When news broke that brothers of the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity allegedly spat on wounded veterans and urinated on American flags during a spring break retreat, the world took up arms against them. The brothers received over 70 death threats in the days that followed. Now, it seems, we have another Rolling Stone-type situation on our hands, where a fraternity was publicly shamed for something they did not do.
The Washington Post was the first media outlet to question the falsified Rolling Stone smear piece that alleged the brutal gang rape of a female student at the Phi Kappa Psi house at the University of Virginia, and they’re the first ones to report the truth of what happened at Panama City Beach.
As it turns out, an investigation conducted by the ZBT headquarters, the University of Florida and the Panama City Beach Police Department, “did not find any evidence that ZBT members engaged in the more egregious allegations, including spitting on veterans or urinating on the American flag. The investigations also indicate there was no malicious intent nor any attempt by members to target the veterans who were staying at the resort.”
Further, the manager of the resort told lawyers under oath “she did not think any veterans were disrespected, and that she would have no reservation about allowing the group to stay there again.”
What were the brothers found guilty of? Popping a bottle of champagne on a balcony and spilling some onto people below, who they apologized to profusely.
The investigation was closed without criminal charges, but the damage was already done. The chapter was shut down, some brothers were expelled, and all of them were not only ashamed to show themselves on campus, but fearful for their lives.
Jared Blinderman, a rising sophomore at the University of Florida and a brother of ZBT, penned an eye-opening essay in the Washington Post about the terrifying months that followed the false allegations against his fraternity. Blinderman also recounts how the university and ZBT nationals forced the chapter to apologize for the heinous crimes they did not commit, damning themselves from the get-go.
Bad news travels faster than the speed of light.
My fraternity brothers were preparing for finals at the University of Florida when word echoed throughout Zeta Beta Tau that we were being blamed for unthinkable behavior: harassing combat-wounded veterans.
Linda Cope, the founder of the Warrior Beach Retreat, a local charity in Panama City Beach, appeared on Fox News and other media outlets alleging that we spit on veterans and urinated on the American flag.
We went from being anonymous college students to being the most hated fraternity in America over allegations that, to us, came completely out of left field.
Brothers would solemnly gather to watch our public shaming on the local and national news. Our fraternity house, which we associated with joy and pride, now felt like a funeral home.
I immediately thought that none of my fellow brothers would ever commit such heinous acts.
Spitting on wounded veterans??? Urinating on the flag??? This was unfathomable.
Many of us have family members who have proudly served in the military. My grandfather fought during D-Day. I have a photograph of my grandfather sitting on the wing of a captured German fighter plane.
The focal point of our chapter house’s living room was an American flag that we proudly displayed.
I had never seen anything but support and utmost respect displayed toward veterans and active-duty service members.
Nonetheless, in a matter of three short days this horrific story went viral.
I thought back to the national media coverage of the University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s racist video, which surfaced the month before and resulted in the closure of that chapter.
I remember thinking how terrible it would be to have my chapter chastised and embarrassed like that on a national scale. And there I was living that exact reality.
Brothers began to receive death threats – more than 70 of them. News outlets as far away as England reported the allegations.
In light of these threats, local police had advised us to distance ourselves from ZBT in all ways possible. We were afraid to sleep in our own house and afraid to wear our letters.
I had dyed my hair yellow in connection with a fraternity event which is a UF ZBT tradition. I shaved my head to avoid being targeted.
We fully cooperated with both the University of Florida’s and ZBT International Headquarters’ investigation into the incident in Panama City.
We self-reported some behavior from our spring formal weekend that was, frankly, embarrassing and regrettable: One of my brothers had accidentally sprayed champagne from a balcony onto veterans ten floors below. We immediately apologized for it, both to the veterans, who accepted the apology, and to the university as well.
It was the kind of behavior that is traditionally associated with college students on spring break – certainly not behavior intended to disrespect some of the most revered members of society.
But the university and ZBT forced our chapter to immediately issue a public apology to the woman who had accused us, effectively ending our ability to defend ourselves against these false allegations.
Our chapter was suspended, and then closed, by both the university and ZBT before their investigations were complete.
Witnessing the tears and anguish of my brothers at the moment school officials clarified that our chapter had been officially closed was indescribably painful.
