Our Honor Defend

The truth about the culture of the Ohio State marching band.

I had the privilege of spending five years in The Best Damn Band in the Land, The Ohio State University Marching Band. I was a bass (aka sousaphone or tuba) player from 1986 through 1990, and also had the privilege of dotting the “i” in the Script Ohio twice.

We now know that the investigation which cost Jon Waters his job was sparked by a sexual assault, perpetrated by one member of the band against another. This is a tragic occurrence, and one that is outside of anything that I’m aware of that happened in my time with the band.

This incident didn’t lead directly to Jon Waters firing. Based on available reports, he handled the situation completely according to university policy. Connections I have within the band tell me that he also took quick and decisive action internally even before the University had held a hearing which lead to the student’s expulsion. No one is alleging there was a problem in how this was handled. Instead, Jon Waters was fired based on an investigation that was triggered by this incident, which claimed that the bands’ culture was so toxic that such incidents were inevitable.

A band like Ohio State’s lives—and dies—on tradition. Traditions like the Script Ohio. Many of the traditions are formal, like our marching style, with a high-knee lift and sharp snap. We memorize all new music for new shows every home game, so we had no floppy charts bolted onto (and falling off of) our horns. We are kept on our toes through a system of extra marchers, called alternates, waiting to take the spot of anyone who has failed to memorize their music, or has let their marching skills slip. We’ve all been through a grueling tryout process every single year we’ve marched. This process kept me out of the band twice before I finally learned what hard work meant.

There are also informal traditions, things that are simply part of the culture that has grown up in the past 136 years. Like the running joke of “back when I was in the band”, an irresistible phrase to all band alumni who lament how much the band has gone downhill in recent years, and how much better we used to do it. Right from the start, Jon Waters was one to both honor tradition and break with it, because when we look at the shows he’s done, we find ourselves thinking, or even saying “back when I was in the band, our shows were never that good”.

But because of the scandal that’s erupted, many people have heard of some of our other, more private traditions.

Traditions like the Midnight Ramp, where the band takes the field at midnight and performs our standard pregame stadium entrance… in our underwear. This was not a mandatory event—out of my five years, I only did this three times, and skipped it my first (rookie) year.

This is not unlike a great many college traditions at a great many schools. A quick check on Google for “college streaking” or “undie run” yields a very long list of such things. Such traditions are standard fare now, and have been for at least 50 years, if not much much longer. Of course this is not to say it is no problem. Some campuses have cracked down on these traditions, seeking to eliminate them. However others have formalized them, and even turned them into fund raisers. Purdue added an official undie run only two years ago.

But we actually don’t have to look past Ohio State to see how a university responds to such behavior. The Mirror Lake Jump at Ohio State is a tradition where students strip to varying degrees and jump in the freezing cold Mirror Lake before the game with the School Up North. Rather than firing anyone for this, or telling the students it had to end, in 2013 Ohio State issued wrist bands to allow attendance at this event.

(Between the two, Midnight Ramp is the much safer event, involving the possibility of neither drowning, nor hypothermia.)

This is an example of the real problem behind the firing of Jon Waters. At first glance, that report seems shocking. But when you take a closer look, the report is all flash and no substance.

For example, a big part of the report is dedicated to the nicknames. The report leaves you with a feeling of mean-spirited and degrading behavior. My nickname was given to me the day after I made it into the band. Like almost all nicknames, it was never used again. But in fact, some of the nicknames did make people truly uncomfortable. And in those cases, a new nickname was quickly chosen by the more senior members (and again, most of the time forgotten). This part of our culture is not described in the report: that behind the lowbrow humor, people were careful, because the goal was to unite us as an organization, not push people away.

The songbooks are another example of flash rather than substance. What the report shows is, again, the disturbing humor of young adults. It does not mention that these songbooks are standard fare at a great many university marching bands. In fact, several of the songs were written by other university bands and passed on to us.

These songs were important to me. I still know some of the lyrics by heart. However I’m fully aware that they were not important to everyone. One of the other bass players who came into the band the same year I did was fairly religious, didn’t drink, and didn’t swear. Ever. He did not participate in the singing.

Was he singled out? Well, eventually he would be nominated by the other bass players to be one of our squad leaders, so yes, he was singled out. Singled out for an honor many of us, including myself, wanted. He was singled out as being trusted by everyone. And he was singled out as someone who was deeply committed to our traditions, even among us. Seeing how he melded with what the report claims is a toxic culture, and which was definitely a tough fit for him, was for me an incredibly powerful life lesson about fitting in while maintaining your own identity. And about the value of remaining calm and confident. This is the the true culture I found in the marching band, a culture not described at all in the investigation report.

And something else from the songbook included in the report stands out to me:

From the band songbook

If you treat this as a timeline and then mentally add the hiring of Jon Waters as band director (2012), and his subsequent firing (2014), it begins to seem a bit ridiculous that he is being held responsible for such long term cultural issues.

Yet another lurid detail from the report was the changing of clothes on the buses. This happened. It also happened in my high school band. And in countless other bands, and drama clubs in high schools and colleges where rapid costume changes are needed. It’s just one more detail thrown in that makes our band sound like some bad fraternity movie. But again, it’s flash rather than substance. The substance behind this bit of flash is important.

I was never the most comfortable guy getting undressed in front of anyone. But all I ever experienced in this practice was a sense of professionalism. This might sound crazy if you haven’t been there. But we weren’t stripping because it’s fun, or humiliating, or even a rite of passage. We were stripping because we had a job, and bus rides were uncomfortable, and our uniforms were more uncomfortable, and the uniforms needed to be in the best condition possible, which doesn’t happen if we’re sweating in them for six hours on a bus.

