Late Wednesday night, after a 10-hour, closed-door meeting, Ohio State University announced that head football coach Urban Meyer was suspended three games for mishandling domestic violence allegations against former assistant coach Zach Smith, and for making public “misstatements” about his knowledge of the situation. Athletics Director Gene Smith was also suspended, without pay, for two weeks.
At first glance, it might seem promising that Meyer and Smith were punished at all, given the number of times we’ve seen powerful figures navigate through similar controversies unscathed. But in fact, every single part of Meyer’s punishment — from the investigation proceeding it, to the press conference revealing it, to the 23-page report detailing it — provides a textbook case for why women are hesitant to come forward with allegations, for why so many victims suffer in silence.
Because when they do come forward, the entire system is set up to re-traumatize them, only to toss them aside completely when an investigation ends. Society’s understanding of sexual and domestic abuse might have evolved a bit over the past year or two, but the the systems that enable it continue to reign supreme and unchallenged. Think I’m exaggerating?
First, let’s look at the punishment itself. Meyer, who is the highest paid public employee in the state, has been suspended since August 1, and will be permitted back on campus on September 2. However, he won’t be able to coach the first three football games of the season. Their third game of the season, against TCU, is on September 15 . For comparison’s sake, unpaid football players at the University of North Carolina were recently suspended four games for selling team-issued shoes. That equation alone pretty much sums up the NCAA’s priorities; protect amateurism, not women.
Then, there was Wednesday night’s press conference. It was the culmination of an investigation that began formally on August 1, and informally on July 23, when Meyer and AD Gene Smith were notified of a restraining order against Zach Smith by his ex-wife, Courtney Smith. Meyer fired Smith that day, and the following day, when asked about reports regarding a 2015 police investigation into Zach’s alleged abuse of Courtney, Meyer denied having any previous knowledge of the incident. On August 1, college football reporter Brett McMurphy published a story revealing that Meyer did, indeed, have knowledge of the 2015 allegations. Meyer was placed on suspension, and a two-week investigation was launched.
At the press conference, there was plenty of talk about the pain this investigation had caused Meyer, and “Buckeye Nation” as a whole. One person whose suffering went unmentioned? Courtney Smith.
When asked if he has anything to say to Courtney Smith, Urban Meyer said: "Well, I have a message for everyone involved in this. I'm sorry we're in this situation. And I'm just sorry we're in this situation."
— Diana Moskovitz (@DianaMoskovitz) August 23, 2018
Courtney had the courage to come forward with her story. She tried to report the abuse to the police, first in 2009, then in 2015. She talked openly about the abuse with Shelley Meyer, Urban’s wife. And, while talking with a reporter, she provided proof of the abuse in the forms of text messages, legal documents, and photographs.
And yet, Meyer and Ohio State had the audacity not just to minimize her pain, but co-opt it and flaunt it as their own. She’s the one who was physically beaten and traumatized by a man she was married to and raising children with; they’re the ones who get to stand in front of everyone at a press conference, and portray her scars as their own, all without ever even mentioning her name.
At the press conference, Meyer attempted to explain his handling of the allegations against Smith by saying he “followed his heart, not his head,” and that this was a “learning situation.” He did not go into details about why his heart instructed him to protect an alleged abuser instead of his alleged victim, or about what lessons he actually learned.
Then there’s the report itself. It goes into devastating details about what Meyer and AD Smith did wrong, about the many ways they failed to properly protect and help Courtney Smith. And then, at the very end of the report, investigators applauded Meyer…for his respect for women.
“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,” the report concludes, inexplicably. “We believe that AD Smith shares that commitment.”
Abusers and enablers, especially those in power, are given the benefit of the doubt, time and time again. Their intentions are always perceived to be innocent. Survivors who come forward, on the other hand, are doubted, discarded, and then forgotten.
The report begins by reviewing what happened in 2009, when Zach Smith was arrested for aggravated battery of a pregnant female, his then-wife, Courtney. At the time, Smith was working for Meyer at the University of Florida. Courtney alleges that after a fight with her husband late in the night, Zach picked her up and threw her against the wall. She called 911, and Zach was arrested by the Gainesville Police Department. Courtney says that Zach’s grandfather, Earl Bruce, a former OSU head coach and mentor to Meyer, pressured her not to press charges.
Meyer says that Courtney and Zach both came to his office soon after the 2009 arrest, and Courtney told him that she provided incorrect information to the authorities, and that Zach had not abused her. But, according to the report, Courtney denies ever recanting her allegations, and says she met with Shelley Meyer, Urban’s wife, but not Meyer himself. Significantly, Zach, who denies all charges of abuse, also says that Courtney did not met with Meyer.
“We find it more likely that only Zach Smith met with Coach Meyer in 2009, and that Courtney Smith likely did not recant her allegations of abuse at that time to Urban or Shelley Meyer,” the report concludes.
In other words: Meyer lied to investigators about what Courtney told him in 2009. Then, in December 2011, when Zach was hired by Meyer to be his assistant coach at Ohio State, his 2009 arrest did not show up on his background check, and Meyer did not offer the information to any administrators at OSU. Then, in 2015, when Meyer found out about an investigation into Zach for possible domestic violence against Courtney, he still didn’t find it important to tell AD Smith about the 2009 incident. That’s absolutely staggering.
