The Ohio State coach's glittering record on the field and success in boosting the cash cow that is Buckeyes football ultimately carried the day in the independent investigation into his conduct.
One of the prime conclusions in the independent investigation into Urban Meyer’s conduct is that the Ohio State football coach had a “blind spot” for Zach Smith, who is the grandson of Meyer’s beloved mentor, Earle Bruce.
Meyer, it seems, gave every benefit of the doubt to Smith, an assistant coach with an ever-growing compendium of personal issues that should have led to his ouster long before Meyer finally gave him the boot last month. But Meyer kept wagging his finger and stringing Smith along, enduring his peccadillos and keeping him employed despite two separate allegations of domestic violence against his wife, Courtney Smith — an issue for which the coach purports to have a zero-tolerance policy.
Turns out Ohio State also has a blind spot — for Meyer, the highly successful coach whose glittering record (73-8 and one national title in six seasons at OSU) and undeniable success in boosting the cash cow that is Buckeyes football (a program worth in excess of $1 billion to the university, according to The Wall Street Journal) ultimately carried the day.
Talk about getting the benefit of the doubt — the independent investigation established by the school’s Board of Trustees tied itself in knots doing just that in the summary of findings that was released following Ohio State’s wrist slap of Meyer. The report kept cataloging missteps by Meyer and then found often-dubious reasons to excuse them.
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As Michael McCann, Sports Illustrated’s legal expert and the associate dean at New Hampshire School of Law, wrote: “Ohio State’s decision on Wednesday to suspend Urban Meyer for three games, despite finding that he engaged in multiple types of misconduct that would have justified firing him with cause, reflected a calculated choice.”
The choice school officials made, sadly, should not be a surprise. What’s most disturbing to me and many others is that Courtney Smith, who has repeatedly claimed that she was mentally and physically abused by Zach Smith, stalked and threatened by him, and who in July was granted a civil protection order against him, was barely acknowledged at the news conference announcing the suspension. And then only grudgingly. When Meyer was asked what message he had for Courtney Smith, he replied in a monotone, “I have a message for everyone involved. I’m sorry we’re in this situation.”
Given a chance to display empathy and concern, Meyer showed only cold indifference. That hardly fits with the portrayal of Meyer as a staunch protector of women, one who had a sign installed in the Buckeyes locker room that says, “TREAT WOMEN WITH RESPECT.” The summary of findings concluded that that “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.”
Yet according to the report, Meyer never believed Courtney Smith’s allegations, choosing to take the side of a man, Zach Smith, who — according to the investigation — was erratic in his job performance, showing up late to practices and workouts and blowing off recruiting visits; who was engaged in a sexual relationship with a secretary on the football staff; who took sexually explicit photos of himself in the OSU football facilities and elsewhere, including the White House following the national title; who ran up charges of $600 at a strip club while on a recruiting trip; who was, on Meyer’s advice and direction, admitted to a drug-treatment facility for addiction to a stimulant prescription drug used to treat ADHD; who was given a trespass warning by police because he allegedly entered onto the premises of Courtney Smith, then his ex-wife; and who less than six months later was charged with criminal trespass after he went to Courtney Smith’s home.
Meyer didn’t know of all of these incidents, but he knew enough that surely he must have had serious reservations about Zach Smith’s character. But it was not until the domestic violence civil protection order was issued against Smith on July 20 that Meyer decided to fire him. Ohio State’s report states: “Coach Meyer considered the (protection order) to be the first actual evidence that Zach Smith had engaged in domestic violence, even though Zach Smith continues to deny it and is contesting the order.”
Smith was a shady character that had no business around the young men of the Ohio State program. That Meyer kept him on staff was beyond a “blind spot” — it was an embarrassment. Though it is true that no charges were filed against Smith, the lead investigator into this report, Mary Jo White, a former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, made a key point at Wednesday’s news conference: Charges aren’t the threshold in domestic-violence cases.
White’s report expresses doubt over the claims of Meyer and his wife Shelley, that they never discussed the texts, photos and phone calls, that Courtney Smith shared with Shelley of her allegations of abuse. It confirmed that Meyer knew Zach Smith was being investigated by police for domestic violence in 2015, despite Meyer strongly denying such claims at Big Ten Media Days in late July. But it concludes that his comments were not part of a deliberate cover-up and intimate that his memory lapse might have been the result of medication. And further, that Meyer and athletic director Gene Smith merely misunderstood the school’s reporting requirements when they didn’t report the 2015 allegations to Ohio State’s compliance department, rather than engaging in a cover-up.
The investigation details that Meyer appears to have wiped from his cellphone text messages that were older than a year in the aftermath of Brett McMurphy’s report that Meyer was aware of the claims against Smith. It states, “Often, although not always, such reactions evidence consciousness of guilt.”
Yet Ohio State ultimately concluded that Meyer didn’t attain a level of guilt that warranted his dismissal. Though I’d have applauded such a move, I’ll acknowledge that this is a difficult case. Anyone who says otherwise is too deeply embedded in a point of view, one way or the other, that doesn’t allow for nuance or gray area.
All we can say for certain is that Meyer’s once-glittering reputation will be forever tainted. The university’s blind spot for Meyer may have saved his job, but it can’t wipe away the stain of this whole sordid episode.