Ohio State’s marching band culture: Innocent fun or abuse?

Director fired over situation.
TNS Regional News
Jul 27, 2014

 

Nicknames that make you blush. Raunchy jokes. Gay-bashing songs. Marching in underwear.

Some of it is silly shenanigans, maybe.

All of it was, by many accounts, the Ohio State University marching band way. Fun.

But beneath the high jinks that investigators found were part-and-parcel of being a band member runs a darker undercurrent that surfaced in serious ways. It was more than silly, investigators discovered: A student reported being raped. Band leaders mishandled a report of sexual harassment. Alcohol abuse ran rampant and, at times, became dangerous.

OSU investigators revealed those details in a report that led to the firing of band director Jonathan Waters last week and described what the report called a "sexualized" culture in the band.

Many of the starkest revelations, though, are footnotes to the extensive list of traditions that some found offensive. Words such as hazing and abuse are mostly absent, but experts said they apply here.

"I see the events clearly within the category of hazing," said Elizabeth Allan, a professor at the University of Maine and head of the National Collaborative for Hazing Research and Prevention.

Waters has declined to comment, but his attorney said the ousted director plans to defend his name.

An online petition asking OSU to reinstate Waters rapidly gained hundreds of backers yesterday. At Saturday night's Picnic With the Pops concert Downtown, dozens of supporters flashed signs supporting Waters and a plane flew over pulling a "We stand with Jon" banner.

Investigators found that Waters failed to schedule sexual-harassment training after he bungled a complaint from a female student in the athletic band. He tried to exclude both the woman and the male student from a band trip. Legal officials at Ohio State stopped Waters, saying the punishment could be seen as retaliation against a victim and would violate federal laws.

Only months later, a conduct board at Ohio State expelled a member of the marching band after finding that he had sexually assaulted a female band member. In a band of 225 students, there have been at least three complaints of sexual assault or harassment in the past three years.

There's a common root, several experts said, linking the daily jibes that might pass without harm and the serious offenses that leave wounds.

"The 'smaller' kinds of offenses can set the stage for the escalation," Allan said. "I think that they hit the nail on the head when they talked about this idea of it being a culture."

Ohio State started investigating two months ago after a band member's mother complained about that culture. Investigators found that many of the worst traditions have been around for decades, even though there appeared to be few complaints. In these types of cases, researchers said, students often tolerate discomfort with obscene traditions in exchange for being part of a prestigious group.

It is, after all, known as "The Best Damn Band in the Land" -- with a capital T on the -- and TBDBITL, an equally familiar moniker among members and alumni. Students took oaths to keep its traditions secret.

"There's a powerful need to belong," said Hank Nuwer, a professor at Franklin College, near Indianapolis, who has researched and written books on hazing. "There is a need to be in a group and to have camaraderie, and none of us can get enough of that kind of familiar support."

But the culture at Ohio State has evolved differently from that at other schools. Many bands excluded women before federal rules banned gender discrimination in the 1970s, but since then, other Big Ten schools have moved toward a balance of men and women. At several, it's close to an even split. At the University of Michigan, there are just as many women as men.

At Ohio State, just 1 out of every 5 members is a woman.

It's no coincidence, some hazing experts said, that much of the harassment is aimed at women. Some female band members have been urged to imitate sex acts. They were given nicknames that poked at their gender -- Boob Job, Sugar Bush.

"In environments that are male-dominated, women are often faced with sexual harassment, being excluded from study groups. It's surely a factor," said Lara Kaufmann, the senior counsel and director of education policy for at-risk students at the National Women's Law Center in Washington, D.C.

"The problem is it perpetuates the disparity. If women don't feel welcome in these sorts of opportunities, they just aren't going to participate," she said.

Jany Sabins joined the OSU band as a snare drummer in 1975, two years after women were first allowed. The reports of lewd behavior this week evoked memories from her time marching. She, too, had the "unofficial" songbook that replaced school fight songs with gay-bashing lyrics.

"That's where I learned about sexism," Sabins, 56, said. Every year, men challenged her rank in the band -- through a one-on-one musical competition, students can improve their rank or bump others to the sideline. Women rarely became squad leaders. But like dozens of other former band members, she defended the culture of the band, flawed as it was, and Waters, too.

"We worked very hard, and the play was hard, too," said Sabins, who now lives near Newark, N.J. " They had hazing that went on, but I never felt threatened by anyone."

Even recently, many embraced the nicknames. Sometimes their parents did, too.

"Her nickname was 'Jugs,' and her mom got a shirt that said 'Mama Jugs,'??" said Chris Riggins, 33, a band member from 2000 to 2004, remembering a band-mate. "They were accepting of it."

Meredith Murray said she knew that men would outnumber women when she joined the band in 2003. It was daunting.

"Much to my surprise, I was treated with respect and dignity. The men in my row were fiercely protective of me and insisted that I was never to do anything I felt uncomfortable with," Murray wrote in an email to The Dispatch. "These people became my second family and I trusted them completely." Others say it's unfair that Waters, who directed the band for two years, is taking the fall for traditions that span decades.

His assistants said that no one worked harder than Waters to change the culture, according to the report. Waters was known as the "fun police" among students, past members said.

And the dirty traditions were alive and well, many said, for the 25 years that Jon Woods was in charge. They were around before Woods, too, during the 13 years that Paul Droste was chief.

Calls to both of them have gone unanswered since Waters was fired.

OSU President Dr. Michael V. Drake said he can't fix the past.

But at a time when colleges face pressure to be tougher against sexual harassment, Drake said leaders had to act. Federal Title IX rules require them to investigate and reach a conclusion within 60 days. Ohio State is planning a second, wider inquiry of the band in case the first one missed anything.

Such struggles aren't unique to the band.

Ohio State fired two assistant cheerleading coaches last year after one reportedly tapped guys on the testicles and sent sexually explicit messages to a student. The other was fired for making obscene remarks to students. But even after the firings, the head coach, Lenee Buchman, failed to keep them away from students, officials found. They fired her after learning that.

Hazing in college is most prevalent among sports teams and social fraternities and sororities, Allan, the Maine professor, found in a 2008 study. But marching bands and other performing-arts groups weren't far behind. Among students surveyed in those groups, 56 percent said they had been hazed at least once.

The University of Wisconsin suspended its band in 2008 to investigate some of the same allegations Ohio State faces. Alcohol abuse. Hazing. Sexual misconduct. At Florida A&M University, the drum major was beaten to death by band-mates in 2011 as part of a hazing ritual.

Defenders of the OSU band are quick to point out that no one died here.

But that didn't matter to those investigating the OSU complaint. They had one central task under federal rules -- to find out whether students in the band here were safe.

At least some students, they found, were not.

It was tradition: New members had to board the band bus and run down the aisle. They ran, investigators said, to avoid having their clothes torn off by the upperclassmen, whose outstretched arms grabbed at them as they zipped by.

Members were asked to rank one another by penis size or make lists of others they'd like to have sex with, or kill.

Some of the traditions were silly, maybe.

But it wasn't all fun. Not for everyone.

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By Collin Binkley - The Columbus Dispatch (MCT); Dispatch Reporter Jennifer Smith Richards contributed to this story.

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