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The Amorality of Urban Meyer and Jeff Luhnow

Both the Ohio State head coach and the Houston Astros GM employ or used to employ men accused of domestic violence. Neither one told the truth. Why not?

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and Astros GM Jeff Luhnow Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Sunday, Brad Koffel, the attorney representing former Ohio State receivers coach Zach Smith, took to his weekly radio show in Columbus and laid into the media for its coverage of his client’s case while also defending embattled Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer. Koffel’s line of argument is as familiar as it is specious; he accused biased reporters of “creat[ing] narratives that are designed to grab eyeballs and clicks” in order to attack “football coaches,” a phrase he repeated as if to underline the preposterousness of sports journalists commenting on the behavior of people in uncommon positions of power.

The 34-year-old Smith worked for Meyer at both Florida and Ohio State and played for him at Bowling Green. His now ex-wife filed a domestic violence civil protection order against him on July 20, 2018, saying he has choked and shoved her.

Koffel, of course, is just advocating for his client, which is his job as a defense attorney—and a necessary one in our legal system. No matter how heinous the crime or odious the defendant, everyone deserves a vigorous legal defense.

“My dad is a defense attorney, so until you’re proven guilty of something you’re innocent, as far as I’m concerned,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman told reporters the same day Koffel took to the airwaves.

Bregman and his Astros teammates have been thrust into the other big national story at the intersection of violence against women and American sports—Houston’s discount trade-deadline acquisition of relief pitcher Roberto Osuna, who currently faces assault charges in Toronto and is coming off a 75-game suspension for violating the joint MLB-MLBPA policy on domestic violence.

Despite the national opprobrium, the most discussed figures in both cases have not been the alleged batterers themselves, or even the survivors, but their bosses. Meyer is on paid administrative leave pending the results of an investigation into when he knew of the accounts that Smith had abused his wife. Much of the outrage in Osuna’s case has been directed not at the pitcher himself but at the team’s general manager and president of baseball operations, Jeff Luhnow—who is sometimes referred to metonymically as “the Astros” for going out of his way to acquire a player who was suspended for allegedly assaulting a woman and then trying to talk his way out of criticism.

As much as one might roll one’s eyes at Koffel’s comments on Sunday, he did get one thing right: There is “nothing unique” about the Smiths’ former marriage, or even this case as it relates to the complex intersection of sports, jurisprudence, and violence against women. That part of the story is all too familiar—Smith has been fired, Osuna suspended, and while either or both could face criminal sanction for their alleged behavior, we won’t find out for certain for a long time. The first chapter of the story is closed.

The next part of the story concerns the extent to which both Meyer and Luhnow have bungled their respective situations, not so much through their own misdeeds but by lying about or attempting to minimize the misdeeds of others. In fact, Meyer might have imperiled his own job by doing so. From Watergate to Penn State to Baylor, we hardly need more examples of one person’s or a few people’s bad actions taking down dozens of others who tried to cover those crimes up. So why lie?

Somewhere along the way, we as a society took it as read that sports were not just a child’s pastime or an entertainment venture but an expression of moral righteousness. Of course, one can learn discipline and teamwork through sports, but the object is victory, not virtue. That myth is particularly persistent and pernicious in football, but exists in all team sports. Too many coaches trade on the idea that victory is a reward given to the righteous, and far too many fans gobble up that idea in the hope of basking in their team’s reflected glow.

Lying is easier in the moment than facing the consequences of one’s actions, but in this case, lying also allows everyone to go on without acknowledging that sports institutions are amoral enterprises.

Meyer lied: He denied any knowledge of Smith’s abuse at Big Ten media days on July 24, one day after Smith’s firing. Then, when reporter Brett McMurphy published proof to the contrary, Meyer issued a statement saying he’d reported the incident to proper authorities in 2015, even though he didn’t fire Smith for three years.

Luhnow’s case doesn’t involve a cover-up, though his arguments do appeal to a public ignorance of the facts.

“There’s not a lot of people who have a lot of information about what happened or who the person is, and yet they’re pretty quick to judge and condemn,” Luhnow said on Sunday. “That’s something we need to be careful of.”

That line—“we don’t know all the facts,” or some version of it—has been repeated by almost every Astros player who’s been questioned about Osuna. Even Osuna himself said as much, and he ought to be one of two people in the world who does have all the facts. Luhnow and the Astros seem to believe, or at least they profess to believe, that Osuna has paid his dues and deserves a second chance, and that the Astros can help him become a better man as he helps them defend their World Series title.

It’s a nice sentiment, except forgiveness requires an admission of wrongdoing, which Osuna hasn’t given. The reason we don’t have all the facts is that Osuna plans to plead not guilty in his criminal assault case, which is ongoing. (It’s worth noting that the MLB commissioner’s office, which presumably has more facts than the public does, looked at those facts and handed Osuna the second-longest domestic violence suspension in baseball history. It’s not a conviction or an admission, but it’s a data point that must be considered.)

Luhnow is trying to get everyone to skip straight from misdeed to redemption without first stopping for an admission of wrongdoing. Without that, Osuna is only overcoming the consequences of his own sins, not growing into a better man than the one who committed those sins in the first place. Maybe Luhnow’s wordplay isn’t out-and-out lying, but it is elision or sophistry or obfuscation.

The truth in both cases is something like “I know this guy is bad, or has done bad things, but I think he’ll help us win ballgames.” Meyer could even fall back on sentiment—Smith’s grandfather, Earle Bruce, gave Meyer his first college coaching job and Meyer has known Smith for years. Turning a blind eye to the wrongdoing of a longtime friend isn’t righteous and probably not exculpatory, but at least it’s understandable on some level.

But admitting that truth means admitting that it’s more important to win football games than it is to prevent intimate partner violence. That requires an admission not only of guilt but of bad judgment or moral degradation. It requires an acknowledgement that victory is a self-justifying pursuit. The kind of prideful man who becomes a national champion football coach or World Series–winning general manager just might not be able to bring himself to say such things. It also punctures the myth of sports as a great moral crucible.

American sports fans are remarkably forgiving, and indeed there’s a small but noisy percentage of fans who are willing to excuse just about anything if it helps the team win. Maybe telling the truth isn’t an option for reasons of pride or simply because everyone who lies believes, on some level, they’re going to get away with it. But telling the truth would pose a difficult question to players and fans: If your team set out to profit from intimate partner violence, what would you do? As uncomfortable as we are with lying, we’d probably be even less comfortable with learning that particular truth.