ZBT leaders sent an e-mail to every chapter in the nation titled, “The acts of a few do not represent the sentiments of the many” and called our conduct “despicable.”
This was a far cry from their earlier promises to us that if we cooperated, we would be protected. We were comforted to know ZBT had hired an investigator and a public relations firm, only to later discover they were protecting ZBT, not us.
Only now that their investigations have concluded, do they publicly state that there is no evidence to support the allegations that my fellow brothers spit on veterans, urinated on the flag or intentionally disrespected veterans.
Responsible news outlets have revisited this story as new facts have come to light.
None, however, has adequately conveyed the heartbreak and devastation that I and my fraternity brothers feel over losing an organization that we loved so dearly.
Many of my brothers feel they have lost their collegiate identity. The years of effort they poured into ensuring the fraternity’s growth and prosperity, their ability to collectively serve the community, and most importantly, their fraternity family has been stolen from them. When the chapter was closed, we realized that we lost so much more: We had lost our good name.
The media is quick to report misconduct in the Greek community such as racism and sexual misconduct, and rightfully so.
Yet the good we do all too often falls upon deaf ears. The character of my brothers shouldn’t be defined by snippets of news coverage, but rather by who they truly are. Ours is a fraternity that prides itself in academic excellence, service, and mentorship, values most Greek organizations proudly uphold.
Our fraternity had the highest GPA on campus and this past year we raised more than $20,000 for children’s medical research. My brothers have inspired one another to volunteer at local elementary schools, conduct food drives, and earn leadership positions in school organizations. These are students who join fraternities for all the right reasons.
The reputation we’ve spent years tirelessly constructing was destroyed by a rush to judgment in a single afternoon. Due process was conveniently cast aside to mollify an angry public that deemed the allegations indisputably factual in light of the stereotypical fraternity culture portrayed in the media.
With no means to defend ourselves, we had no choice but to watch our execution in the court of public opinion.
At 19, I learned some very painful lessons about the manipulation of the truth, morality, fairness, the courage to stand up for what is right, and the betrayal of those who promised us they would protect us.
Even if our collective image has been unjustly tarnished, assuredly, the bonds my brothers forged with one another have become stronger than ever.
Whether our chapter has seen its own death remains to be seen, but whatever the ultimate outcome, we stand side by side. After all, my brothers are fond of saying “your ZBT Brothers will be the first ones at your funeral, and the last to leave.”
The ZBT headquarters responded to the essay by saying they couldn’t take any chances on the chapter as it was already on probation, which is why they shut it down so swiftly. They also threw in a friendly reminder that the brothers have a new hearing on July 6 for the champagne spillage, which violates their Student Conduct Code.
As the author correctly points out, there were over 70 credible threats made in the days that followed the incidents which occurred at Panama City Beach.
In fact, the author points out that he had to shave his head to avoid being targeted.
As the author also correctly notes, some of the behavior at Panama City Beach exhibited by our brothers was “embarrassing and regrettable.”
What was not pointed out was that at the time these events occurred, the chapter was already on probation imposed by the University of Florida.
Because the University and the Fraternity could not guarantee the safety of the brothers individually or collectively, a joint decision was made with the University to withdraw recognition from our chapter at the University of Florida. Since we did so, investigations into the Panama City Beach incident confirmed that members of the chapter engaged in acts that fell below the standards of ZBT.
These acts have now resulted in charges by the University of Florida for violations of their Student Conduct Code. A hearing into those charges is scheduled for July 6.
The initial decision by ZBT and UF to withdraw recognition from the chapter will stand pending the outcome of this hearing and we will continue to work with the University to fairly address these issues.
The investigations show the members of this chapter repeatedly accepted responsibility and worked to make amends for any misbehavior, and we believe that this should be a positive factor in determining the future of this chapter.
Hopefully, ZBT nationals will reopen the chapter after the hearing and the university will issue a public apology after reinstating the brothers they wrongfully expelled. I’d also like to hear an apology from Linda Cope, the founder of the Warrior Beach retreat who weaved a story of spilled champagne into a tale that ruined the lives of so many young men.
If that day comes, I’m going to pop a bottle with my brothers in celebration. You’ll probably see my face in the news for slaughtering dozens of puppies the next day..
[via The Washington Post]
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