From October 2015-2016, the Powell Police Department and the Delaware County prosecutor investigated Zach for possible domestic violence and cyber offenses against Courtney Smith. The report concludes that Meyer and AD Smith were both immediately notified about this investigation, and told that Zach could be arrested at any time. They also kept a close eye on the investigation, and met with Zach frequently about it. Meyer even helped arrange professional counseling for Zach during this time.
Remember, this happened in a post-Ray Rice world, when organizations were supposed to be taking this stuff seriously. And yet, time and time again, Meyer and AD Smith let Zach off with warnings, despite the fact that his overall job performance and behavior was not even close to exceptional, either.
The report goes on to detail other disturbing patterns of behavior from Zach, including a ticket for drunk driving, visits to strip clubs while out on recruiting trips, having multiple credit cards declined while on official business, and delinquent payments for iPhones and other football-related expenses. In 2015 and 2016, during and after his divorce proceedings, Zach was regularly late to practice and workouts, failed to show up at recruiting visits, had a sexual relationship with a secretary on the football staff, took sexually explicit photos of himself in OSU practice facilities and on official visits, including at the White House, and had sex toys delivered to the facilities.
According to the report, AD Smith encouraged Meyer to fire Zach in early 2016, but despite being aware of many of the aforementioned incidents, Meyer refused. He did, however, direct Zach to enter a drug treatment facility in June 2016. Apparently, Meyer did not think that information was relevant to AD Smith.
On July 23, 2018, Meyer and AD Smith found out through social media reports that Courtney had been granted a civil protection order against Zach. This time, Meyer decided to fire him, even though AD Smith initially wanted to give him a second (fourth? fifth? ninth?) chance, because he “understood the difficulties of a divorce.” Meyer was committed to the firing primarily because, according to the report, Zach “failed to bring both the order of protection and the criminal trespass matters to his attention, and … Meyer considered these failures to be violations of the core value of honesty.”
Meyer’s commitment to honesty was short-lived. The following day, at Big Ten Media Day, a reporter asked Meyer about the 2015 allegations against Zach that McMurphy had just published. Meyer responded, “I was never told about anything, never anything came to light, I’ve never had a conversation about it. So I know nothing about that.” Later in the same interview, he said, “2015, I got a text late last night something happened in 2015. And there was nothing. Once again, there’s nothing – once again, I don’t know who creates a story like that.”
As OSU’s own internal investigation showed, Meyer was extremely aware of what happened in 2015. So much for his core values of honesty.
If that behavior weren’t sketchy enough, the OSU report further details how, after McMurphy’s report surfaced on August 1 detailing Meyer’s knowledge of the 2015 allegations, Meyer talked with Ohio State’s director of football operations Brian Voltolini about how he could go about erasing text messages on his phone that were more than one year old.
“Our review of Coach Meyer’s phone revealed no messages older than one year,” the report says. “It is … concerning that his first reaction to a negative media piece exposing his knowledge of the 2015-2016 law enforcement investigation was to worry about the media getting access to information and discussing how to delete messages older than a year.” Indeed it is!
Both Meyer and AD Smith engaged in some Olympic-caliber mental gymnastics in order to find justification for keeping on staff a man who was not only an alleged abuser, but by virtually all accounts, a terrible employee as well.
And yet, despite all of that, the authors of this report (a committee that purported to be “independent,” despite the involvement of three members of OSU’s Board of Trustees) hopped through flaming hoops of hypocrisy in order to justify the actions of Meyer and AD Smith and limit their punishment.
Take, for example, the way the report explains holes in Meyer’s memory.
“We also learned during the investigation that Coach Meyer has sometimes had significant memory issues in other situations where he had prior extensive knowledge of events,” the report reads, in a laughably specific sentence. “He has also periodically taken medicine that can negatively impair his memory, concentration, and focus. All of these factors also need to be considered and weighed in assessing Coach Meyer’s mindset on July 24th.”
A man with an unpredictable ability to focus and concentrate? Sounds like just the person suited to coach one of the most prestigious college football programs in the nation. Or is it that his memory issues magically only pertain to domestic violence allegations, not to play calls and personnel schemes?
The report also says that, though Meyer did say untrue things, he did not do so intentionally.
The entire report is a cesspool of enabling, and makes a mockery of accountability. Worst of all, it’s the system working exactly the way it was intended to work; to give abusers and enablers the benefit of the doubt, and to put the fear of god into any victim who might consider coming forward with allegations of abuse against someone in the athletics department.
The report’s conclusion shows just how low the bar really was; “Meyer says he respects women, so we believe he respects women, even though we just provided you with an entire report outlining how his actions prove he cares far more about protecting his relationship with his mentee and the reputation of the university.”
Most victims don’t come forward, because still, even after several cases have been thrust into the spotlight and under the microscope, nobody is ready to dismantle the systems that enabled their abuse in the first place.
In less than a month, Meyer will be back on the sidelines, coaching another college football game. The chatter will be far more about Meyer’s legacy and OSU’s playoff hopes than about Courtney Smith’s bruises or Meyer’s enabling, and the college football industrial complex will churn forward. Meyer will get his redemption story, and talk about how painful this experience has been for him. Buckeye fans will rally around him, and cheer for every touchdown as though none of this every happened. And victims everywhere will get the message that, even in the #MeToo era, their pain is irrelevant.
But at least his starting quarterback hasn’t sold off any shoes.