For the most obsessive of sports fans, our teams become part of our lives, the players and coaches part of our families. We wear their jerseys and copy their mannerisms. We call them by their first names even though we have never met them before and probably never will. Our emotional state becomes far too attached to the material outcome of games, more than what any psychiatrist or doctor would recommend. This forms a connection that becomes rather thorny when we are presented with evidence that those very players and coaches we worship may in fact be bad people or at least have taken reprehensible actions.
It’s a script we’ve followed before. Joe Paterno and Penn State, Michael Vick and Atlanta, Aaron Hernandez and New England, Art Briles and Baylor, the list goes on and on. In the past month, we’ve added more names to the list, DJ Durkin and Maryland for one, but the main event has been Urban Meyer and Ohio State. The story is rather well documented by now, but to paraphrase it: Meyer employed Zach Smith, the grandson of former OSU head coach Earle Bruce and a player for Meyer at Bowling Green, for nearly a decade on his football teams at Florida and then Ohio State, first as a Graduate Assistant and then as a Wide Receivers Coach.
In 2009, Meyer was alerted of an incident of domestic abuse perpetrated by Smith against his wife Courtney. Smith was arrested by the Gainesville Police Department but Courtney Smith did not press charges, reportedly at the urging of Bruce and Hiram de Fries, a friend of Meyer’s. Meyer and his wife counseled the Smith family, according to Meyer himself at Big Ten Media Day back in July. In 2015, another incident of abuse occurred between Zach and Courtney Smith, with the Columbus Police Department again being called to the house but it is unclear if an arrest happened (the police records are sketchy). Courtney Smith then texted the images of her abuse to several of the Ohio State coaches’ wives, including Urban Meyer’s wife Shelley. Shelley Meyer told Smith she would tell Urban about it, but it is unclear if that ever happened. Courtney Smith finally divorced Zach Smith in 2016, though incidents continued to occur between the two, with a trespassing warning being issued against Zach Smith in December 2017. The 2015 incident came to light in the media in July of 2018, after which Smith was immediately dismissed from the program by Meyer. Meyer was then asked what he knew about the incident at Big Ten Media Day, claiming he had just learned about the incident and that was why Smith was fired. Of course with all the preceding details coming to light, Meyer’s Media Day comments were quite inconsistent with the truth and he’s revised his story and maintained he handled the protocol correctly and reported the incident to the AD when he learned about it…. in 2015.
Ohio State’s investigation concluded this week and as is typical in college sports, the morally correct thing was not done. The university suspended Meyer for 3 games, though he will get to coach practice during the week leading up to the games, and withheld one paycheck from Athletic Director Gene Smith. The press conference went about as poorly as one could possibly have imagined and words were twisted in such away that is almost remarkable, including improbable lines like “while those denials were plainly not accurate, Coach Meyer did not in our view deliberately lie”.
There was a lot to unpack in that press conference, but the thing that I continue to come back to is how three apologies were issued to “Buckeye Nation” before a single apology was issued to Courtney Smith. It was a small instance, but it sums up all you need to know about college sports. The team, its material success, and the fans who drive the revenue monster that is big time college athletics always comes first. Courtney Smith, the boys Jerry Sandusky sexually abused, and the countless women raped by Baylor football players are the tragic price that is so frequently paid by universities and its fan base alike to achieve fame, fortune, and athletic glory. While the university and its leadership, along with Meyer and Zach Smith are the ones most at fault, don’t think the fans are exempt here. We will follow our leaders and take their signals, willing to go to whatever lengths are necessary to justify their atrocities so that we can continue to feel warm and fuzzy every saturday in the fall.
At the end of the day, what is true about the Meyer situation is that it is a coach, an athletic department, and a university leadership team who frankly didn’t care and currently don’t care about domestic abuse at their school, so long as a revenue generating asset continues generating revenue. Meyer himself has now admitted to knowing about the 2015 incident, and the investigation determined he knew, yet the abuse against Courtney Smith continued and Zach Smith continued to coach at Ohio State. And when did Zach Smith stop coaching at Ohio State? When the public found out he was a horrible person. Not when Meyer found out, that was years ago. Not when Gene Smith found out. But when the public found out. The real concern in the eyes of leadership at Ohio State and Urban Meyer was not having a domestic abuser on your coaching staff, but letting the public know you have a domestic abuser on your coaching staff.
