Ohio State: Where Wins Matter More Than Women

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- This is a column about the action Ohio State University took this week to punish its highly successful football coach, Urban Meyer, for ignoring serious allegations of domestic violence involving one of his assistant coaches. As regular readers know, I often begin my columns with a bit of history — so let’s take a quick trip to 2010, when the equally successful Jim Tressel was Ohio State’s coach.

In Tressel’s decade in charge, the Buckeyes won one national championship and six Big Ten titles, and went 9-1 against hated Michigan. Then the National Collegiate Athletic Association learned that football players had for years been trading Ohio State gear and memorabilia for services at a local tattoo parlor. Though the gear was their own property, this was still an NCAA rules violation, and resulted in five-game suspensions for a handful of players. As for Tressel, he was forced out by the university after the NCAA discovered that he had lied about what he had known about the violations.

Now let’s return to 2018, when in late July, a woman named Courtney Smith went to court to get a protective order against her ex-husband, Zach Smith, who coached the team’s wide receivers.  She said he was harassing and stalking her. As part of her court filing, she detailed instances during their marriage when Smith had beaten and strangled her. One incident had taken place in 2009 and two others in 2015.

Smith’s history of domestic violence became public when Brett McMurphy, a former ESPN journalist, learned of the court proceedings and published Courtney Smith’s allegations. Meyer responded by firing Zach Smith. A few days later, at a press conference, he acknowledged that he had been aware of the 2009 incident — Smith worked for Meyer at the University of Florida at the time, and Meyer claimed that he and his wife, Shelley, provided “counseling” to Smith and his then-pregnant wife — but Meyer was adamant that he’d been never been told about the 2015 beatings. Indeed, he said if he had known about them, he would have fired Zach Smith much earlier.

This, however, was a lie. Within a week, McMurphy was back with an even bigger scoop: He had text messages from 2015 between Courtney Smith and Shelley Meyer discussing, in intimate detail, the violence Smith’s then-husband was inflicting on her. At one point, Shelley mentioned “pics” Courtney had of injuries she had suffered at Zach’s hands — pictures that McMurphy would soon publish as well.

It is well-known that Shelley and Urban Meyer are a close couple; the idea that she would refrain from telling him about Zach Smith’s abuse was implausible to anyone who knew the two. Ohio State reacted to this second McMurphy expose by putting Meyer on “administrative leave” and hiring Mary Jo White, the former head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, to lead a quickie investigation.

The report was issued late Wednesday, and it is filled with damning facts. Meyer knew about the 2015 incidents, but didn’t do anything in response; indeed, he didn’t really believe Courtney Smith, calling it in one email a “he said she said situation.” When the Lantern, the school newspaper, filed a freedom of information request for Meyer’s texts, he appears to have erased all of them older than a year. When he wanted to bring Smith onto his Ohio State staff in 2011, he didn’t tell anyone at the university about the 2009 domestic violence incident.

Meyer lied when he said he knew nothing about the 2015 beatings. He failed to report Courtney Smith’s allegations of abuse to higher-ups, as university protocol required. Meyer also consistently looked the other way when Zach Smith did something wrong — like racking up a huge credit card bill at a strip club during a recruiting trip, or having an affair with an athletic department assistant.

And yet, at every juncture, the report either exonerates Meyer’s behavior or excuses it. He tells the investigators that he has memory issues of some sort; that he didn’t mean to lie, he was just so focused on football that he wasn’t properly prepared for the press conference; that he was loathe to discipline or fire Smith because Smith’s grandfather, Earle Bruce, a former Ohio State coach himself, was Meyer’s mentor.

The sentence in the report that got the most attention — and scorn — reads: “Coach Meyer, in our view, did not deliberately lie.” But to my mind, the most laughable sentence is the next one: “Overall, Coach Meyer impressed us with a sincere commitment to the Respect for Women core value that he espouses and tries to instill in his players.” When Meyer chose to protect an underling rather than believe a woman’s account of violence, he was acting more like a Catholic bishop protecting a predatory priest.

With the exculpatory report in hand, Ohio State’s board of trustees elected not to fire Meyer but to suspend him for a measly three games. Sports Illustrated’s legal writer Michael McCann listed all the legal and economic reasons for retaining Meyer — not the least of which was the prospect of having to pay him the $38 million remaining on his contract. But given that Meyer’s record at Ohio State is 73-8, including a national title, you’d have to say that football had a little bit to do with it too.

To sum up: If you are an Ohio State player caught selling your own gear, you’ll get suspended for five games. If you’re the coach and pretend you didn’t know about these piddling violations, you’ll get fired. But if you look the other way when one of your assistant coaches beats his wife, and then lie about what you know, that apparently is worth a three-game suspension.

Ohio State could have sent a powerful signal that domestic violence would not be tolerated within the university community. It could have shown that it really did have values that transcended football. Instead it sent a different, sadder signal:

This may be the #MeToo era, but at Ohio State, football still trumps all.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. He is co-author of “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA.”

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