- Urban Meyer's non-football responsibilities as Ohio State's head coach
- If his punishment was consistent with investigation findings
- The responsibilities of powerful institutions like Ohio State in cases of alleged abuse by its representatives, and
- Larger implications for media reporting on abuse allegations and how they're handled.
MEYER'S OBLIGATIONS AS OSU HEAD COACH?
RAMZY: It's Urban Meyer's job to be tireless about everyone in his charge representing the university appropriately, regardless of where that representation is taking place. There are football coaching positions where that breadth of responsibility isn't a mandate - and they pay far less money.
I keep hearing was Urban supposed to intervene with a failed marriage and how would firing Zach Smith protect Courtney from him and I get it, but he doesn't have a normal job - he's the face of the most powerful institution in the state, and we now know now he tried to handle it discreetly, without much urgency, with unacceptable follow-up and while trying to cover his tracks.
Powerful men from giant, influential systems, be it a football powerhouse or a massive corporation, have to be better than focusing on protecting their own toxic assets and bad hires. Zach Smith was a bad hire. The report makes it clear they tried and failed to rehabilitate him. These systems cannot operate like this, and the domestic violence allegations against him were not a one-off; they were a few red flags in a sea of red flags.
In the context of what the investigation found, focusing on the lack of formal charges to make a move completely misses the plot. And Urban admitted at the press conference his loyalty to Earle Bruce had him compromised from the outset.
KYLE: While I understand the argument that a Power-5 head coach is similar to a corporate CEO, I think there's a major difference in that the former is still employed by an educational institution whose mission is to prepare young people for adult life. There's no way to shake off the idea that a big part of any coach's job is to prepare those 18-22 year-olds for what's to come, which is part of the reason any impropriety by a coach results in a scandal.
If OSU is going to give Meyer and Smith credit for having the proper mindset, while acknowledging improper follow through, then why aren't they establishing the former, while laying out a thorough case for the latter? – Lori Schmidt
ALISON: To your point Ramzy, i think we’d be naive to say his only responsibility was “football.” We’d also be naive to say Urban has to “do it all.” But even in such a large system, he has - and should leverage - a network of trusted advisors to ensure his players are performing academically and on the field in a way that represents the values of the team and school; and that his coaching and training staff do the same.
Without a single ounce of irony I ask, isn’t that what he promises the parents of his players?
LORI: I really like the way Alison words it, because it seems to me a lot of us have defined Meyer's mistakes in this case as a failure to do more, but - depending on his motives - this could have been a matter of Meyer trying to do too much. In other words, instead of, for instance, looking at it as Meyer not writing Zach Smith up for breaking the rules, it may have been that Meyer was trying to handle all of Smith's discipline himself.
Now maybe that doesn't jibe with the instances of where Meyer seemed unaware of Smith's behavior, but it does seem that Smith made efforts to keep his boss in the dark. It would also fit with what we know of Meyer's personality, and would explain why he seemed so put out after this. If Meyer had relied more on others, perhaps they could have intervened, and protected Meyer from what he admitted was an Earle Bruce-induced blind spot in this mater.
Gene Smith may have insisted that Smith be fired, for instance. I'm thinking out loud a little bit there, but I do like Alison's point of using all the resources available to you.
RAMZY: Ohio State's resources are boundless, too. This was not the time to be a control freak. My first mentor for people management told me something that has stuck with me for years - her two most important rules for a manager were 1) Fire well 2) Hire well. In that order. It means when you made a hiring mistake, you take care of it before it takes care of you.
WAS THE PUNISHMENT APPROPRIATE?
KYLE: The reactions have been binary, from what I've gathered. Either Meyer did nothing wrong, and the punishment wasn't warranted, or he deserved for more (either a full-year suspension or termination). Instances like this have few true precedents, so I sympathize with the board for having to make it up on the fly. That said, what do you all think of the three-game suspension?
JOHNNY: I have no idea what to make of the punishment. A mediocre coach would've been run out of town on a rail. I said last week on the Dubcast that he shouldn't be fired over this, and while I still believe that, it doesn't seem that Urban has learned much of anything from this and clearly doesn't think he's done anything wrong.
I have zero problem with a three game suspension, and frankly even more time away from the team would've been appropriate in my opinion.
ALISON: Further, a suggestion I heard that I liked - take some of that pay that isn't going to Urban or Gene and donate it to a DV program or resource. Would have shown an understanding of the seriousness of the accusations.
LORI: "I don't believe that an academic institution, even one as large as Ohio State, is equipped to determine legal guilt." It is interesting to me that half the people you talk to these days will use this as a defense of Ohio State, and half as an indictment.
JOHNNY: Well, I guess my point with that is that I don't believe that they have to determine legal guilt; just to show that someone didn't live up to their expectations of behavior. As far as Urban goes - and this relates to what you just said Alison - the dude is the second highest paid public employee in the country and the most visible representative of one of the largest academic institutions in the world. The moral and social responsibilities that we all carry with regard to abuse and violence are multiplied on his shoulders, even if he doesn't realize it.
