Back in 1988, when the Badger football team was bad, really bad, it was fashionable to sit in the sparsely populated student section and chant, "Who gives a shit? We came to see the band!" And it was true. Students who spent most games getting tanked in their dorm rooms or at Jingle's would file in for the Fifth Quarter to dance and sing along with the UW marching band.
My pals in those days all heaped accolades on the band, except for one grumpy malcontent. "They think they're the reason we're all here," he groused, dismissing the band's formations and musicianship as unimaginative. He said the marching bands from historically black colleges like Grambling and Southern would blow the Wisconsin crew off the field if given the chance.
Over time, I've come to agree. The UW marching band is now more of an embarrassment than an asset to the UW sports program.
Last season, as we left Camp Randall after Wisconsin's thrilling upset win over Michigan, my group crossed paths with the band. We watched as band members screamed "Ann Arbor is a whore!" at some Michigan fans whose only crime was trying to get a better look at this reputedly spirited group of musicians. Ironically, this happened just hours after band director Mike Leckrone appeared on the video scoreboards to urge Wisconsin fans to roll out the "Red Carpet" for visitors to Madison.
Since reports surfaced last week of the band being put on probation for alleged misbehavior, we've been instructed not to judge the whole group based on the actions of a few bad eggs. The problem is, it only takes a few bad eggs to give the whole outfit a sour smell.
And, as we learned last Friday, the charges are far worse than simple head shaving or other relatively harmless shenanigans. They include allegations of sexual harassment of the kind that in the corporate world would lead to big-money lawsuits. In fact, over the past few years, things have gotten so bad that the athletic department has had to foot the bill so the spirit squad doesn't have to ride with the band and endure its antics.
One of the most disappointing aspects of this whole saga is that no one from the band stepped forward to speak out publicly against the alleged hazing and harassment. Tellingly, no one disputed the accusations either.
It fell to UW Chancellor John Wiley to lay down the law. This meant standing up to a very popular institution - and to the seemingly untouchable Leckrone, backed as he is by band boosters who endow scholarships and pay for instruments and trips.
Leckrone, to his credit, took responsibility and expressed contrition. But the whole episode provides one more illustration of the decline in the atmosphere surrounding college athletics.
With ESPN cameras becoming a regular presence on campus, the image of academic institutions is tied more and more to how they come across on TV during games. The jeering and negativity that now animates many football fans is plain for all to see. (Add to this the tradition for which Wisconsin fans are now known: "Jump Around," a pre-recorded hip-hop track that fills the speakers of Camp Randall with lines like, "If your girl steps up, I'm smackin' the ho.")
Defenders of the band have jammed talk radio to point out how hard these kids work and how much they add to the Camp Randall experience. That may be true, but the band often seems more interested in human pyramids and wheelbarrow races than in playing instruments.
Thankfully for the band, the ugly brawl between Miami and Florida International players on Saturday took over as the sensational story of the week in college football. But it remains big news around here, and will likely be mentioned with a chuckle by visiting play-by-play crews for the rest of the season, if not beyond.
That's a shame, because those same commentators used to go on about how great the band played, speculating that it might be the best in college football. But that was always a dull argument and, anyway, who gives a shit? We came to see football.