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OSU band: TBDBITL isn't unique, just too tolerant

August 4, 2014 - Paul Giannamore
The firing of Ohio State University band director Jon Waters needed to take place, but he’s neither a horrible person nor alone in being a person in authority at a college who apparently is missing something in leadership skills. Nor is the band unique in bad ways. Both are a reflection of an overly tolerant society that fakes indignation but continues to tolerate poor leadership and bad conduct.

Actually, I'm having a tough time getting righteously indignant about Waters. The report from OSU, which I read cover to cover, indicates an apparent lack of clearheaded decisionmaking I would expect from a band director. But he's not the first and unfortunately won't be the last.

Anyone who’s ever been involved with a high school band, either as a player or a parent, knows there is an element of pranksterism and limit pushing. Anyone who went to college (and unfortunately, high school) knows alcohol flows.

Anyone who ever was left to their own devices without their parents present for the first time in their lives knows the tendency is there to assume limits no longer exist, and those that do are there for the crossing, just to see how far one can cross them.

But for some reason, as I read the report, I didn't envision band directors I've known. All I could see and hear of Waters was McLean Stevenson’s Henry Blake of the TV version of “M*A*S*H,” muttering half-hearted yes-sirs and standing there with his hook-laced fishing cap perched atop his head, but with an Ohio State jersey replacing Blake’s Illini sweater.

It’s no shock to me that band geeks at big schools party, are bawdy, rowdy and like to have some politically incorrect fun. That’s not really an issue. The issue is how much the organization should tolerate of such conduct and that involves having someone in charge to be sure the organization knows when fun and spirit become malevolent and mean-spirited.

Waters simply didn’t act in an authoritative manner, at least according to the report from OSU.

I’m not talking about bawdy nicknames bestowed on band members by fellow bandmates. That stuff goes on, maybe too far in this case but it goes on. More important is that Waters acknowledged those nicknames at all.

In these over-sensitive times, it should have been assumed it would only be a matter of time before some parent went ballistic over the contents of the alternate songbook, timeless tradition or not. That thing is just plain intolerably bad if it’s tolerated by the organization. Period.

Bands have a spirit to them that is at its heart about fun. And part of that spirit is things like the band bus "underground" newsletter, frowned upon by the director who is often lampooned within the publication. But the director also has to maintain that directoral -- dictatorial if needed -- air of being above it all and in charge.

What strikes me is the same thing that struck me about Jim Tressel. Leadership qualities of the person in charge seemed to selectively vanish.

The issues here went beyond fun or even mean-spiritedness. There is an allegation of sexual assault hanging over the band, and alcohol abuse.

And if it was a matter of a few kids, as band supporters will say in defense of their organization, then the director needed to be the new sheriff in town. Waters response was, over and over again in the university’s report, to say he talked with section leaders in the band about questionable policies and activites and asked about their need to continue. He spoke of a band culture in transition.

Great corporatespeak for Mary Barra and the gazillion employees of GM spread around the globe. Not so much so for a person who should be an educator and coach first and foremost to a couple hundred young people at a time and who had a couple years to institute real change.

If a culture needs changing in a relatively small organization where an autocratic flowchart puts the head person in charge, then the culture should be changed easily. The word “No” is often what helps change culture.

So, when the underwear march is deemed troublesome, it should be stopped, not supervised. If a longtime band volunteer is complaining, after nearly two decades of service to the band, about the language and attitude on trips, then it’s time for a talk. Or a little forced marching. Or whatever it takes to get the culture changed ASAP.

We’d all be fools to think kids would suddenly become politically correct and stop getting drunk at college, or that young men and young women will suddenly stop the sexual innuendo stuff.

But the organization must frown on that and try to implement order, not just smile and wink and supervise the shenanigans. Maybe that, and not just at Ohio State but everywhere in culture, from families to boardrooms, might just stop the shock-for-shock’s-value culture we live in.

Waters will be employed again elsewhere, and rightly so given his talents. Hopefully, he’ll be a bit wiser.


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