Having forced out a beloved football coach and watched its president retire after a series of verbal gaffes, Ohio State University again finds itself grabbing headlines with the firing of a celebrated marching band director accused of ignoring a “sexualized” culture of rituals among band members.
The university dismissed Jonathan Waters on Thursday after a two-month investigation concluded that he knew about but failed to stop rituals that included students being pressured to march in their underwear, sing lewd songs, and perform sexually themed stunts that yielded often explicit nicknames.
The investigation began with a parent’s complaint of “objectionable traditions and customs,” about which band members were sworn to secrecy.
Waters’ attorney, David Axelrod, said Friday the report denigrates Waters’ efforts to change the band’s culture. He said Waters, band director since 2012, met with the provost earlier this month, agreed to have a “zero-tolerance policy” and a “cultural assessment” of the band, and left the meeting thinking he’d keep his job.
Waters later was given a choice between quitting or being fired and didn’t resign because he doesn’t believe he acted improperly, Axelrod said. He said they'll fight to clear Waters’ name and are considering their options for that. He also questions why the school interviewed relatively few band members.
Meanwhile, the band marched on, performing Friday night with the Columbus Symphony in what is often considered its unofficial season kickoff. Some attendees told WBNS-TV in Columbus they were saddened by the turn of events and came out to support the band. Others said they still support Waters.
And current Buckeyes, alumni and other fans are again debating whether the school made the right move. Some did the same when coach Jim Tressel was forced out in 2011 after players sold memorabilia for cash and tattoos, or when Gordon Gee retired as president last summer after jabs he made at Roman Catholics and Southeastern Conference schools were publicized, or even when the school terminated the cheerleading coach and two assistants over sexual harassment allegations last year.
Some supporters depict Waters as a scapegoat, while others contend the university took appropriate action to address an unacceptable environment.
“Is he being held responsible for behavior that has been going on for decades? Yes, absolutely,” said alumnus Bob Stephens of Seguin, Texas, who said he witnessed some of the behaviors referenced in the report when he was in the band in the late 1980s.
“However, as the director, the buck stops with him,” Stephens said.
Waters became leader of the 225-member band, known to fans as “The Best Damn Band in the Land,” in 2012, succeeding 25-year veteran director Jon Woods.
Waters’ halftime shows, created on iPads instead of paper, were considered revolutionary. The marchers would morph into the shapes of horses, superheroes and dinosaurs appearing to gallop, fly and tromp across the Buckeye football field. Some of the videos landed the band in an Apple commercial in January. One performance in which the band takes the shape of a moonwalking Michael Jackson has more than 10 million views on YouTube.
“He’s done things for the marching band we’ve never seen before. He brought the Ohio State Marching Band to national fame,” said Cody Hawkins, an incoming freshman from Massillon who plans to try out for the band and considers Waters’ firing “a knee-jerk reaction.”
“Some of the stuff (in the report) is inappropriate and uncalled for, but they are college kids,” said Hawkins, 18.
New Ohio State President Michael Drake said he was shocked by the findings of the investigation, which started before he arrived.
They included “games” students were assigned to play to earn sexually themed nicknames, and one female student had to pretend to have an orgasm while sitting on the lap of a fellow band member, her brother. Investigators found Waters was aware of some nicknames and allegedly used them “when he was upset,” but he is also reported to have advised students against the monikers.
Another tradition, described as optional, involved band members marching in their underwear or even naked on the field of Ohio Stadium. Investigators found directors, including Waters, sometimes attended.
The report said the school also investigated concerns that Waters cursed at students. A student provided an audio recording of Waters yelling and cursing in a private meeting after a disagreement during practice in September. The report did not elaborate on the context of that disagreement but noted that Waters and an associate director who was in the meeting said the student had a history of “attitude problems.”
A spokesman said the university was required to promptly perform its investigation of the band under federal Title IX sexual discrimination laws. Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery will lead an independent follow-up review.