Commentary: Ohio State Fails in Holding Urban Meyer Accountable for Zach Smith

So, the verdict is in.

Urban Meyer, the legendary coach at Ohio State, has been suspended for three games for, what, nobody is still quite sure.  One thing is certain — the Buckeye administration is holding Meyer accountable for not policing his assistant coach, Zach Smith.

As a small reminder, Smith was fired in July by Meyer for a series of indiscretions that included physically abusing his wife.  Since that time, it has been discovered that Smith ordered sex toys and had them delivered to his office; he had an affair with an OSU football employee; paid for high school coaches to go with him to strip clubs; and he took lewd pictures of himself when Ohio State’s football team visited the White House. Before that, Smith was involved with domestic abuse allegations in both 2009 and 2015. Basically, all in all, Smith has proved to be a total idiot.

Earlier this summer, Smith’s ex-wife went on the offensive, giving a series of interviews to ESPN saying that Meyer has known all along that Smith abused her.  After a story broke on ESPN that this was allegedly the case, Ohio State suspended Meyer with pay while they came up with their own independent investigation.  That investigation ended yesterday with Meyer being suspended.

Some will say the three game suspension was a slap on the wrist; some will say he is being unfairly punished for someone else’s actions.  Then some, like Heather Dinich of ESPN, will say that Meyer “just doesn’t get it” because, according to her, Meyer lied at Big Ten Media Days and Meyer should have said Courtney Smith’s name at the press conference.  Then there will some people like me, who say the whole damn thing is BS.

Meyer was asked on Big Ten Media Day if he knew about Smith being charged with a “felony” for attacking his wife back in 2015.  Meyer answered the question, saying he wasn’t aware of the felony charges.  What Meyer was aware of is that there was an investigation of Smith, which didn’t result in any criminal charges. So, to that end, Meyer answered the question in a truthful manner.  However, he is being portrayed as someone who didn’t answer the question truthfully.  That is what brought the Ohio State investigation on.

Additionally, Meyer is being held accountable for basically giving his assistant coach, who was never charged in the case, the benefit of the doubt.  Now, that might be misguided in this place because of how crazy Smith acted while on his job, but the problem is Meyer didn’t know about all the other nonsense until AFTER the investigation was completed.  I suspect the general public has no idea just how big of a job it is to be the head football coach at Ohio State.  Think CEO of AT&T or IBM.  If someone is sneaking around having sex in a company bathroom, it is a fair assessment and assumption the CEO isn’t going to know about it.

In essence, Meyer is being punished for showing support for a guy he wanted to believe in, for not creating a problem until he had all the facts.  That is not fashionable in today’s society, but it sure the hell is prudent.  While this came back to bite both Meyer and Ohio State in the ass, I am not sure what Meyer could have done differently, except not hire Smith in the first place.

There is a wild card in this story too.  Smith is the grandson of Earle Bruce, who was a father figure to Meyer when he was a young adult.  It is a given that Meyer wanted to believe in the best of Smith because of Meyer’s long standing relationship with Bruce.  Misguided loyalty in this case, but something I could see most people doing.

We have become a police state in this country.  Do we really believe that our employers are responsible for our personal lives, for what goes on behind the scene with our families?  Is that who we are and what we want to be as a country?  Do we really think Urban Meyer should be up in his assistant coaches relationship with his wife?  The answer should be an emphatic no.  But, instead, our society has reframed what it means to be loyal to someone, to not rat on them, to give a confidant the benefit of the doubt.  To hold Meyer accountable, or anyone else responsible for another man’s actions, is ridiculous.

I want to ask some fundamental questions here.  If Dinich is listening, maybe she can answer them for me.

One, Meyer was blindsided by the question about Smith’s wife at the Big Ten Media Day.  If you were blindsided by such a sensitive question, in front of millions of people viewing on ESPN, would you protect your associate and your university employer until you had more facts?  I know I probably would. The question the reporter asked Meyer, too, was fundamentally flawed because it wasn’t true.  So, in that scenario, what responsibility does the reporter have to make sure his question is factual?  The Ohio State investigators stated, clearly, that Meyer did not intentionally lie when answering the question.  Dinich and the court of public opinion thinks otherwise.

Two, at the press conference held last night at Ohio State, the very last question asked of Meyer was “What would you say to Courtney Smith?”  His answer was a canned response that basically said he feels bad that all of them were in this position.  Meyer has been lambasted and ridiculed for not providing a more heartfelt answer. Let me ask you another question.  How would you answer that question of someone who went to the press, instead of coming to you in private, and essentially tried to bring your football program and your life’s work down in one fell swoop?  I will let you answer that question for yourself.

Now, nobody is advocating that Smith and her ex-husband didn’t have major problems.  And, clearly, the major part of those problems lie with Zach Smith abusing his wife, abusing his position as a college football coach, and treating his life in a reckless manner.  There is no dispute there.  What is in dispute is this — if Smith was under my watch, what responsibility do I have to my employer to police this guy’s personal life?  If the police didn’t charge him with a crime, what is my responsibility there if my associate, who I want to believe, is telling me it is all a big misunderstanding?  I am a sportswriter, not a police investigator.  The police have already done their investigation and told us their wasn’t enough to bring charges.  What do I do then?  Aren’t we innocent until proven guilty?  That is how it used to be.  In today’s world, you are guilty until proven innocent.

I remember when the Jerry Sandusky child abuse case hit Penn State.  One story I read stated that Joe Paterno, who Sandusky worked for, should have done more to keep that mess from happening.  The writer actually suggested that Joe Pa should have tracked the 12 year old victim down and found out what happened. Paterno, when he first was alerted of the problems with Sandusky, immediately called the President of the university, and the Chief of the Campus Police, and told them they needed to get over to his house right away.  It was a Sunday morning. He reported all he knew to his supervisors, who — by law — were supposed to take it from there.  At that point, Paterno has done his job and done what most all of us would do. But, because those two guys didn’t follow protocol, and because they did not report the allegation to the compliance people and the State Attorney General, Coach Paterno was fired.  Again, in this case, the court of public opinion was that he could have and should have somehow done more, just like we have here in Meyer’s case.

Domestic violence in this country is an epidemic.  It cannot be tolerated at any level of society.  Nobody can ever dispute that.  What can be disputed is that I am not responsible to follow people around and worry all day about what they are up to in their personal lives.  That is not my responsibility, and it isn’t Meyer’s either. We need to stop pointing fingers, placing blame, and holding people accountable for other’s actions.  Zach Smith is the villain here, not Urban Meyer.


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