The independent report concluded that Meyer and Gene Smith did not handle the investigation into Zach Smith correctly, but in studying the reporting protocol of Meyer’s contract, we lose the forest for the trees. Meyer continues to call Earle Bruce a mentor and at Media Day acknowledged that he has a “relationship with that family”, yet when he was alerted of continuing allegations of domestic abuse by Zach Smith, he apparently did very little to show concern for the potential victim. Regardless of whether Urban Meyer violated the protocol of his contract or handled the investigation correctly, he was comfortable employing someone with so many red flags and someone who was causing so much harm to the rest of the world for years. If that doesn’t tell you all you need to know about Meyer’s moral character, I’m not sure what will.
That twisted view of morality and sports is why Meyer showed little to no remorse at the press conference Wednesday night and why he uttered the line “I’m sorry we are in this situation” as his idea of an apology to Courtney Smith. It’s why he said that he followed his “heart, not his head” in handling the Zach Smith situation. And it’s why, as various beat writers reported while the deliberations were ongoing Wednesday, that Meyer resisted any suspension because “he thinks he did nothing wrong”. Meyer learned nothing from the breaking of this scandal, and with the slap on the wrist that is his punishment, he will continue to learn nothing. If anything, his blindingly toxic arrogance has been emboldened and his descent into moral oblivion has been furthered. To the rest of the college football world, Urban Meyer has been exposed as a fraud who erected a phony moral code to try and distract fans from the fact he was willing to do whatever it took to win. But to Meyer himself, he has been validated. He will continue to keep his job so long as he continues to win and so long as fans are willing to go along with him as their coach.
What is truly terrifying about this whole debacle is not what Ohio State did, but the uncertainty we all must feel about what our own university would do placed in that situation. While it seems as if the entire college football world, aside from OSU fans, are aghast at the handling of the investigation and Meyer’s punishment, how would each of those individual fan bases react if it happened at their program? I can not say with an certainty that the University of Michigan would have behaved any differently had this situation involved Jim Harbaugh. I would like to believe that the Leaders and the Best would adhere to that standard, but how can we be sure? After all, Michigan handled sexual assault allegations against former kicker Brendan Gibbons in an abhorrent manner less than 5 years ago. And looking around the Big Ten, at the way Maryland has attempted to deal with the fallout of the death of Jordan McNair and Michigan State’s repeated failures to appropriately handle the Larry Nassar case, it doesn’t give me much confidence that this would turn out any differently at other schools.
What happened at Ohio State is not a unique failing, though it has been handled remarkably worse than say Baylor or Penn State, but a tragic disease that plagues all of sports. Our connections to our teams leads us to such a point that we are willing to do whatever it takes to justify the worst actions, so long as we can continue to get that excitement, that rush of a victory. Unfortunately, many of the Penn State fans who are condemning Urban Meyer today were the same ones defending Joe Paterno 7 years ago. Tribal allegiance and attachment to our teams trumps our moral inclination to do the right thing. The Ohio State University Board of Trustees, and the leadership teams at most all schools, are nothing more than accomplished fans. Their heart the same as any fan who packs Ohio Stadium or Michigan Stadium, just that they have the credentials in politics and academia to get a leadership position. And so it is no surprise that the final verdict was what it was.
Indeed this entire situation is incredibly predictable and that is what is the most damning fact of all. Damning not just of Ohio State, but of college sports in general. Brian Manzullo of the Detroit Free Press had my favorite quote on this topic “No matter how you thought this Urban Meyer saga was going to go, what took place today in Columbus is a total institutional failure at the expense of the student body. And if you’re bragging about how you knew all along he’d keep his job, stop and think about why that is.” The fact that most all fans knew how this was going down before it unfolded is an indictment not of the university, but of the whole damn college sports system. Right down to us, the fans. And so when you watch Michigan athletics take the field this school year, think about what lengths you’d be willing to go to defend an incident if it happened here in Ann Arbor. And contemplate your role in creating the system that sheltered and protected Zach Smith and continues to protect Urban Meyer.
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