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The Undoing of Urban Meyer

Ohio State’s head coach has long had a reputation for valuing winning above all else. Following the release of a recent report, Meyer has been placed on administrative leave—and the school faces a choice that should define its future.

Urban Meyer Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A recent report suggests that Urban Meyer is a hypocrite, a liar, and a man who should not be allowed to coach young men. In his defense, Meyer seems prepared to argue that he was merely very bad at his job.

Meyer, the 54-year-old Ohio State head football coach, who was placed on paid administrative leave Wednesday, has long trumpeted “respect for women” as one of his core values. So much so, in fact, that the phrase “TREAT WOMEN WITH RESPECT” is painted on a wall in the Buckeyes’ practice facility. But a report by Brett McMurphy says that Meyer likely knew about the history of domestic violence accounts involving his longtime wide receivers coach Zach Smith, as Zach’s now-ex-wife Courtney Smith says that Zach repeatedly assaulted her over a number of years when he worked under Meyer at Florida and Ohio State. Meyer kept Smith on Ohio State’s staff until last week, when Courtney Smith’s account became public. Then, Meyer may have lied to the press about what he knew.

Last week it seemed that something was off about Meyer’s explanation as to why Ohio State fired Smith, which the head coach gave during his press conference at Big Ten media days last week. Meyer said that he had known about a 2009 incident in which the police were called to the Smiths’ home, but said that “what was reported wasn’t what actually happened.” Meyer also said that he had recently become aware of a 2015 incident that involved Smith, but cast doubt upon what transpired. “Once again, there’s nothing—once again, I don’t know who creates a story like that,” Meyer said. Essentially, he told the press that he let go of his longest-tenured assistant coach for reasons he did not fully believe.

On Wednesday, Meyer’s reasons became clear. McMurphy’s report includes text messages showing that Meyer’s wife, Shelley, had long been in contact with Courtney Smith about Zach Smith, as Courtney had told Shelley about the repeated physical abuses that her then-husband had inflicted. McMurphy’s report also includes photographs of Courtney Smith with bruises on her arm and neck and a bloodied gash on her hand. The report says that two of Urban Meyer’s closest mentors, Hiram de Fries and Earle Bruce, talked to Courtney Smith about not pursuing charges against Zach Smith in 2009. It’s possible that Shelley Meyer didn’t tell her husband about what she knew, though that seems unlikely. also published the details of nine police reports involving Smith from between 2012 and 2018.

If Meyer knew about what Zach Smith was doing to Courtney Smith and didn’t act, he should be fired. If Meyer, as he claims, didn’t know about what Smith was doing to his then-wife, that’s probably a fireable offense as well. It’d be downright negligent for Meyer—who, again, has “TREAT WOMEN WITH RESPECT” painted on the wall of his practice facility—to somehow miss the fact the police were repeatedly dealing with one of his most trusted confidantes. If Smith were a player, his actions would be inexcusable. But Smith is a coach, a man whom multiple universities paid to train and teach young men. That’s worse.

In an interview that aired on Stadium on Wednesday, Courtney Smith was asked whether she believed Meyer should remain the head coach at Ohio State. She paused, before answering the following: “When somebody is crying out for help, I believe the coach, along with the coach’s wife, have a duty. They have a duty to do something to help, instead of worrying about winning games. … Somebody’s safety, and the safety of their children and the environment that they’re in, needs to be more important.”

When McMurphy’s report was first published, some were quick to play told-you-so with Meyer, who is one of the most successful coaches in college football history. Meyer has won national championships at both Florida and Ohio State, making him one of just three coaches in the sport to ever win titles at two different schools (the others being Nick Saban and Pop Warner). But if you ask a lot of college football fans, he’s done so by willfully ignoring the transgressions of his players. During his tenure at Florida, Meyer’s players were arrested 31 times over six seasons—so frequently that when the Orlando Sentinel listed all of his players’ arrests in one document, it couldn’t even fit on one webpage. The New York Times reported that 41 of the players on Meyer’s 2008 roster were arrested, either at Florida or shortly after leaving the school. There was a similar string of arrests early in Meyer’s Ohio State tenure. When former Gators tight end Aaron Hernandez was sentenced for first-degree murder in 2015, some chastised Meyer for being too lenient with Hernandez and his teammates.

But these incidents shouldn’t all be grouped under one umbrella. A large number of those player arrests were of the mundane variety: misdemeanor possession of alcohol, misdemeanor possession of marijuana, misdemeanor property damage, getting into a fight with a Jimmy John’s clerk. These aren’t the same as the instances in which Meyer hasn’t done enough to prioritize the safety of others. In 2010, he suspended Chris Rainey for a mere four games after the then-Florida running back was arrested for aggravated stalking and Gainesville police said that Rainey had texted his former girlfriend, “Time to die, bitch.” And McMurphy’s report makes it seem like Meyer knowingly placed winning above humanity when it came to Courtney Smith.

Not all college sports scandals should be lumped together. The vast majority of scandals in college football history are largely insignificant in the grand scheme: some player was drunk in public, or smoked weed, or skipped classes, or signed autographs to make a quick buck. An example of a scandal like this is when Meyer’s predecessor, Jim Tressel, was forced to resign for … lying about whether he knew his players were trading memorabilia for tattoos. Meyer’s career has included several scandals in this category.

Yet these should not be mistaken for the defining college sports scandals of the current moment: how people in power at athletic departments cover up or tacitly accept the terrors caused by those who commit sexual or physical abuse, often on a systematic scale. These transgressions are unforgivable, and have led to wholesale regime changes at Penn State, Baylor, and Michigan State. We have seen signs of this problem at Colorado, Florida State, and many more. We’re far past the point of this being a trend.

We cannot treat scandals in this second group the same way that we treat scandals in the first group. These are inarguable wrongs, not just actions forbidden by the famously misguided NCAA rule book. They are not opportunities for fans, as they often do, to seize the moral high ground; the pain suffered by women and children at the hands of college coaches and players is the entire sport’s problem, and not just the problem of whichever coach happens to be in the news cycle on a given day.

Today, this is about Urban Meyer, who was either bad at his job or actively horrible and malicious. His reputation is set, as a man who values winning over morality. Now it’s up to Ohio State to decide whether it takes the same stance. The choice it makes will set an example for the next coach who has to decide whether to make the easy decision or the right one.