This was a hugely important life lesson for me. The goal was the job. The goal was to do the best job you possibly could. We were all there to do a job, to uphold a tradition. There were jokes, sure. But my own experience was that I sat in the window seat in a high-backed bus chair, with another guy on the aisle, and I changed clothes, and pretty much nobody could see anything. And then we’d switch seats and he changed clothes. Some rows backwards or forwards there were women doing the same thing. The lessons I learned in this supposed culture of inevitable harassment were lessons of respect. Self-respect. Respect for others. Respect for the work ethic. Respect for the band and the tradition. This is all missing from the investigation report.

Was there hazing in my day? I suppose it depends on what you mean. I do remember things that were asked of me, things that would be considered hazing. And in every single case, I remember a squad leader or other senior member making sure we understand that these things were optional. And I remember that almost always, members opted out of various rituals, and sometimes I did. This was always ok. The band was always a safe place. This is central to what I remember about the culture of the marching band, and yet the report doesn’t mention this at all. Member after member is stepping forward and describing the band in the same way.

The report lists a few tawdry details, which are more or less true, but presented completely out of context. I remember the culture of the marching band as one of the best functioning cultures of any institution with which I’ve been a member. And yet this is all missing from the report.

But of all the things that are missing from the report, the most important thing is any actual wrongdoing on the part of Jon Waters. The worst they can say is that he knew, or should have known, that college students enjoy crude humor. Or that college students go to parties and drink. Or that, tragically, young adults sometimes make what will be the worst mistake of their lives while in college.

There’s no evidence of widespread student problems. There’s no evidence of a cover-up. All the presented evidence in fact points in the opposite direction: Waters handled the incident at the start of this report quickly and decisively, and in full accordance with University policy. And Waters was taking reasonable steps even prior to this to address any potential issues that could arise from the relatively benign culture he inherited, to insure the safety of the students.

For example, in his very short tenure of two years, he had already taken significant steps to curb Midnight Ramp. It’s hard to describe to an outsider how difficult this would be. The members of the band defend every tradition, and I’m sure the band was most displeased by Jon Waters’ efforts. But he was defending the honor of the band and the university, a part of his job which he obviously took seriously.

It should be obvious based on the evidence in front of us that the firing had nothing to do with Jon Waters, or what he did or did not do.

President Michael V. Drake was not protecting the students in the marching band, because he had no evidence they were actually in danger. Instead, I believe he was worried that the report as it was written was a gift-wrapped package for the modern media. He had a report that was only about flash, and the press lives for flash. He was simply trying to make the report disappear from the media, by throwing the press the nearest scapegoat that was handy.

To be fair, President Drake does not have an easy job. We are warned to “judge not, lest we be judged”. Nevertheless, it is in fact the job of university presidents to pass judgement when needed, and to take quick and decisive action. Other universities have faced serious and even tragic issues where quick and decisive action was necessary.

However, such decisive action is necessary only when there is a real problem to be solved, such as the one Jon Waters actually faced and handled correctly. Passing judgement against a group based solely on the style in which they operate is decidedly not in the President’s job description. In fact this form of judgement goes by a very different name: intolerance.

The title of this article, “Our Honor Defend”, is a line from the Buckeye Battle Cry, the song played by the band during our ramp entrance at pregame, and sung by the band at the end of Script Ohio, while the bass player plays his part solo, as Jon Waters did at the Ohio State-Michigan game in 1998.

By all available evidence, Jon Waters, the most promising and influential marching band directory in the nation, has behaved honorably, and has worked to defend the honor of the The Ohio State University, and the band, and its members.

President Drake on the other hand has not defended the honor of the institution, and in fact has dishonored it. He has ended the career of a hard working innovator who has brought great honor to the institution, in the absence of any real signs of wrongdoing, solely in the hopes of avoiding embarrassment that from the beginning was based solely on flash and on intolerance, not on substance.

“Our Honor Defend” is clearly a phrase that is understood by Jon Waters, but is not understood by our President Drake.

In other words, Jon Waters is a Buckeye. Michael V. Drake, sadly, is not.

There are two paths we can go from here. In the most likely path, President Drake will continue with his posturing that the problem was real and the firing was necessary. That means he’ll have to hire a replacement for Jon Waters, and he’ll have to foist this posturing on the replacement. They will not be a Buckeye. They will be someone who does not understand or respect the tradition of the band. In short, their job will be to dismantle the organization and rebuild it from scratch.

What other choice is there? If you pretend that this culture was so toxic that it merited firing someone after only two years, then you have to pretend that the entire culture must be eliminated. This protectionist pretense can only mean the end of the band.

It is still possible to undo the wrong. The president can admit he overreacted, hire back Jon Waters, and closely monitor the situation, to make sure it is as benign as I and countless other band alumni and current members are saying. This won’t be an easy path, but it will allow the 136 year old band to continue. The only way this can happen is if the faculty, students, and alumni of the university are willing to make it happen. You have to be willing to defend our honor.

If you consider yourself a true Buckeye, below are a couple of ways you can help defend the honor of the band, the director, and the university.

Petition to reinstate John Waters

Fundraiser campaign, #iStandWithJonWaters

Another excerpt from our songbook.

Background image: Jon Waters dots the “i”, pregame show in 1998 vs. Michigan