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The Problems With Giving Zach Smith a Media Tour

The former Ohio State assistant football coach gave two prominent interviews Friday. Here’s where that coverage went wrong.

A photo illustration of Urban Meyer and Zach Smith of Ohio State Getty Images/ESPN/Ringer illustration

“If [Urban Meyer] loses his job, it’s flat wrong. And this is the guy who fired me. It would be a crime.”

Those were the final words said by former Ohio State wide receivers coach Zach Smith during the first segment of an interview that aired on Friday’s 6 p.m. ET edition of SportsCenter. Smith, whose ex-wife Courtney Smith went public last month with accounts of domestic abuse dating back to 2009, sat down with ESPN’s Dan Murphy to give his side of the story, and ostensibly shed some light on just how much Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer knew about Smith’s past while keeping him employed on staff.

Meyer fired Zach Smith last month after Smith was charged with criminal trespassing and an Ohio judge granted a protective order that Courtney Smith had filed against her ex-husband. When that order entered the public sphere, so too did reports of a 2009 incident in which police were called to the Smiths’ Florida home after Courtney — then eight to 10 weeks pregnant — said Zach picked her up and threw her against a wall during an argument. A 2015 account also came to light in which Courtney said Zach shoved her against a wall and wrapped his hands around her neck, all while their then-3-year-old daughter clung to her leg. From 2012 to 2018 alone, Cleveland.com found nine police reports involving Zach and Courtney Smith and domestic disputes.

SportsCenter was Smith’s second interview since his firing; the first had happened mere minutes earlier on Columbus radio station 105.7 The Zone. In both interviews, the questions primarily centered on how much Meyer knew about Smith’s past, when he knew it, and how he’d responded to what he knew. This is important because on Wednesday college football insider Brett McMurphy published a report that included text messages showing that Meyer’s wife, Shelley, long knew about the 2015 incident. The report intimated that Urban might have known about it, too. This information contradicted Meyer’s remarks at Big Ten media days on July 24, when he said that he’d been informed about that account only the night before.

The investigation surrounding Meyer and the Ohio State program at large is ongoing, and at this point there are far more questions than answers. Meyer was placed on administrative leave last week as independent investigators sort through the details of what happened, and as Smith made his media rounds on Friday, Meyer released a statement that confused his narrative more than clarified it. If Meyer did indeed know about the 2015 incident and elevated “the issues to the proper channels,” why did he lie about that during his media days press conference? Why was Meyer willing to repeatedly stand by an assistant coach about whom he knew of at least two accounts of domestic violence? And what was Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith’s role in everything, given that Zach Smith said in his 105.7 interview that he “found out about the [2015] allegation because Gene Smith told me”?

Moving beyond the particulars of who knew what and when, another question arose over the weekend: Why has much of the media coverage of this case felt not only misguided, but wrong?

It’s important to note that stories involving domestic violence, sexual assault, and administrative failings related to those subjects are notoriously difficult to cover. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, as each instance is dictated by the details of that specific case. It’s also important to make clear that Zach Smith has not been convicted of domestic violence, nor is he under police investigation. But that doesn’t lessen the significance of Courtney Smith’s statements, and it doesn’t change the fact that giving Zach Smith a platform to defend himself, virtually unchecked, on prime-time radio and television was more than a little sickening.

Take the promotion surrounding both interviews. While touting their one-on-ones, ESPN and 105.7 each threw around the word “exclusive” like it was a badge of honor; SportsCenter, whose interview with Zach Smith was divided into multiple segments across the broadcast, teased upcoming parts of the sit-down in the same way that The Bachelor might encourage viewers to stay tuned: Keep watching, because after the commercial break Zach Smith responds to Urban Meyer’s statement about being placed on administrative leave! It’s one thing for a sports media outlet to interview Smith; it’s another for it to plaster his face across all of its social media platforms and hype up the conversation like a free-agency special.

Perhaps more egregious, Smith was allowed to present his account of the incidents in question largely unpressed. On SportsCenter, Smith said the bruises evident on Courtney Smith in the photos in McMurphy’s report were caused by his attempts to restrain Courtney during an argument. When Zach Smith was asked what he meant by that, he said, amid a long soliloquy, that “it’s very possible” to get bruising from being restrained, and that “you’d have to be there” to understand how that could happen. Little else was requested in the way of specifics.

After the interviews aired, McMurphy shared a screenshot of a previously unpublished text-message exchange between Zach and Courtney Smith in which Zach acknowledged “picking [Courtney] up by the neck and strangling [her]” in 2015 and apologized. Neither outlet received a follow-up comment from Zach Smith.

Neither interview mentioned Courtney Smith with anywhere near the frequency with which Meyer was brought up, and Zach Smith offered the same platitudes in each one: that his and Courtney’s marriage was volatile, that their relationship was toxic and at times aggressive, but that no crime occurred on his part. The emphasis on Meyer throughout these interviews is understandable — he’d been placed on administrative leave days earlier, and depending on the results of Ohio State’s investigation, his job could be at risk — but this seemed like yet another instance in which the concerns of a football team were valued above a woman’s account, another example of athletics taking priority over the very personal nature of these stories.

Friday’s interviews weren’t a onetime failing, or even really outliers in sports media. Following the extensive reporting done into the systematic patterns of abuse at universities like Baylor, and Penn State, and Michigan State, accounts of sexual assault, domestic abuse, and cover-ups related to those issues are no longer being tolerated. As ESPN’s Andrea Adelson wrote on Friday, “Forgiving and forgetting domestic violence, sexual assault or abuse against women is no longer the norm. Nobody is too big to go down in college sports, not anymore.”

And there have been reporters and outlets that have succeeded at handling this case with depth, care, and thought. McMurphy crafted an incredibly detailed account of Zach and Courtney Smith’s history, and the sports video network Stadium didn’t shy away from asking difficult questions in Courtney Smith’s first — and to this point, only — public interview.

This is, at its heart, a story about a woman who left a man she says had been abusing her for years, a woman who reached out for help in multiple places, including telling the wife of that man’s employer about what she’d endured, and gotten little aid. On Friday, it was covered like the college football equivalent of The Decision. Accounts of domestic violence and sexual assault aren’t new to the sports world, and they won’t be going away. Moving forward, it will be important to recognize the difference between getting both sides of a story and prominently promoting the unverified account of a man whose ex-wife says he abused her. As things stand, it’s clear that not everyone recognizes that distinction.