Marching in Place: Jon Waters Wants His Job Back

Michelle Sullivan

One sentence changed Jon Waters' life forever.

On the morning of July 23, 2014, Waters, director of Ohio State University's marching band, reported to Provost Joseph Steinmetz's office for a meeting that had been scheduled the afternoon before. Waters was outside Cleveland when he took the call from Steinmetz's secretary asking him to meet with the provost at 9:30 a.m. the next day. Waters and a bus full of students had traveled upstate to tour an Eastlake factory that manufactures the brass instruments many band members play. Before they left for the day, a group of students pulled a few freshly minted instruments off the lathe and played for the assembly line workers, who had gathered around in their Ohio State T-shirts and hats to clap and cheer for the musicians. Waters beamed with pride.

On the ride back to Columbus that evening, Waters' mind drifted to his appointment the next morning. He'd already had several conversations that year with Steinmetz about various band issues. They'd briefly discussed conducting a survey of the band's culture in connection with a nationwide U.S. Department of Education investigation regarding universities' handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints. Then, in May, university administrators had informed Waters that the parent of a former band student had complained to the university the band's culture was sexualized and members were pressured to swear secrecy oaths about traditions and rituals. In June, the university conducted an internal investigation in light of those claims. Waters was interviewed a couple of times, but he never worried-neither he, nor anyone in the band, had anything to hide. Still, as he drove south on Interstate 71, a pit slowly forming in his gut, he took comfort in his decision just a few days earlier to hire a lawyer.

The next morning, Waters and his new attorney made their way to Bricker Hall, where they found Steinmetz in his office, flanked by university lawyers and employees from the human resources department. That's not a good sign, Waters thought to himself.

Steinmetz addressed him: "The president, in consultation with members of the board of trustees, feels you are not fit to lead the marching band."

Those words, spoken impassively as a matter of fact, were followed by an ultimatum: Resign by 5 p.m. today or be fired. Waters chose to be fired, effective the following morning.

First came shock, then disbelief, then choking devastation. The heartbreak wouldn't set in until later, after he realized the decision was final.

"That job was my dream job," Waters says. "I had worked so hard to get there. We had done such great things as a group of students and leaders that I just couldn't understand how and why the world was falling around me."

Waters stood up and shuffled into the hall. As campus security escorted him from the building, he sent a text message to his wife. Waters had been a Buckeye since he entered the university as a freshman in 1994. He'd never even held a job outside the university. Dejected and unemployed, Waters walked across the Oval as a campus visitor for the first time in 20 years.

it's been more than a year since Waters, 38, was ousted after a two-month internal investigation found the band's culture facilitated sexual harassment. The decision made local and national headlines. He recently began working as a financial planner at an advising firm in Dublin. He'd spent months searching for a job in music education, sending letters to nearly every major university in the nation. The few that replied didn't disguise their apprehension.

The day after Waters' dismissal, the university posted the findings of the Office of Compliance's investigation, which was launched in response to the mother's accusations against Waters and the band. The 23-page report, known as the Glaros Report (assistant vice president of compliance operations and investigation Chris Glaros headed the investigation), explained in detail various band traditions and rituals, including sexually explicit nicknames, a songbook containing misogynist and otherwise sexual lyrics and sexually explicit "rookie introductions" on bus trips. It also detailed accusations leveled in fall 2013 of one band member sexually assaulting another. (The accused attacker was expelled.)

Two weeks before Waters was fired, Steinmetz informed him the results of the university's investigation into the band's culture were "not good," but Waters could keep his job if he enacted a zero-tolerance policy against sexual harassment. Waters agreed. Though Steinmetz referred to the Glaros report in that meeting, Waters didn't see a copy of the report until after he was fired. To say it doesn't favor him is a gross understatement.

Investigators concluded the band's culture created a hostile environment for students, and that Waters knew or should have known about it. Waters failed to eliminate the sexual harassment, prevent its recurrence and address its effects, investigators concluded.

"I was ultimately very shocked and surprised by the Glaros report," Waters says, "because it painted the band in such a false light, and painted me in a false light, as well."

In August, the university commissioned a follow-up investigation led by former Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery. Her findings, released in November in a 92-page report, echoed much of what was outlined in the Glaros report and confirmed that, for decades, the university had failed to address alcohol abuse and a sexualized culture in the band. In response, a group of band alumni issued their own report, featuring interviews with former students and school administrators, in defense of Waters. A spokesman for Ohio State declined to comment for this story, referring me to previous comments he and other spokesmen for the university had made to other media outlets.

