clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

With Urban Meyer’s Suspension, Ohio State Does the Bare Minimum

The school’s board of trustees suspended Meyer three games for his role in mishandling accounts of domestic abuse involving a former staffer. The penalty isn’t only weak—it sends completely the wrong message.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Urban Meyer is still the head football coach at Ohio State University. The school’s board of trustees convened for an executive session on Wednesday to discuss his “employment, compensation, and discipline.” After almost 11 hours of deliberation, it reached its decision. Meyer is suspended for three games without pay: against Oregon State, Rutgers, and TCU. Athletic director Gene Smith is suspended without pay from August 31 through September 16.

Over the past few weeks, Ohio State’s pending decision about Meyer’s job status has been the most inescapable story in sports. On August 1, longtime college football insider Brett McMurphy published a report that Meyer likely knew about the history of domestic violence accounts involving his former wide receivers coach Zach Smith. Later that afternoon, the school placed Meyer on paid administrative leave. Ohio State then sanctioned an independent investigation into Meyer’s handling of the situation, and that investigation wrapped on Sunday. Now, the university has released its official findings: “Although neither Urban Meyer nor Gene Smith condoned or covered up the alleged domestic abuse by Zach Smith, they failed to take sufficient management action relating to Zach Smith’s misconduct and retained an Assistant Coach who was not performing as an appropriate role model for OSU student-athletes,” the report read.

In layman’s terms: Neither Meyer nor Smith did nearly enough. But that also wasn’t enough to cost them more than a paycheck or two.

As a refresher, here are the particulars of the case: Zach Smith worked as an assistant under Meyer at Florida from 2005 to 2009 and then at Ohio State from 2011 to July 2018. Zach Smith’s ex-wife Courtney Smith says that Zach picked her up and threw her against a bedroom wall when she was pregnant in 2009; that he pushed her and put his hands around her throat after the couple moved to Columbus in 2012; and that he assaulted her after the pair was separated in 2015. McMurphy’s report included text messages showing that Courtney Smith had been in consistent communication with Urban Meyer’s wife, Shelley, regarding her relationship with Zach Smith, casting doubt on Urban’s remarks at Big Ten media days that he knew only of the 2009 account and had no knowledge of the 2015 incident prior to July 23, when he fired Smith. “Once again, there’s nothing—once again, I don’t know who creates a story like that,” Meyer said on July 24.

In the weeks since, the investigation has been defined by questions: Given that Meyer knew about the 2009 account, how could he bring Zach Smith to Ohio State in the first place? If Meyer was aware of the 2015 account, why did he keep Smith on staff for three more years? Why didn’t Meyer do more? And why did he deceive reporters about how much he knew?

On Wednesday, lead investigator Mary Jo White announced that both Meyer and Gene Smith were indeed aware of the 2015 account. She made clear that neither reported it to Ohio State’s compliance department. Smith said Meyer did not inform him of the 2009 incident involving Zach Smith before the school hired Smith in 2011. And as for Meyer’s comments at Big Ten media days, White said: “While those denials were plainly not accurate, Coach Meyer did not in our view deliberately lie.”

Putting aside for a second that knowing something for three years and then telling people that you don’t is, without question, deliberately lying, this outcome isn’t terribly surprising. Meyer is one of the winningest coaches in the history of the sport, with a 177-31 record over his Division I career and a 73-8 mark at Ohio State since 2012. He led the Buckeyes to the inaugural national title of the College Football Playoff era; he has defeated rival Michigan in each of their six matchups during his tenure.

From a legal perspective, Ohio State was under no obligation to fire Meyer. As Sports Illustrated’s Michael McCann explained in an in-depth analysis this month, had the university elected to fire Meyer for cause, “he would almost certainly then sue the school for breach of contract.” Financially, things would have gotten messier had the school opted to part ways.

All things considered, though, Ohio State’s move is a colossal disappointment. The message it sent struck exactly the wrong chord. Meyer wasn’t too big to fail, but was clearly too big to fall. This ruling sets the precedent that the standard punishment for enabling domestic violence is three measly games.

Before going any further, it’s important to note that it wasn’t Ohio State’s duty to serve as the moral compass for the entire college sports world. The university’s board of trustees was tasked with reaching a decision about Meyer’s employment based on the results of an investigation, and it did that, regardless of how you feel about the verdict.

It also should be stressed that looking to college football as an effectual arbitrator of justice is, and forever will be, a fool’s errand. This is a sport that puts 18- to 22-year-olds at risk of serious injury (or worse) for the sake of entertainment and is built upon a workforce that isn’t properly compensated for its labor. On a spectrum of basic human decency, college football lands somewhere around wrecking a motorcycle with a mistress on board and calling an escort service with a university-issued cellphone. A bastion of morality this is not.

Historically, the expectations of college coaches have reflected as much. For all that the cult of the coach has been a mainstay of the NCAA landscape, a head coach has seldom (never?) been hired for his tendency to do the right thing. Dealing with societal issues has long been secondary; maintaining a competitive on-field product and glad-handing the requisite boosters has ensured that the checks ($7.6 million, in Meyer’s case) keep on cashing.

Moreover, while someone in Meyer’s position has been fired for being involved in an account of domestic violence—see: Michael Haywood at Pittsburgh in 2011—Meyer has never been implicated in any such accounts. Zach Smith has. And since Meyer never “violated any policy, rules, or law or contractual obligation in connection with the alleged domestic abuse claims against Zach Smith,” per the findings, his defense, and the defense of those who support this decision, boils down to the idea that he simply did his job.

And that’s precisely why Wednesday’s ruling was such a letdown. The horrifying scandals at Penn State, Baylor, and Michigan State, among others, seemed to portend a future in which college coaches were held to a higher standard, in which tacitly endorsing cultures of violence and assault was not tolerated, in which enabling abusers was recognized for the glaring problem it is. Over the past 20 years, Ohio State coaches have been ousted for committing NCAA violations (Jim Tressel, Jim O’Brien) and for not winning enough games (Thad Matta). This was its chance to show it also couldn’t abide a coach who didn’t adequately deal with a staffer’s pattern of abuse.

Yet when the coach in question was Meyer, who has a higher profile than any of his peers not named Nick Saban, Ohio State’s trustees defaulted to the old status quo. They were willing to gloss past the investigation’s findings that Meyer discussed “how to delete messages older than one year” from his phone, and instead offered up a bunch of ass-backward explanations that signaled how it was more important that Meyer came out on the right side of a fourth-and-1 call in 2016, that he led the Buckeyes to that comeback against Penn State last October, and that he lifted his squad past Oregon on a January 2015 night in Jerry World.

When Ohio State placed Meyer on leave on August 1, Brenda Tracy, the leading advocate in college football’s fight against rape and violence, sent a tweet that perfectly encapsulated the significance of what was unfolding:

This wasn’t a sea-change moment, but maybe it was confirmation of a wave of shifting expectations. If Meyer could go down, so could anyone.

Apparently that was too optimistic. The days of sweeping it under the rug persist. When faced with a choice between taking a stand and prioritizing the safety of Courtney Smith or doing the bare minimum while looking the other way, Meyer picked the latter. By letting him off light, Ohio State has perpetuated a sad reality: When you win, the bare minimum is still enough.