relations specialist told fraternities that "no comment" is worse than getting manhandled by professional news media anchors is a fool. Anderson Cooper might have criticized a declined interview, but it would have undoubtedly taken up less air time than the ATO CEO giving everyone who hates fraternities more reasons to hate fraternities. Videos of his answers with and without proper context are circulating the web. We need to acknowledge the limitations of our executive leaders and their authority, and that should play out in how we approach the media. Stop telling students that they need to change their behavior if they want to change the news about fraternities. Start applying that advice to the leaders at the top.
The 60 Minutes segment was a disastrous moment of negative publicity for fraternity organizations. Its primary point - that fraternity leaders work primarily to protect their interests at the expense of the chapters - holds up under scrutiny. That fraternity leaders' responses to the segment are literally efforts to shift blame onto students, the news media, and poor anti-hazing laws is further proof of that truth.
Fraternity Man is an ad-free and independent publication.
Help keep it going and growing by contributing as little as $2. (Links below will take you to a secure payment portal via Stripe)
A free way to support: Subscribe to the Fraternity Man newsletter for [very occasional] updates and giveaways.