Fired Ohio State marching band director Jonathan Waters sued the university on Friday, seeking reinstatement on the grounds it denied him due process and sexually discriminated against him.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Columbus, alleges the university, President Michael Drake and a provost engaged in sexual discrimination by denying Waters a second chance given to a similarly disciplined female employee.
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Waters was dismissed on July 24 after a university investigation concluded he knew about but failed to stop a "sexualized culture" of rituals within the band that included partially clad marching, groping games and sometimes explicit nicknames.
In a flowery legal filing, Waters' legal team — now joined by former state Attorney General Jim Petro — opens with quotes from Waters' exemplary performance review from the university and goes on to list glowing national headlines about the celebrated band under his baton.
Waters led the band since 2012 and created halftime shows considered revolutionary. Videos of the morphing and dancing images the band creates on the field have drawn millions of hits on YouTube and landed it in an Apple commercial.
Waters' complaint quotes a secretly recorded exchange between Drake and new student band leaders in which the fledgling president appears to concede the university's investigative findings were based largely on historical material.
"I don't believe things today are like they were in the past. Which I think is good ... ," Drake is quoted as saying. "If the band were behaving as it were reflected in the report, then that group couldn't march and represent the university."
Drakes says, according to the audio and transcript, that "the vast majority of the material was from 2011 or before."
A spokesman for the university, which has firmly stood behind Waters' dismissal, said the lawsuit lacks substance and merit.
"The hazing and harassment problems that were found to exist in the marching band during Mr. Waters' time as band director, and his more than 10 years as part of the band's leadership, were not reflective of what this University stands for or tolerates," spokesman Chris Davey said in a statement.
Davey said the lawsuit misconstrues Drake's words. He said Drake proactively reached out to the students in an attempt to move forward.
"He attempted to convey to them that the current student members of the band need not be defined by the culture and actions of the past, so in that sense the investigation report was historical to them," he said.
Waters reiterated during a Friday news conference that he was working to improve the band culture, not ignoring it. He said his legal fight is focused on restoring the reputation of a band he loves, not on personal gain.
"The report that was issued was very one-sided," he said. "It cherry-picked certain details. It only interviewed a sample of nine people out of thousands of alums and the 240 current band students."
The lawsuit seeks a minimum of $1 million in damages and a court-ordered name-clearing hearing. It says Waters was targeted for dismissal to impress the U.S. Department of Education as it conducted a Title IX investigation into Ohio State's handling of sexual abuse claims.
Just weeks after Waters was fired, a federal settlement agreement was reached in that case and the probe was closed. The lawsuit cites the Title IX law in Waters' defense, saying a female cheerleading coach was given an opportunity to remedy her behavior before being fired and Waters was not.