COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Ohio State marching band is moving forward without its director: A day after he was fired, the band is performing with the Columbus Symphony in what is often considered its unofficial season kickoff.
The university dismissed band director Jonathan Waters on Thursday after an investigation determined that he knew about and failed to stop a “sexualized” culture of rituals, including students being pressured to march in their underwear, sing lewd songs and perform sexually themed stunts that yielded often explicit nicknames.
Waters had led the 225-member band since 2012, succeeding 25-year veteran director Jon Woods. Waters’ halftime shows for what’s known to fans as “The Best Damn Band in the Land” were considered revolutionary.
Waters changed the shows by drawing them out on iPads instead of paper, directing marchers who morphed into the shapes of horses, superheroes and dinosaurs appearing to gallop, fly and tromp across the Buckeye football 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.
Ohio State President Michael Drake, on the job just three weeks, said he acted after being “profoundly disappointed and shocked” by the findings of a two-month investigation that began before his arrival.
“This is 2014, and we respect our students as young adults,” Drake said. “We respect women, and we respect all the different people who work with us, we respect that diversity. We just had to make a square-wave change between this report, which was unacceptable, and the future, which we start today.”
The report began with a parent’s complaint of “objectionable traditions and customs,” about which band members were sworn to secrecy.
They included “games” students were assigned to play to earn sexually themed nicknames: One female student had to pretend to have an orgasm while sitting on the lap of a fellow band member, her brother, and others pretended to be sex toys, prostitutes or body parts.
Investigators found Waters was aware of some students’ 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 – is called the Midnight Ramp. It involves band members stripping down to their underwear and marching in formation on the field of Ohio Stadium. Investigators found band staff and directors, including Waters, had sometimes attended.
One female student said older members of the band would warn newcomers to wear “fuller coverage” undergarments for the event; others wore pajamas or shorts, but some marched naked.
In the report, assistant director Michael Smith said he didn’t believe it when he saw it. An associate band director, Christopher Hech, said he recalled a student having alcohol poisoning at the event some years ago.
Email and phone messages were left with Waters seeking comment.
In the report, he disagreed that the band’s culture is sexualized. He said he was working to change things and it was evolving. He also suggested to investigators “that sexual innuendo is found in much of what college students do.”
A spokesman said the university was required to promptly perform the probe under federal Title IX sexual discrimination laws. The university has appointed former Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery to lead an independent follow-up review.
Drake said he is a huge fan of the band, and wants to see it get beyond these activities and carry on its tradition of excellence.
“There are an infinite number of ways that people can bond that are not really demeaning and anachronistic,” he said.