ED AND KAREN CROCKETT Enlarge
COLUMBUS — In the worst days of his professional life, Jon Waters was dazed, devastated, and ... inspired.
When the Elmore native was fired as director of the famed Ohio State marching band last month, he did not ache alone.
“The support from my friends in Toledo and especially Elmore has been really unbelievable,” Mr. Waters told The Blade. “The outpouring of compassion and support and love was something I never experienced before on this level.
“I know everybody has been supportive of me in the position. But when the worst happened, everybody’s support just tripled. It was just amazing. I’m so heartened by all of my friends’ support we’re getting at this terrible time. I lost my dream job. That was my dream job.”
Mr. Waters finds himself these days in an alternate universe: Entrenched in a battle against the school that he loves.
Ohio State officials and Mr. Waters’ legal counsel have spent the last two weeks trading digs surrounding an alleged deep-rooted culture of sexual harassment within the band. Now Mr. Waters himself is speaking out against a 23-page university report he calls “biased and inaccurate.”
As for what’s next, he is unsure. Amid a swell of support — which includes a push from the OSU band’s alumni association to reinstate him and a petition with more than 11,000 signatures — Mr. Waters said he would like his former job back. But he said he does not want to pursue litigation.
“I don’t want to have to sue Ohio State,” he said. “I love the university.” Nor does he want to interfere in any way with the band’s upcoming season.
With tryouts for the 225-member band days away, the university this week appointed two music professors, Russel Mikkelson and Scott Jones, as interim directors.
“The band will continue to march on,” Mr. Waters said. “My baton doesn’t make any music. It’s all the students who do what we do on the field. The band will continue on. I have no idea of any kind of boycott. That’s kind of far-fetched. I love the students, and they need to represent themselves with integrity.”
For now, Mr. Waters, 38, who brought the institution known as The Best Damn Band in the Land unprecedented accolades and attention during his two years as director, said he wants to “set the record straight.”
Ohio State’s two-month investigation of the band portrayed a sexualized environment filled with explicit traditions, stunts, nicknames, and rookie hazing. The report said Mr. Waters “knew or reasonably should have known about this culture but failed to eliminate the sexual harassment, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects.”
Changing the culture
Mr. Waters acknowledged the cultural problems but said he was part of the solution.
“I know I can look at myself in the mirror and know the work that I did there for culture shaping and culture change was positive,” he said. “I can say without reservation that I did more work in that regard more quickly than anyone else had in the history of the band.”
Mr. Waters said he began to initiate sweeping changes when he took over in 2012 after a decade as assistant director. He said he eliminated the sexually offensive nicknames, ended a vulgar underground band newspaper — Trip Tic — sent the entire band to sexual harassment and abuse training, and upended a caste system.
He also eliminated the band’s “Midnight Ramp” entrance, though the university said the edict came only after the start of the investigation. As part of the annual event, band members marched into Ohio Stadium wearing only their underwear — and were sometimes nude.
Asked why he did not end the tradition sooner, Mr. Waters said, “That is something that I’ve thought of for a while.”
“I thought, ‘You know, is it really appropriate that we’re going down the ramp in our underwear?’ ” Mr. Waters said. “I’ve thought this for a couple of years. This thing started in 1966, so well before I was born, and it was an entrenched tradition in the band. It was part of entrenched culture. You can’t necessarily have a knee-jerk reaction. I started talking to our squad leaders about ending this ‘Midnight Ramp’ thing over a year ago.”
Difference of opinion
Mr. Waters, however, called it disingenuous for the report to cast the ramp entrance as a tradition cloaked in secrecy. As long as he can remember, Mr. Waters said the band director has alerted university police and Ohio Stadium staff in preparation for the event.
“For the university to not know about it is just not true,” Mr. Waters said.
A university spokesman did not directly address the claim when asked Thursday, saying only that the university stands behind its decision to terminate Mr. Waters. In a statement, spokesman Gary Lewis wrote, “The former director has yet to produce any factual examples that demonstrate any tangible attempts to change the band culture.”
Mr. Lewis also said Mr. Waters was not always truthful with university investigators, citing his initial denial that he had ever “screamed or cursed” at a student. The university released a surreptitious recording of Mr. Waters sternly addressing a drum major — a rebuke that included five profanities but would not have received a second thought in, say, a football locker room.
“I said what I said in a moment of anger, and I’m not proud of what I said,” Mr. Waters said. “I’m not proud of the words that I used to express my anger. The student had violated band policy, probably four or five times, and this event, the final straw, was the fact that he assaulted our associate director verbally on the field.”
Mr. Waters questions why the university interviewed only four of 240 current band members, including the student whose parent spurred the investigation. Scores of other students in the band have voiced support for Mr. Waters. In all, Mr. Waters said thousands of friends, former and current band members, colleagues, and supporters have deluged him with calls, messages, and cards.
In a statement, Mr. Waters’ lawyer, David Axelrod, said, “The university found no tangible evidence of cultural change because it conveniently chose not to look.”
‘I’m still in shock’
Mr. Waters, meanwhile, remains in a haze. The native son who grew from a boy dreaming of dotting the “i” in “Script Ohio” to the OSU band’s ninth director in 135 years said he has prayed a lot lately.
“I was in a wonderful place in my life,” Mr. Waters said. “I have three wonderful kids whom I still have and will always love, and a wonderful wife whom I love and has been so very supportive to me. But part of the uniqueness of my job was that I put my very soul into it. We in the arts community and the music community, we put our souls into the job. It does indeed define us, and I just can’t see myself doing other types of things.
“This has been my whole life. My very soul has been wrapped around the Ohio State marching band, and to think about trying to do something else right now is really difficult. When you invest yourself so heavily into an organization, and then to have that change so abruptly and in such a terrible manner, your whole system, your whole understanding of fairness and justice and what is right and wrong is attacked and assaulted. This was not just a job to me. It was a way of life. It was a devotion, it was a labor of love, and I am just still ... ”
Mr. Waters paused.
“I get emotional still,” he said. “I’m still in shock, really. I don’t know what more I can say.”