COLUMBUS (AP) — Ohio State University fired the director of its celebrated marching band on Thursday amid allegations he knew about and ignored “serious cultural issues,” some involving rituals where students were pressured to march in their underwear or participate in sexually themed stunts.
Jonathan Waters had led the band since 2012, and served in lesser capacities for a decade before that. His halftime shows for what’s known to fans as “The Best Damn Band in the Land” were considered revolutionary and drew millions of viewers on YouTube.
Email and phone messages were left with Waters and the band alumni association seeking comment. The firing was first reported by The Columbus Dispatch.
Ohio State President Michael Drake, on the job just three weeks, issued a video statement on the university website indicating a two-month investigation uncovered a “sexualized” culture inside the band and determined Waters knew about and failed to stop harassment. A spokesman said the university was required to promptly perform the probe after a parent complained, under federal Title IX sexual discrimination laws.
“Nothing is more important than the safety of our students,” Drake said. “We expect every member of our community to live up to a common standard of decency and mutual respect and to adhere to university policies.”
Many of the activities were longstanding traditions that predated Waters’ tenure as director, the report said.
The parent complaint said band members must swear secrecy oaths “about objectionable traditions and customs,” including a late-night march in which band members stripped down to their underwear. Investigators found band directors, including Waters, and staff had been present at times for the march, which predated Waters’ tenure as director. One female student said more senior members of the band warn new members about the event, and advise them to wear items that provide “fuller coverage.”
Assistant Director Michael Smith said he’d witnessed the optional underwear march — though some wear pajamas or shorts while others go completely naked, according to witnesses — and said he didn’t believe what he’d seen. An associate band director, Christopher Hech, said he recalled a student having alcohol poisoning at the event some years ago.
The report also described students earning sexually themed nicknames based on performances other band members assigned them: One female student had to pretend to orgasm while sitting on the lap of her younger brother, a fellow band member, and others pretended to be sex toys, prostitutes or body parts.
Waters started in the band as an undergraduate, playing sousaphone all four years during college. He graduated in 2000 and became a graduate assistant with the band, its assistant director and then interim director under Jon Woods, who retired two years ago after 25 years. Waters told an OSU Alumni Club gathering in Chillicothe in March is was “the greatest job in America.”
During his tenure, Waters revolutionized the band’s halftime shows through the use of iPads instead of paper, allowing students to morph into the shapes of horses, superheroes and dinosaurs galloping, flying and tromping across the field. Its technological advances 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.
Drake said the band season will go on as usual as the search for a new director begins. Members of the 225-member band are scheduled to perform this weekend with the Columbus Symphony, in an annual event considered the unofficial start of its season.
The university has appointed former Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery to lead an independent task force assigned to review the matter, which will include representatives from Ernst & Young, the Sports Conflict Institute and outside counsel to provide guidance on Title IX compliance.
Drake, the university’s first black president, said he’ll abide by a zero tolerance policy going forward: “I view this as a new day and an opportunity for the Ohio State community to come together and embrace the values and behavior that have made this University great.”