Former Ohio State Marching Band director Jonathan Waters doesn’t want to sue the employer that fired him, the employer that’s also his alma mater. But he didn’t explicitly say he’s ruling it out.
During an interview with The Lantern over breakfast Thursday, Waters opened up about the investigation into his beloved band that ultimately found a culture entrenched in sexual harassment.
Still, Waters said he hopes he won’t have to sue the university over an investigation he said was flawed and one-sided. He refuted claims made by OSU that he was not truthful when asked if he was abusive towards students and said he tried to change the culture of the band before he knew of the investigation.
He did so over a glass of orange juice and a plate of banana bread, occasionally smiling to restaurant patrons who would stare his way. He sported a crisp charcoal suit, complete with a red tie and “Block-O” lapel pin.
The man who was once at the helm of arguably the most visually mesmerizing collegiate band in the country sat quietly in a Bob Evan’s booth, mostly speaking only when prompted by a question. He often expressed a look of uncertainty, as if he knew no matter what he said, he would still be out of the job.
Waters was fired after a report from a two-month investigation determined the band’s culture was “an environment conducive to sexual harassment,” according to a released statement from President Michael Drake last month. It concluded that Waters was either aware of, or reasonably should have been aware of, the sexual culture but did not do enough to address it or prevent it from happening.
Examples listed in the report include an annual band practice in Ohio Stadium that Waters attended where students were expected to march in only their underwear, sexually explicit nicknames that were given to new band members and a case where a female student was told to imitate a sexual act on laps of band members.
During his interview with The Lantern, Waters addressed every question that was asked, sometimes with long, premeditated-sounding answers; other times, with off-the-cuff, to-the-point responses.
His next move
Ultimately, Waters said he would like to be part of the conversation to change the band’s culture moving forward. However, the university has stood by its decision to terminate Waters.
Although he said he knows reinstatement could mean legal action, Waters didn’t explicitly say if he would press charges against OSU.
“I don’t want to have to sue the university that I love,” Waters said. “I don’t want to have to take legal action. What I want to do is clear the reputations of those students and of me and of the many alums who have come before.”
Waters hasn’t had any communication with university officials since his termination, he said, including conversations about getting his job back.
Perhaps one of the more startling examples of a sexualized culture within the band was the annual “Midnight Ramp” tradition, where students marched into Ohio Stadium wearing only their underwear.
Waters said he eventually eliminated the event in efforts to change the culture, and did so before he was aware of the investigation. Waters said he notified the band squad leaders on May 9 that midnight ramp would end. He said he didn’t learn about the investigation until early June.
The report said Waters learned of the investigation on May 26 when he was told it involved allegations about the band’s culture.
“They weren’t just notified of the cancellation, we had our ‘big talk’ about it and decided as a group,” Waters said.
That talk wasn’t just about Midnight Ramp, Waters said, but was part of a broader context that included hazing, alcohol and harassment.
Waters, who attended Midnight Ramp, said other staff members, including the OSU Police chief, have assisted with the event in some capacity for years.
“I was in the office all those years when (former director) Jon Woods would call the police chief and say, ‘next Tuesday OK for midnight ramp? Yep, OK.’ Called the stadium folks, ‘next Tuesday OK for midnight ramp? Yep.’ I did the same as director last year and I know the police were there and I know that they knew about it.”
University Police Chief Paul Denton referred The Lantern to OSU spokesman Gary Lewis. Lewis did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The abusive audio recording
Part of the investigation looked at whether Waters was “sometimes abusive towards students.” The report cited two examples of Waters yelling and cursing at students, one of which was corroborated by multiple witnesses and another that was supported by an audio recording.
That audio was recorded in September by the student being yelled at and features Waters berating a band member and using expletives.
“We told you to do something on the field and you outright disrespected (associate director Christopher Hoch) and me,” Waters said. “This will not stand. We tell you to stand on your head, and as drum major, you’ll stand on your g—— head if you want to be drum major.”
In an attempt to clear the air, Waters said his language during the meeting was out of character but was warranted after the band member verbally assaulted an associate director in front of the band during a rehearsal.
“I can’t remember verbatim what he (the band member) said, but it was jaw-droppingly disrespectful,” Waters said. “I had the entire rehearsal to stew about this and I was angry at the fact that he had verbally assaulted one of our staff so I chose the wrong words to express my anger.”
More controversy about the recording arose Tuesday when OSU released a statement via Lewis, saying Waters wasn’t forthcoming or truthful with the university. Lewis’ statement cited an example from the investigative report where Waters denied ever having yelled or cursed at students.
“I don’t believe I was dishonest in answering the question because I know myself,” Waters said. “I know who I am and I’m not a yeller or a screamer or a swearer.”
Even after all that’s come to light with the investigation, much of the public still backs Waters and argues for his reinstatement. Supporters have taken to social media, online fundraising websites and petitions in favor of the ousted director. The TBDBITL Alumni Club even said their main priority is to get Waters his job back through their own investigation.
Perhaps another humbling example of support came when the Bob Evan’s server dropped off Waters’ check. On the back said, “Jon, we stand with you! Breakfast on us.”
Eileen McClory contributed to this article.
Correction: Aug. 7, 2014
An earlier version of this article misspelled Jonathan Waters’ name once.