After the university denied his request for a public name-clearing hearing, Waters filed a $1 million lawsuit in federal court last September against Ohio State, university president Michael Drake and Steinmetz. He made two claims: The university violated his right to due process by failing to provide him notice and an opportunity to defend himself before he was fired (thus damaging his reputation), and the university discriminated against him based on his gender. He claimed a female employee in a similar situation had been disciplined less harshly. In April, U.S. District Judge James Graham issued an order dismissing Water's due process claim but granting his discrimination claim under Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in higher education institutions.

In May, Waters filed another lawsuit against the university, this time in state court. In this case, he seeks $3 million on a claim the university defamed him by publishing false information about him in the Glaros report. Both cases are still in litigation.

Without his income for nearly a year and with ever-mounting legal fees, Waters and his wife, Molly, were forced to sell their spacious house in a Galena cul-de-sac and move into a smaller house in Delaware with their three young children. There's no good way to prepare your kids for coming home from school one day and seeing the for sale sign in the yard, he says.

And, even though they're accumulating, bills aren't what worry him the most. "The biggest thing for me is finding relevance and meaning in my work life again," Waters says. "I often said the success of the Ohio State marching band is not about the Ohio State marching band. It's about the perpetuation of the art; and if it inspired some third-grade girl or fifth-grade boy to want to play an instrument, then we've done our job."

waters knows firsthand the effect music can have on a child's life. He was a sixth grader from Elmore, Ohio, the first time he saw Ohio State's marching band perform live.

"I was just enamored by it," says Waters, who hadn't touched an instrument before but took up the saxophone immediately. He told his dad that one day he'd dot the "I" in the band's famous Script Ohio formation, an honor afforded to one student each game. "My dad told me, 'Well, you play the wrong instrument for that,' " Waters recalls. So he picked up a tuba instead.

An eager incoming Ohio State freshman in 1994, Waters tried out for the marching band. He didn't make the cut.

He made a second-this time successful-attempt his sophomore year. Like he told his dad he would, Waters dotted the "I" in 1998. In 2000, he graduated with a degree in music performance and music education but remained with the band as a graduate assistant until 2002, when he was promoted to assistant director. A decade later, after longtime director Jon Woods retired, Waters took the reins. The band had already earned a reputation for revolutionizing college football halftime shows. That notoriety was only amplified under Waters, who staged increasingly elaborate performances. A video of the band's 2012 interpretation of classic video games went viral, and its 2013 tribute to Michael Jackson-moonwalk and white glove and all-is still one of the band's most buzzed-about shows.

Ohio State's marching band, also known as The Best Damn Band in the Land, was founded in 1878 as a military drum band. In 1934, it became an all brass and percussion ensemble and is widely credited for several marching band innovations, including script writing, a fast tempo and their signature high-knee march. Today, it's the world's largest brass and percussion marching band, with 225 members.

Like any organization with deep roots, the marching band is steeped in tradition. And, as anyone who has spent time with college students in their late teens and early 20s might guess, many of these traditions involve crude jokes, innuendo and other shenanigans. Most have been passed down, growing more outdated and obscene with each passing year. Waters would have been the first to admit the band's culture needed reforming when he took over as director.

"My brand of culture change was that students need to see the problem themselves and then see themselves as being engaged and being the solution to that problem," Waters says. "If you are heavy-handed and use a sledgehammer approach, the behaviors go underground."

Rather than immediately enacting a rule with threats of punishment to enforce it, he'd first meet students on their level. He'd discuss issues with the band's leaders and give them an opportunity to vote on whether a particular tradition or ritual should be continued or banned.

Take the one-finger salute during away games against the University of Michigan, for instance. For decades, it had been tradition for members of the band to raise their middle finger toward a sign that reads "Go Blue" as they entered Michigan Stadium.

"It's in the tunnel, so there probably weren't very many people who saw that. You could argue it was harmless fun," Waters says. "But they're in full uniform, and it's in public still. That bothered me."

Waters approached the squad leaders, and together the group reached a consensus that the tradition was outdated and was a poor reflection of the band's values. The leaders vowed to spread word of the change.

"We went up there, and it didn't happen. Not one person out of more than 200 band members did it," Waters recalls. "I was very proud of that moment."

He battled other traditions as director. In 2012, he banished Midnight Ramp, an annual ritual during which band members marched into the stadium nude or nearly nude. He also disciplined students who used offensive nicknames to address their peers.

