Two days after the University Athletic Department informed the marching band that it wouldn’t be welcome at Saturday’s season-ending football game due to its behavior at last weekend’s matchup in Ithaca, the Department has reversed its decision, telling the band on Thursday night that it would be allowed to participate in the game as usual.
“The band is grateful to have been told this evening that the athletic department will allow us to attend the football game this Saturday against Brown,” the Columbia University Marching Band said in a statement sent to Spectator. “We look forward to honoring the senior class—both on the football team and in the band—and cheering the Columbia Lions on to victory.”
The story of the ban broke Wednesday on Spectator, and quickly incited unanticipated media attention. After getting picked up by Deadspin on Wednesday night, it quickly spread to hundreds of news sites, including ESPN, the Associated Press, and the New York Times. (Jack Dickey, the writer of the Deadspin post, is a former associate copy editor for Spectator.)
News of the school’s penalty—imposed in reaction to the alternative lyrics to the school fight song the band sang as the Lions (0-9, 0-6 Ivy) exited the field following their loss to Cornell—provoked polarized reactions. It sparked sharp criticism of the Athletic Department for its censorship, but also seemed to provide an opportunity for some to express long-brewing resentment of the raucous student group.
Parents complained about the band’s overbearing and sophomoric antics, while some CC alums threatened to withhold donations unless the decision was reversed. Meanwhile, the band maintained a conciliatory and apologetic public tone.
“I think they’re trying to be fair, in the context of the situation. If you’re not willing to be a part of the program, there are consequences,” outgoing band manager Jose Delgado, CC '12, said Thursday after being informed of the ban. “We did not act in the way we want to act, and those are the consequences.”
Still, CUMB expressed its particular disappointment about being unable to attend the final game of the season, one that carries great significance for a group steeped in tradition. At halftime this Saturday, as it does every year, the outgoing board will officially pass the torch to the next generation of band leadership, which was elected Tuesday night amid strong emotion surrounding the ban. Band seniors will also be honored in CUMB’s halftime skit.
“When I first heard about the decision, what upset me the most was that the seniors won’t be able to perform in their last opportunity to perform as members of the band,” outgoing spirit leader Jon Cokely, CC '13, said to Spectator on Thursday, before the reversal of the ban was announced. “I think they’ve been more mature about this than anyone, and they’ve conveyed that they would just rather go and support the team than try and argue with Athletics.”
The band, which generally seems to pride itself on its tendency to stir up controversy—prioritizing comedy over political correctness—was quick to apologize, and did all it could to avoid exacerbating the tension between itself and the athletic department.
“We’ve been particularly careful. We’ve done our best to control the emotions—because they are there,” Cokely said. “The media reaction is the kind of thing that we kind of appreciate. While it does reiterate the statement from athletics, that we disrespected the team, it also reiterates that we are incredibly apologetic and that we never intended to disrespect the team or the coaches or anyone in the administration.”
The strategy seemed to pay off, as the Athletic Department confirmed on Thursday night that it would lift the ban, citing a regard for the preservation of free speech in its reassessment.
“We have reconsidered our decision regarding the Columbia band’s performance at this Saturday’s last game,” Athletic Director M. Dianne Murphy said. “We are proud of our talented and dedicated student-athletes—but as we have discussed this issue over the past day, we come to the conclusion that the core free speech values of the University are best served by providing a forum both for speech that might sometimes offend—as well as for the kind of open discussion that ultimately leads to greater understanding and collegiality among all members of our community.”
The statement noticeably excluded mention of CUMB’s apology, and of the band’s spirit and dedication to Columbia sports that many band and community members cited in their disappointment regarding the initial decision.
Still, Cokely believes that the athletic department recognizes the value of what the band contributes to the Lions.
CUMB’s being banned from the football game but not from the basketball game on Saturday night suggested to Cokely that the penalty reflected the football team's resentment more than that of the Athletic Department.
“I think it actually illustrates that our relationship with athletics is not as strained as it appears at this moment,” Cokely said.
Around campus, reactions remained mixed regarding the Athletic Department’s initial decision to ban CUMB from the game, and its subsequent reversal.
“I understand they’re trying to make a point, but the direct insults? I'm an athlete, and I can understand the effect it has," Bryant Brown, CC ’15, said of the band's behavior
“I think it’s very silly,” Brian Kelley, CC '14, said. “The marching band has always been there to support the football team, and once in a while they might get a little rowdy, but in their hearts they still love the team and want to support it.”
Of course, some expressed indifference, like Melody Ju, CC ’15, who said that she doesn’t go to Columbia football games “because we don’t win.”
The utter lack of success by the football team this season was expressed by many in the online community, like Dickey, who found nothing offensive in the band’s altered lyrics.
“Nothing wrong with those! All the team has done is lose, lose, lose,” Dickey wrote. “There’s only so much the patricians can blame on the crazy kids and their tubas.”
CUMB also received support from other Ivy League bands.
“I was kind of shocked. All of the Ivy bands have their own tradition. Changing the lyrics to the school song is definitely part of that,” Mike Guarino, a senior at Penn and a member of the Penn band, said. “I thought it was kind of an overreaction of the Columbia Athletic Department to ban them from their senior game.”
Amid all the controversy, the Columbia football team still has one game left to avoid a winless season—potentially its first since it went 44 games without a win between 1983 and 1988.
“We all know that this season hasn’t gone as we planned. However, we fully intend on playing our best football on Saturday and securing a win in our final game at our home field,” senior defensive back Ross Morand wrote in an email. “Our players and coaches are not concerned about the issue going on with the band. Our focus is beating Brown, so that is the business we will attend to.”
While the band acknowledged its blunder, Delgado and Cokely both expressed a commitment to keeping the spirit of CUMB as it has been since its transition to a scramble band in the 1960s.
“Maybe the band is in this situation because of the nature of what it is, but I wouldn’t change that, and I would also continue to support the band’s right to be a scramble band and to follow that tradition,” Cokely said. “It’s really unique and it’s really special, and it brings a lot of great things to Columbia that other schools don’t necessarily have to offer.”
And while, going forward, the band may be more careful with the words it chooses—or at least where it performs them—it doesn’t plan on straying from its mission to provide wit and humor to a community that sometimes needs a pick-me-up.
“It’s pretty easy for us to sit down and do what we do, which is to defend our title of The Cleverest Band in the World,” Cokely said.