Thursday, October 12, 2006


It's not often that a scandal breaks in the sports world to which I can bring a better perspective than almost every single other person whose comments you might encounter on the internet, but, one finally did!

The University of Wisconsin marching band received a sternly worded letter from University Chancellor John Wiley, putting the band on probation (get the details here or here). Apparently, during a road trip to Wisconsin's September 23 game at Michigan, band members engaged in conduct "that can be seen as anything from boorish and offensive to patently dangerous and unlawful."

Having spent a year in the University of Southern California marching band, and having read enough (not much, but enough) about the Wisconsin band to confirm that big college marching bands pretty much all operate the same way, I can tell you that "anything from boorish and offensive to patently dangerous and unlawful" would probably be a best case scenario.

[note: stop reading now if you don't like bad language. I generally like to keep this area clean, but, I don't think you can talk about a college marching band without swear words. So please. Don't say you weren't warned. I'm serious. Don't read on and then complain]

I joined up in the summer of 1997. I was a sophomore at USC, but a freshman as far as the band was concerned (I didn't join my freshman year for a couple of reasons, mainly 1) I never really liked playing the trumpet that much, and 2) my sophomore year USC was playing at Notre Dame and the whole band got to go, whereas my freshman year they weren't).

We started with a three-day "basic training," which consisted of learning how to march in the USC style (it's a precise high-step that, upon introduction, seems virtually impossible to do while playing an instrument. Eventually everyone masters it, which is one of the many reasons that the USC marching band is the best college marching band on the planet). We did that morning and afternoon, and it was exhausting, draining work; over the course of the three days, I peed twice.

Along the way, all of the freshmen were given little nicknames, most of which were eventually shortened because they were too long and too profane to say in public (I was "Pussy Boy" [P.B.], the guy next to me who dropped out after basic training for the welcoming bosom of the fraternity system was "Fuck Stick" [F.S.], another guy named Jeremy was "Fucking Crack's Sister" [F.C.S.]; "Crack" was a junior who had been given that name as a freshman, and Jeremy was dating his little sister).

Then, we were taught the filthy lyrics to various songs that we'd play and various fight songs of other Pac-10 teams ("In the locker room at halftime / Bruins give each other head / They con-grat-u-late their coach by taking him to bed RAH! RAH! RAH!"). There was even a bound, Xeroxed collection of these songs called the "Hymenal" (some of the stuff was disgusting, juvenile and awful; some was disgusting, juvenile and hilarious). It was pretty much exactly how a story on Madison's WKOW website puts it:

One UW band member, who asked to remain anonymous, says the band has dropped most nicknames for each other, and have altered offensive lyrics to some songs and chants. The member says they hope they'll do their best and hope that's good enough.

In order to facilitate the learning of a new halftime show for every home game (for which we memorized all the music and during which we actually marched while we played, unlike some other college bands), the band was divided up into "squads" of four, with each squad having a squad leader (an upperclassman who has been in the band for a few years). In the trumpet section, every squad devised its own squad "chant," and would chant them on the busses to games, or marching on the way to games. Or anywhere else, regardless of who might be listening. Some of the chants were as follows:

"Bite Me, Suck Me, Nibble and Chew!
We're Squad Nine, Woo-Woo!"

"Doug's Mom Screamed It Would Never Fit,
But We're Squad Eleven and We Fucked That Shit!"

And, my personal favorite:

"Fuck You Fuck You Fuck You Fuck You
Fuck You Fuck You We're Squad Five!"

Other chants were specific to certain people; one young Jewish woman who played in and worked as a coordinator of some sort for the band had a special song devoted to her that focused chiefly on the size of her nose.

Throughout the course of the season, freshmen were strongly encouraged (unofficially required) to attend parties and gatherings and made to line up in formation and recite various chants and sing various songs. Often, we were given what they called "slicks," which were usually to be consumed in mid-marching pose, standing on one leg. One of my favorites was made up at a burger place called Tommy's, and consisted of hamburger patty, chili, soda, a jalapeno pepper, Hershey's chocolate syrup and God knows what else. I was yelled at about halfway through one of them by a guy who accused me of spitting mine out onto the ground. I told him to relax; most of what he saw down there was puke (it was). Of course, no one was physically forced to do any of this, but, the understanding was that if you wanted to be part of the band (or at least part of the trumpet section), participation in the hazing was highly recommended.

On game day, the band would gather on campus, marching from USC across the street to the Coliseum and stopping to play several times along the way. Officially, no band member was ever allowed to consume alcohol while in uniform. Unofficially, a decent number of band members would be buzzed -- if not full-on drunk -- by the time we got to the stadium. I was adept at opening beer cans quickly and unobtrusively with my teeth (needless to say I was under 21 at the time), not having to move my trumpet-holding arm at all and attracting as little attention as possible, so I usually started our squad off and passed it on to the squad leader, who did the bulk of the damage. Fights between band members and fans of rival schools were not unheard of.

I tell you all this not to elicit sympathy or to blow the lid off of the USC marching band. I only bring it up so you know what sort of stuff went on, and to tell you that anybody in any position of authority within the band pretty much knew all about it. Shortly after the training retreat, an older woman (older than us; she was probably in her 30s) who understandably didn't take to the frat house nature of the trumpet section was quietly moved over to the french horns at the behest of out section leaders, with those in charge of the band knowing exactly why.

I can't stand that kind of stuff, and I wasn't going to be around it any longer than I had to to get my free trip to Notre Dame (and one to the Bay Area; the whole band goes on those trips, and smaller contingents made up of people who have been in the band longer go to other away games). The upperclassmen in the band were surprised that I wasn't coming back the next year, since I was a competent (if unexceptional) marcher and trumpet player and since I wouldn't have to deal with any of that stupid crap as a band sophomore. Personally, I would rather go through it than watch someone else go through it, and one year of it was plenty.

The point is, this is how every college marching band is (well, maybe not BYU's, but, most of them). Putting a stop to this type of behavior when it happens during road trips or practices would be extremely easy, if the people in charged cared to do so. I have a big problem with university administrators who seem outraged only when news of this kind of thing hits the AP wire (whether it's the Wisconsin marching band, the Northwestern women's soccer team, or some other organization not affiliated with Big Ten sports), when everyone connected with college life either knows full well that this stuff goes on all the time or is so willfully ignorant about college students that they don't deserve to keep their job.

Still, as much as I disdain the hazing and initiation bullshit (not so much the vulgar songs and chants and constant sexist/homophobic remarks, most of which are funny), the victims are all people who, to one degree or another, signed up for it. I wouldn't call it an enormous, epidemic problem. I just hate it.

Anyway. To the people like University of Wisconsin Chancellor John Wiley: either put a stop to this stuff, or live with it going on. To ignore it most of the time, and to pretend to be outraged by it only when forced to, is to deal with it in the most craven possible way.

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