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Let’s Talk About That Rice/Baylor Halftime Performance

Supporters of Rice’s Marching Owl Band say that its performance mocking Baylor’s rape scandal was powerful—but let’s look at it a little more closely.

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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:

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.

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  • Glitter

    Wowee. Who knew the MOB was without sin? Glad there is perfection in the state of Texas.

    • Jed

      i bet you support criminal justice, right, even though that system is imperfect?

      how about the death penalty?

      wowee. so it turns out it’s not necessary to be perfect before sitting in judgment of others after all?

    • wessexmom

      They don’t claim to be perfect. They do claim to be smarter than your average Baylor Bear.

  • luvrhino

    FYI, the
    exact pair of Pepper Hamilton lawyers who headed the Baylor investigation
    had just before that did a similar audit of Rice’s Title IX compliance. It wasn’t directly in response to anything, but I think members of the Rice administration wanted to know where they stood. Rice came out quite
    well and they are continuing work to make things better.

    The Olivia Hansen letter to the editor in the Thresher had many inaccuracies in them, which does not mean that she’s lying so much as she didn’t understand everything else that was going on. The person who sexually assaulted her plus some of his friends that harassed her afterwards were all kicked out or compelled to resign from the university.

    Part of the problem
    in that situation was that Rice couldn’t defend itself without coming
    across like they were attacking a sexual assault victim. There were likely confidentiality concerns as well.

    I can attest that since that time, Rice put in a lot of work to improve their handling of sexual assault and intimate
    partner violence at Rice and to try to find ways to get the care for the
    victims that the victim wants. Part of that has been increasing their working relationship with the Houston Area Women’s Center (and hiring away a couple of their employees to be Rice’s Title IX Coordinator).

    None of this is going to completely stop sexual assaults at Rice. The hope is to reduce the number and to provide safe, confidential services to survivor/victims and to work with them in bringing the perpetrators to justice, with the survivor/victim free from any retaliatory harassment.

    As for The MOB, they don’t speak for the administration. I thought it barely qualified as satire, but appreciate it putting Baylor’s Title IX failures back in the news cycle. Dan Solomon did touch on one of my concerns, which is how the MOB performance would come across to survivor/victims
    at Rice, especially those that perceive that Rice hasn’t fully met their
    needs…whether Rice did do everything they could or not. Though The MOB does
    not speak on behalf of the Rice administration, students and staff
    who are survivors might not make that distinction as the MOB bleeds into
    the larger culture at Rice.

    In summary, I wanted to provide additional context for parts of this column where I found it lacking.

    DISCLAIMER: I’m a Rice alum and I’ve been a very active volunteer with the Houston Area Women’s Center for the past several years. I know and deeply respect both of those Title IX Coordinators (hired after the Thresher column) and both, coincidentally, provided me volunteer training at the Houston Area Women’s Center. I do know a few members of the Rice administration that care first and foremost about doing what’s right for the students, even if it’s at the expense of Rice’s image. I’m pleased with the progress they’ve made the past few years and I look forward to further improvement.

  • Michael Croft

    “… 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.”

    The MOB, which is a student-and-fan run organization, doesn’t really have the power to create headlines in the way the administration or the sports teams or Baylor can. They get ten minutes when the cameras are rolling but nobody’s really paying attention to say something, and the only reason they get that is that every now and then they are funny.

    Comedy has long been a way for the powerless air grievances with the powerful. The serious must sneak in behind the funny, otherwise the MOB has no voice at all. The powerful can barely tolerate being called out humorously, so even serious matters must be couched in alleged jokes.

    I’m sorry if any of the victims were made uncomfortable. But I am happy that this matter is still being talked about. The Baylor fans who were lionizing Art Briles or Shawn Oakman were uncomfortable and I approve of that. I don’t think they have rehabilitated themselves adequately to understand the now-tainted legacy of Art Briles if they are celebrating it.

    The MOB may not have much of an ability to affect things, but they can say “I have not forgotten what you did, and I do not approve. It’s not business as usual.” The MOB could’ve said nothing and that would’ve said volumes.

    • wessexmom

      They spare no one. They never have and they never should.
      Here’s an account of their 1973 performance during a game against A&M:

      “The Rice band, called “The Mob,” did an on-the-field imitation of the
      A&M Marching band Saturday, playing an off-tune version of the
      Aggie fight song and marched, World War II German-style, but out of time
      and step.

      The Owl band also gave a salute to the Aggie’s mascot dog, Reveille, by
      forming a fire plug on the field. Choice tidbits of explanations over
      the public address system also incensed the Aggies.

      Police had to restrain the Aggie cadet corps from running onto the
      field to attack the Rice band. Following the game, the Rice band huddled
      under the south end of the stadium two hours while irate Aggies milled
      about waiting for the band to leave.

      “We certainly did not intend any offense to Aggie traditions last
      Saturday,” said Rice Band Director Bert Roth in an apology. “But if our
      presentation was offensive to anyone, we wish to extend our a sincere
      and genuine apology.”

      The Eagle (Nov 20, 1973)

      • José

        I was at that game. Rice was leading the heavily favored Aggies at halftime, 17-0, which undoubtedly contributed to the poor sense of humor of the visiting team. It was a scary scene after the game with angry thugs in uniform looking to start a fight. The MOB eventually left the stadium by being ferried out in food service trucks.

  • José

    It’s sad that Solomon has to rely on a strawman argument to get in his final digs at the MOB. In all my days at Rice I never heard anyone refer to the Marching Owl Band as “THE conscience of Texas college football”. (Emphasis added.) The band members are fully aware of the fact that the MOB is not perfect, a fact that is obvious to anyone who has seen them march or heard them play.

    And as much as I love Rice I would never pretend that it has problems. It is hardly surprising that sexual assaults have been reported there over the last few years. That matters a great deal, of course, but so does the fact that the school has taken steps to combat the problem. What I don’t understand is why Solomon suggests that only the 100% pure and blameless are allowed to comment and criticize. This from a journalist, no less. Shameful.

    Rice deserves as much scrutiny as anyone else and should be held to no lower standard. So go ahead. But don’t act merely as retribution when you are uncomfortably confronted with painful truths.