Notes from the Alumni Association Chair

Earlier this year, members of the Big Red Marching Band expressed in interesting in expressing solidarity with the protests taking place during the Star Spangled Banner at NFL and other sporting events throughout the country.  This was reported in the Cornell Daily Sun, and the issue at hand was discussed by the football team and on campus shortly thereafter.

Briefly: band members approached the student leadership, who then went to discuss this with the Athletics administration.  As you can imagine, the issue of protests on campus, while frequently an important discussion in University life, had become even more prominent recently.  The Athletic Department decided to permit this, and members of the Alumni Association leadership became aware of the matter after the first two games of the season.  We spoke to the student leadership, who described the above timeline of events.  In full disclosure, given the often rocky relationship between the Band and Athletics, our primary concern at that time was the reaction of the administration. I later spoke to Steve Caraher, the Band’s advisor in Athletics, who confirmed that the department granted permission.  As this was most certainly a day-to-day management issue and the students had gone through proper channels, we (the alumni leadership) decided to defer this issue to them.

Shortly before Homecoming, I was contact by two alumni who expressed serious concern about this matter.  Their concerns included the specific politics of this protest, but also the issue of politics of any type being interjected into BRMB performances.  Because members of our Alumni Association had expressed concern about current Band practices, I committed to discussing it at the upcoming Advisory Council meeting.  As a reminder, the Advisory Council includes elected Alumni Association leadership, at-large alumni members, and the Drum Major, Head Manager, Marching Band Treasurer, Pep Band Manager, and Pep Band Treasurer.  At the meeting, we were particularly explicit in encouraging the students to speak up in order to educate the alumni about the current environment in the Band and how the students – those protesting and those not – feel about the issue.  It is obviously impossible to fully reflect the varied and nuanced opinions of any group, let alone such a large one.  However, our role is at most an advisory one, not a supervisory one, and having an understanding of the current climate in the Band is critical to discussing issues such as this.

You’ll note that I haven’t said much about what was being protested.  I’m sure you are all familiar with the gist of it – Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the playing of the national anthem, and since then, many athletes have followed suit.  Supporters of the protest say they are drawing attention to systemic racism and injustice against people of color, while critics say the demonstration is disrespectful to our country, its flag, and our servicemen and women.  While these perspectives were discussed at the Advisory Council meeting, they were a minor component.  We spent a bit more time discussing the issue of the Band displaying a political stance at all, but any political discussion was secondary.  Most of our discussion centered on the concerns voiced by student leadership.  Some of them noted that the musical quality had suffered, as the protest included over 30 people.  It had gotten to the point where they considered not playing the anthem at all due to concerns about their sound.  There were also concerns about student safety, as some Band members had been subjected to verbal abuse (Athletics addressed this by increasing security around the Band – so much so that because I didn’t have my trumpet, they initially wouldn’t let me on the field for halftime of Homecoming!).

We discussed what we thought other alumni might think of this protest and if this might affect support for the Band (this too was not much of a focus, but the hypothetical discussion was valuable).  Alumni leaders wondered what the endpoint was – would this continue in perpetuity as “tradition”?  We also discussed an individual’s right to express him or herself as well as what it means to be a member of a larger organization.  While the protest was done by individuals in the Band and not the group as a whole, we all agreed that having members in uniform on the sideline during a performance made that a distinction without a difference.  Additionally, as the protest involved not playing (as opposed to what the University of Maryland Marching Band has done), we also drew the distinction between kneeling during the national anthem and being the group responsible for performing the anthem.  Some people pointed out that this was more akin to Colin Kaepernick taking a knee on third down, not during pregame.  Other potential expressions of solidarity were also discussed, as well as the hypothetical question of how students in the band would react if a cause more typically associated with the political right was being protested at football games.

At the end of the meeting, we came to a consensus on the Advisory Council’s position, which is:

Given student concerns about performance quality and student safety, the potential effect on Band unity, and the general apolitical nature of the Big Red Bands, we prefer that the protest not continue in its current form.

If that sounds somewhat soft to you… well, you’re right.  We respect the passionately held opinions of the students who initiated this protest and the alumni who contacted me, and we have no interest in demonizing anyone on either side.  As alumni, we also understand that college is exactly the time when young adults are exploring their core beliefs and issues such as this one help develop the values that will carry them through life.  We also did agree that the Band is best when it is focusing on its core mission and not politics.  Most importantly, we are 100% committed to the importance of student leadership in the Big Red Bands and left any potential discussions and future actions up to the students.

In all honesty, we didn’t expect anything to change for the game on Saturday.  However, during the annual general BRBAA meeting the next morning, the Head Manager came to us during the discussion of this issue and announced that the Band would no longer allow protests on the sideline during the playing of the national anthem.  Students who wished to protest would be allowed to, but they would be asked to refrain from participating from the on-field pregame performance and carry out their protest in the stands.  I believe this decision was meant to respect an individual’s right to protest while acknowledging that those rights may be limited when a part of a larger group.  I believe it was also intended to reduce the attention drawn to the Band as a part of the protest.  Student leadership informed me that when faced with the choice, some students decided not to protest.  Unfortunately, I’ve also heard that a few students have chosen not to be in the Band anymore as a result.

This last part makes me profoundly sad.  We all know how important the Big Red Bands were and are to so many of us, and the fact that there is an issue that may interfere with that for some current band members is upsetting.  I hope that all the reasons that cause people to join Band in the first place are the reasons they stay, and disagreements about how they can express their views when functioning as a part of the group can be respectful, can be an ongoing discussion, and don’t overrule everything else.

Some of you may wonder that if a key factor in our position (and presumably the student leadership’s decision to recommend a change) was performance quality, why did they change things so that fewer students were available for the pregame show in addition to the anthem?  All I can say is that this is an imperfect solution to an imperfect situation; however, I feel that the student leaders addressed this very difficult issue appropriately each step of the way. I imagine there are alumni and possibly current students that may disagree with that and may truly dislike the process and/or the outcome – I hear you.  As time goes on and student leadership changes, there may be changes in what happens, and that is their right.  As alumni, we will fulfill our roles of providing fiscal and leadership advice, but the Band is not ours to run.  This article does not do justice to all the viewpoints that were expressed, and one of my points in this whole matter is that details and nuance matter.  We are clearly living in a charged socio-political climate, and I’m looking forward to returning to arguing about whether it is the trumpets or trombones that truly suck.

Just kidding, it’s the trombones.


by Lowell Frank ’99, ‘03