Ohio State Marching Band’s Disturbing and Demeaning Culture

Between American Pie’s infamous flute-line and Mean Girls’ map of the cafeteria clearly pointing out the “sexually active band geeks” it is no surprise that the portrayal of marching band in popular culture lacks a certain degree of depth. The news that the Ohio State marching band’s director, Jonathan Waters, permitted a culture of programmatic sexual harassment to continue unabated casts a shadow over a collegiate subculture which in my experience was a second-family, a source of great pride, and fundamental in shaping the adult I am today.

Band rooms should be sanctuaries,” writes J. Bryan Lowder on Slate. Lowder, who credits his high school band experience with providing a safe haven for a “pretty clearly (if not yet openly) gay kid…” focuses on the disturbing misogyny and homophobia present in OSUMB’s rituals and traditions, as revealed in the university’s investigation report.

The OSUMB’s rookie midterm exam is particularly disturbing, with questions ranging from “who has the smallest wang/tits?” to “who should have an instructional manual for their genitals?” The report footnotes Urbandictionary.com as a place where definitions for some of the student nicknames, some of which were printed in a directory,  can be found. It gets worse, with clear evidence that Waters knew about and did not attempt to change the culture in any significant way.

In recent years, marching band culture has become exposed in a series of unfortunate events. In 2011, the Florida A&M “Marching 100” band made news when one of its drum majors died during a hazing ritual. I remember being disturbed then, only two years out of my final season.

Although my experience  with marching band was vastly different from those in Florida or Ohio, the seeds of disaster were certainly present. We drank at parties, told dirty jokes, and made up perverse nicknames for each other, but our youthful indiscretions occurred outside the official structures of the band. Our rookies never took a test on who in the band was gay, and thankfully, no one ever pressured me into marching in my underwear (though once all my Tubas showed up to rehearsal in the very short white boxers which nearly everyone wore under our white uniform pants.)

Marching bands seem like cults to the uninitiated. As with all cult-like groups where there is potential for solidarity, there is opportunity for abuse. The line between appropriate and inappropriate traditions is blurred by the college atmosphere and magnified by the amount of time band kids spend together both in and out of official “band time.” The desire to belong is strong. At OSU, where students audition for their spot and often dream for years of making it, that pressure has to be high.

It seems to me, Waters never grew up. He marched with the OSU band as a student, then progressed through a graduate assistantship to assistant director, and eventually to director. He never made the mental leap from internal member to external leader. Leadership is not fun, especially of a rowdy and dynamic group of young musicians. The desire to belong does not dissipate at graduation. Waters failed his band by not having the spine to deal with OSUMB’s harassment-prone and offensive culture.

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