by by By Malcolm Burnley

illustration by by Timothy Nassau

In the first half of the first game of March Madness this year, Kansas State’s freshman point guard Angel Rodriguez stepped to the foul line to complete an and-one play—when the chants began: “Where’s Your Green Card?!” Three times, members of the Southern Mississippi band, KSU’s opponent, heckled Rodriguez with racial taunts insulting his Puerto Rican heritage. Although he missed the free throw, KSU prevailed, and USM was forced to reckon with a first-round exit and a chorus of criticism over the band’s embarrassing behavior.

The five students who led the chants had their scholarships revoked and were required to complete cultural sensitivity training. USM’s athletic director personally apologized to Rodriguez, who later forgave the band (making the coy correction that Puerto Rico is a commonwealth, so citizens do not need green cards to immigrate to the US).  On March 15, the same day that the taunts drew national coverage, an anti-immigration bill modeled after Arizona’s controversial law was passed in Mississippi’s state legislature, leaving some to draw connections between the two incidents. An isolated moment of racism suddenly equated USM with Mississippi’s history of racial intolerance, and was a damaging note for the reputation of pep bands across the country.

“The pressure on the band is to rouse the other team and heckle them,” says Ryan Kopacsi, the band leader for Virginia Commonwealth University’s pep band, the VCU Peppas. “If you can get in another player’s head, you can change the outcome of the game. However, you’ve got to be a little more tactful and a little more classy. They went over the line.”

Kopacsi, 33, has been directing the Peppas for 14 years, and is well-versed in the rights and wrongs of brass behavior. “I’m probably the most hated band director in all of America,” he admits. Kopacsi is a former male model prone to tearing off his pants during Peppas performances, and relishes his combative reputation. “I feel like Ric Flair sometimes,” he says, and likens his role as band leader to that of a pro wrestling anti-hero—adored by allies, hated by opponents. “I’ve had other coaches tell me some mean and nasty things, which is ok, because I’ve told them some mean and nasty things, too.”

A degree of rabblerousing is appropriate for pep bands, Kopacsi insists. “At this point in D-1 college athletes’ lives, they need to be able to handle criticism,” he says, though he reminds his band before each NCAA tournament to be conscious and self-censoring of their comments. According to Kopacsi, the Peppas’ two main functions— nudging his basketball team toward victory and amplifying the arena—are inclusionary to needling opponents. “If some player gets arrested for credit card theft, that may be something you want to heckle the player about.”

But the synergy of school spirit and rabid cheering can spiral out of control, as evidenced by the racial slurs flung by the USM band. Too much leeway with band behavior leads to slip-ups, verging on regular fan rowdiness, that can prove damaging when displayed by representatives of the school on a national stage, like March Madness with USM. Yet too much seriousness and you wouldn’t have a pep band. So what are the proper boundaries of pep band provocation?

Wilson Baer, a trumpet player in Brown University’s Pep Band, and Vice President of its Band Board, has an idea of where to draw the line. “I think picking out a player and chanting at them is fine,” he told the Independent. As long as its within the context of the game—fumbling a pass might warrant a “Butterfingers!” chant—or poking innocent fun at a player­—a goofy haircut might earn him the nickname Rogaine—is fair game for Baer and the Brown Band. “But USM was taking it too far,” he believes.

Rather than wreaking havoc with opposing players, Brown’s band has traditionally preferred hell-raising with other bands. In 1973, five Brown students were arrested by Massachusetts State Police after stealing Harvard’s iconic bass drum, “Bertha.” The students disguised themselves as ABC television reporters who were interested in doing a segment on Bertha, and then smuggled the drum into their truck. Before making it back to Providence, the police apprehended the students, and soon after, Harvard placed a restraining order against the Brown band to protect Bertha.

But this past football season, some Ivy League hijinx drew scrutiny similar to the USM incident.  Last November, Columbia’s marching band, the self-proclaimed “cleverest band in the world,” was reprimanded for altering the school’s fight song. In lieu of celebrating its 0-9 football team,  the band sung a parodied version of the fight song:

We always lose lose lose
by a lot and sometimes by a little
we all were winners at the start
but four years has taught us all the value of just giving up,
cause we really suck
why are we even trying?
we always lose lose lose
but we take solace in our booze.

The band was suspended one game, and prevented from traveling with the team to its season finale at Brown. The Head Manager of Columbia’s Marching Band, Peter Andrews, denied a request for an interview for this article. But Baer defended the band’s improvisation: “I don’t think they were in the wrong at all with that cheer.”

But for Kopacsi, Columbia’s stunt was no less a violation of band code than USM. “Just because the band shows up every game, doesn’t give them the right to slam their own team. They don’t need someone in their own family telling them they’re terrible.”

Producing bravado without crossing into mocking—racial or institutional self-ridicule—is a tricky line to toe for a school’s pep band.  “We’re not necessarily there to make friends with the other team,” Kopacsi says. “But you can get on other people’s nerves without being disrespectful.”

To achieve that balance, Kopacsi tries to charm opposing fans before games, knowing he’ll be killing their team in chants during it. On the road before games, like during VCU’s Final Four run last year, the band performed free public concerts in Chicago, Houston, and San Antonio. With permission from his administration, Kopasci crammed 29 tubas, trombones, and horns into a motorized paddleboat and serenaded pedestrians along the riverwalk. “So often, bands see themselves as elevator music. We’re clearly not the main attraction, however, we think of ourselves as the main attraction.”

Injecting himself into the game with verbal back-and-forths with players or coaches within the arena, he doesn’t take it personal when fans tell him to shut up—that’s the quintessential mark of success for a pep band leader. “At that point, I know I’ve won. I’ve taken your head completely out of the game and put it on some dork who leads the band.”

Malcolm Burnley B’12 played in the orchestra.