On Friday, the Baylor Bears took on the Rice Owls in Houston. The matchup wasn’t much of a contest—the number sixteen Baylor team trounced the hapless Owls 38-10—but there were a few things that happened off of the field that got more attention than the game itself. Baylor’s former head coach Art Briles was spotted in the stands for the first time since he was removed from his position in the midst of the university’s—and the football program’s—ongoing rape scandal. (His former star defensive end Shawn Oakman, who currently awaits trial on sexual assault charges in Waco, was also in attendance.)
But what happened at halftime overshadowed Briles’ decision to attend the game, when Rice’s irreverent Marching Owl Band used its performance to highlight Baylor’s handling of sexual assault.
In the performance, the MOB began with some Bear jokes, then switched formation into an IX, referencing the multiple Title IX lawsuits that Baylor faces. As they played, the announcer offered the “quote of the day,” which they attributed to former Baylor president and chancellor Kenneth Starr: “I did not investigate that coach.” The band took a star-for-Starr formation on the field after that, then moved to an “N” shape, explaining that the “N” stood for “nanotechnology,” “neuroscience,” and—if you were educated in Waco—”knowledge.” (Get it?)
The reaction was sharply divided. Baylor fans at the stadium booed, while others celebrated the attempt at satire. Houston Chronicle football writer John McClain, who live-tweeted the performance to his 123,000 followers, was in the latter camp:
Rice's MOB (Marching Owl Band) is spelling out Title IX making fun of Baylor's Title IX violations. Hilarious! BU fans booing!
— John McClain (@McClain_on_NFL) September 17, 2016
What an ingenious halftime show by the MOB. Baylor fans need a sense of humor.
— John McClain (@McClain_on_NFL) September 17, 2016
McClain clearly enjoyed himself on Friday night. But is Baylor’s sexual assault scandal funny?
The MOB has a history of satirizing scandal in its performances, of course. As Jason Cohen wrote for Texas Monthly back in 2011 that the band’s taken on issues like the Big 12 realignment, or its own former coach who left after one season to take the top job at Tulsa. And they’ve made some pretty funny digs. At a game between Rice and UT, the band taunted the Longhorns by spelling out “SEC,” the conference for which longtime rival Texas A&M was leaving, then turning the gag on the Aggies by changing the formation to $EC. It based its performance in 2007 at Darrell K. Royal Memorial Stadium around the suspensions UT players faced for drunk driving, robbery, and drug charges, and mocked Johnny Manziel’s autograph scandal in 2013. So if people were surprised to see the MOB react to the events at Baylor, they probably shouldn’t have been. But Rice’s performance seemed to treat all scandals as equal, and similarly valid targets for a punchline.
That perspective has problems, though. McClain, addressing the constituency of football fans who follow him on Twitter, suggested that Baylor needs to learn how to take a joke. But what exactly does that look like? Putting the “N is for knowledge” zinger in the same performance as a Title IX joke frames the sexual assault crisis at the university as another fair-game gag. So should we really expect Baylor fans to react to that with a good-natured head shake?
Rice issued a response over the weekend to people who were upset by the performance, explaining that the university administration has no oversight of the MOB, but that they “regret any offense,” and that the band “did not intend in any way to make light of the serious issue of sexual assault,” even if “the comments of many spectators and Baylor fans [indicate] that the MOB’s effort may have gone too far.”
People at Rice, though, seethed at the thought that their school should have apologized at all. Writing in the student paper the Rice Thresher, Editor-in-Chief Yasna Haghdoost argued that the “MOB didn’t trivialize Title IX. Baylor University trivialized Title IX when it decided to prioritize its athletic reputation over the dignity and deserved justice of sexual assault survivors.” Ultimately, though, both can be true: Rice can make Baylor fans uncomfortable and trivialize what happened at the school by placing it in context alongside jokes like “people in Waco sure are dumb.”
Rice’s Marching Owl Band likes to position itself as the conscience of Texas college football, confronting the scandals of other schools when given the opportunity. But when it comes to sexual assault, that’s a position it’s hard to claim any school has earned—including Rice.
In 2012, a former Rice student named Olivia Hansen wrote an essay for the Thresher explained how, in her mind, the university maintained its high ranking for “happiest students” by ejecting students like her. Hansen wrote of her experience in reporting an abusive boyfriend to the university, in which she felt that her safety was not prioritized and was instead encouraged to withdraw. “Other women told me about their experiences with assault on campus,” she wrote. “The perpetrators were rarely punished. Victim-blaming seemed to be a common theme.” In 2014, Haghdoost wrote about the sexual violence training that incoming freshmen received at Rice, explaining that the takeaway was that “it’s worse for me to have Everclear in my room than it is for me to rape someone.”
There are women who have been raped at Rice, just as there are women who have been raped at Baylor, and at many other school in the nation. A law firm the university hired to investigate the way Baylor handled sexual assault cases found that the university demonstrated a “fundamental failure to implement Title IX,” and Baylor certainly shouldn’t be allowed to ignore its many failures. But attempting to recall them through a marching band’s performance may not be the sort of unflinching truth-to-power statement that the MOB’s supporters wish it was.