Waters is all the more frustrated by his termination because he feels he was the band's primary cultural reformer. (The report concluded Waters knew of several other inappropriate traditions, yet allowed them to continue.) He says he feels he was made the scapegoat-that university administrators had made up their minds about how they wanted to handle the situation before the investigation concluded. He's not alone in that sentiment.

john joyce discovered his coach, professor and mentor had been fired when he read the headline of a Columbus Dispatch story.

"I found out while I was at work," says Joyce, a former band member who graduated in 2014. "I held it in for the rest of my shift, and as soon as I left, I started bawling."

When he heard why Waters had been fired-for failing to address a sexualized culture-he was confused. "I had no idea what that could have meant," he says. Then he read the report.

"It was pretty devastating reading it. There were things in there that we'd tried really hard to eliminate from the band over the years," Joyce says. "The songbook was in there. They talked about Midnight Ramp. We'd gotten rid of those things. We saw it as: 'He's ending this. How can he be fired?' You feel helpless."

Zacke Naughton, a former band member who graduated in 2014, echoes those opinions. Naughton, who was one of nine current and former band members interviewed by the university's compliance office during its investigation, says he felt not only helpless, but also frustrated and angry when he read the report. He also felt betrayed by the university.

"Everything associated with the band had always been held in such a high regard and in a position of pride," he says. "The way we were treated by the university [after Waters was fired] was quite the opposite. It was: 'You are bad people. You harbor an unsafe environment. You are a shame to us.' It's unsettling that something you care for so deeply and in turn had cared for you would turn its back on you in such a manner."

Waters' firing and the report that opened the door to it didn't damage his reputation alone. Students have felt the collateral damage. Over the last year, former students have shared with Waters stories of being subjected to ridicule and nasty comments on campus.

"There are students in the band walking into the bathroom at Ohio Stadium and hearing people say, 'How many women did you rape to get in band?' Can you imagine that?" Waters says. "Here we have one of the most celebrated groups on that campus reduced to a bathroom sneer. It's beyond the pale to me.

"They not only painted the current students in that false light, but they painted generations of alums that way, too," Waters continues. "Families and generations who have held the image of the Ohio State band with pride were suddenly forced to think of it as something that was shameful."

Former band member Jocelyn Smallwood wasn't just shocked after reading the Glaros report-she was angry. Smallwood, who graduated in 2013, was a squad leader during the investigation into the band's culture and was also interviewed. The university's questions were vague for the most part, she says. When they asked her to describe the culture of the band, she said it was like a family. She also told them the culture had changed for the better since Waters had become director.

"We used to joke he was the fun police. We'd be having our fun and he'd say, nope," says Smallwood, who in 2012 became the first black woman to dot the "I."

But when she read the report, she was surprised by some detailed accounts of various traditions and instances, some dating as far back as 2006, and, more specifically, that she hadn't been asked about any of those things. Most infuriating, though, was seeing the nickname she was given as a freshman-"Donk"-included in a list of "sexual" nicknames.

"It's short for 'badonkadonk.' " Smallwood says. "I like to dance. At no point did I feel it was made as a crude joke or comment on my gender or race. My grandparents know my nickname."

Smallwood voiced her concern in a two-page letter she mailed and emailed to university administrators, including Drake and Steinmetz, after Waters was fired. When she didn't receive a reply, she posted the letter on Facebook.

"What angers me the most is that … [we] have been mischaracterized as victims of 'sexual harassment' without being asked directly for our input," she wrote. " 'Donk' is not a moniker that was placed upon me without my consent, and it is most certainly not something of which I am ashamed."

Perhaps the most influential-if not unexpected-voice in support of Waters came from Richard Blatti, director of Ohio State's School of Music and Waters' former boss. Earlier this year in federal court, Waters' attorney filed a handwritten letter Blatti had mailed to Waters' father and stepmother in September 2014, two months after Waters had been fired. In it, Blatti expressed his disbelief and disappointment in Waters' termination.

"The shocking decisions made in July were done without my knowledge, or even my input, without valuing or even reading my most recent evaluation of Jon's work, and most disappointing, without any other information than a report we all know now is filled with errors, omissions, even rumors," he wrote. "To say I am appalled is a gross understatement and does not describe my feelings of frustration, helplessness and anger." (Blatti's assistant referred our request for an interview to Ohio State media relations, which did not respond.)

Blatti's letter provides at least a little vindication for Waters.

"I feel very strongly we were wronged by the report and what happened to me was wrong," Waters says. "He was my direct supervisor; he knew we had worked tremendously hard to change the culture. It's good to have his support, and we'll see how that bears out in the court proceeding."

Waters is grateful to those who have been defending his integrity. He's also grateful for the financial support he and his family have received from friends, Ohio State alumni and members of their church congregation.

When Mike Constantine heard Waters had been fired, he wanted to find a way to help his good friend and former neighbor.

"Jon is the type of guy, when somebody asks for help, he never says no," says Constantine, who met Waters about eight years ago. "He's always been the first person to give back to the community. The success he gained at Ohio State was not only well earned but it was well deserved."

After he heard the news, Constantine created a Facebook page where people could post photos and words of encouragement. Because most of the photos were of people standing next to Waters, Constantine named the group "We Stand With Jon Waters."

As the number of followers began to increase (the page has more than 2,700 followers), Constantine saw an opportunity to leverage the exposure. He created a crowd-funding account through Go Fund Me and posted the link on the "We Stand With Jon Waters" page, promising T-shirts and yard signs in exchange for donations.

"I said, 'Let's set a goal of $500 and see what happens,' " Constantine recalls. Over the next three months, the fund raised just shy of $50,000.

After Waters filed his first lawsuit against Ohio State, a group of band alumni set up a fund to help defray the cost of his legal fees. The financial support has been invaluable, Molly Waters says.

"We were able to continue living in the home we were in for a while until we saw how things unfolded," she says. "It allowed us to live somewhat normally for almost a year, which we never would have been able to do otherwise."

Molly met her future husband in the band. She was a sophomore and a first-year mellophone player; he was a senior squad leader. She agreed to be his date to the band dance that year, and the couple married in 2002. Jon has always been a confident person, Molly says. Seeing that confidence fade in light of his dismissal from Ohio State has been upsetting.

"He does a really good job on the outside of keeping it together. But when it comes down to it, he was so sure of himself because he knew he was good at what he did and he was so happy to be in the position he was in. He gave it everything he had," Molly says. "So when this happened, he immediately began to question everything around him. How could something he was really good at be taken away from him so quickly without any consideration? I think he's much less sure of himself now because of that. He's trying to figure out how he can find fulfillment again."

If this had been an ordinary summer-like every other summer for the past two decades-Waters would have spent his days on campus, holding band tryouts, presiding over practices and putting the finishing touches on next season's music and choreography. Instead, he's been at home while his wife works. The silver lining: He's been able to spend more time with his children, ages 7, 9 and 11. Still, he says it pains him not to be a part of the band's preparation for the upcoming football season. The Ohio State marching band had become an integral part of his identity.

"Something that is really hard for me to continue to grapple with is to think that I could never work again in music education or be a band director again," Waters says. "That's scary. That keeps you up at night."

That fear, at times, has brought him to an inconceivably dark place.

"I thank God every day for my family, because without them I wouldn't be here," he says. "At my low point, I came home one day and thought about shutting the garage door and turning the car on. I honestly contemplated that because [the band] meant that much to me. It's been a tremendously stressful and emotional thing for us to deal with."

His friend Constantine says Waters was a victim of blind justice, and there's little the university can do to reverse the damage.

"I think in a perfect world, one in which none of us lives, they'd admit the error of their ways and put him back on the ladder," Constantine says. "If you'd ask Jon today, would you rather have any amount of money or would you rather be directing those kids in the band, he'd choose the band, no doubt. But I think the best case now for Jon would be a public apology from Ohio State admitting that it was a hastily made decision."

Waters, too, hopes to get his job back one day. In the meantime, he's trying to stay positive and fix his gaze on the future.

"I'm trying to keep an open mind. Maybe there's another chapter; maybe something good will come of this," he says. "That's what you have to hold on to."

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct an error. We originally named Elyria, Ohio, as Waters' hometown. He is from Elmore, Ohio.

Allegations against Jon Waters

Two reports detailed damning accusations against Waters, purporting to show he knew about an overtly sexualized culture in the band and failed to address it.

Two witnesses said Waters sometimes used nicknames to refer to students when he was upset. "Tiggles" was given as an example.

One person told investigators Waters texted dirty limericks to students.

Several band members who were questioned claimed they changed clothes on the buses in front of members of the opposite sex. One witness said Waters ignored her when she complained to him about practice.

Waters is said to have participated in inappropriate videos screened on Make the Band Night. The videos are produced by existing row members and shown as a way of introducing rookie members to their squad leaders and row traditions. Several witnesses told investigators Waters appeared in several videos using vulgar sexual language and simulating a sex act.

In court documents, university officials said they found a 2007 calendar in Waters' office featuring male students posing mostly nude in seductive poses, according to a Columbus Dispatch story. The calendar's cover page read "For Jon Waters' eyes only."