LORI: I agree with you actually. You need to prove someone guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt" to put them in jail, not to dismiss them, and certainly not before you investigate them. But talk to someone else, and they will argue that the very thing you said shows that Ohio State shouldn't be putting themselves in the place of law enforcement.
Let me ask you guys this: The investigative report does a good job of laying out examples of cases where Ohio State came up short, but Gene Smith and Urban Meyer were given a lot of credit for acting "in good faith." I'm not sure the report establishes the basis of that, and am uncertain whether that's because reports like this generally focus on what went wrong, or some other reason. Alison earlier suggested (and I totally agree) that this was a missed opportunity to have a discussion about domestic violence, and I think this is a chapter of that story.
If OSU is going to give Meyer and Smith credit for having the proper mindset, while acknowledging improper follow through, then why aren't they establishing the former, while laying out a thorough case for the latter?
ALISON: Lori I agree - great point. I thought the substance of the report seemed thorough and fair. The “good faith” part isn’t substantiated enough and it’s in stark contrast to the thorough work in researching the case.
RAMZY: They announced the punishments. Then I read the investigation findings. There's no convenience chart for these things, but three games - in the face of all that detail, the statements where Urban was asking people near him how to delete text messages (!) the repeated awfulness and abdication of job responsibilities by Zach in plain sight...the punishment feels light. Half a season would have been my starting point.
The day he was suspended I predicted on our show he would be retained but given a Sean Payton-type suspension, which was based on what we knew, not what was alleged. That would have sent a message, and probably changed not just Ohio State but other powerful institutions. That kind of precedent would have had societal impact. Instead we're talking about slapping a multi-millionaire's wrist for engaging in nepotism and toxic favoritism.
an organization charged with preparing 18-22 year olds for life, to only go "by the rules" is missing the mark. Teach these young people how to be good people.– Alison Lukan
LORI: It felt to me like me like an attempt to appease everyone, which is sure way to please nobody. And, again, the report suggested the punishment was based in part of the mitigating factor that Meyer and Smith had their heart in the right place, but they failed to make a case for that. I'm not even saying that's not true, just that the report failed to provide justification for it.
ALISON: i think it goes back to Lori’s point. We need to understand what evidence provided the “good faith” counter. We don’t. And also we know the first three games are soft schedule-wise. (And you can’t cherry pick which games to suspend someone for).
WHAT SHOULD OSU DO WHEN FACED WITH ABUSE ALLEGATIONS?
RAMZY: Urban instituted something called Real Life Wednesdays which seems to be more like "Your Football Career Will Only Last A Few Years At Best So Learn About Other Jobs" Wednesdays. It's a great program. Ohio State can become a pioneer by expanding this into other areas. The gravity of representing an entity that has millions of stakeholders, or just representing yourself in the world. Not just getting a job, making a broader difference. We've got plenty of drones in the workforce already. You can automate those. This is bigger.
Hell, the elders in the athletic department have traditionally shown abysmal crisis management on more than one occasion - this time protecting a bad hire who they knew was comprehensively lousy aside from what his wife was alleging - and treating the accuser as the expendable one. Ironic that press conference took place on a Real Life Wednesday. Make that a lesson.
ALISON: I love this idea but, acknowledging this is my perception, I have concerns about any trust that may need to be rebuilt. Players/employees aren't stupid - they see some things that happen, they are aware of "exceptions" be it in action or words. Have players felt any talking out of both sides of their mouth comparing what the program espouses as core values and what they saw/heard? Or, worse, has what they've seen desensitized them to this kind of content? Will they take it seriously? Will their leaders walk the walk to ensure they do?
JOHNNY: Public institutions and the people who lead them have a social responsibility to respond proactively to allegations or incidents of sexual assault. I don't believe that an academic institution, even one as large as Ohio State, is equipped to determine legal guilt, but internal investigations exist for a reason. As soon as credible information regarding incidents involving Zach Smith in 2015 were made known to Urban Meyer and Gene Smith, that should've automatically triggered administrative leave for Zach and initiated a review process.
As soon as credible information regarding Zach Smith in 2015 WAS made known to Urban Meyer and Gene Smith, that should've automatically triggered administrative leave and initiated a review process.– Johnny Ginter
Such a process might've turned up any number of the myriad ridiculous things that Zach Smith was up to and saved us all a million headaches in the meantime. The reason why that didn't happen seems to be rooted in Urban Meyer's personal investment in Zach and Earle Bruce. So while it's very easy to post signs about workplace harassment and to put morality clauses in contracts and so on, it's much more difficult institutionally to open your employees up to internal review when they actually violate the ideals that have been set forth.
ALISON: Hear hear, Johnny. To dovetail with the earlier comment that this is an organization charged with preparing 18-22 year olds for life, to only go "by the rules" is missing the mark. Teach these young people how to be good people.
JOHNNY: Yeah, the thing about that that annoys me, Alison, is that's a huge part of what any college football coach says as part of their regular spiel about what their program is about. "We build character, make people into good citizens, hard workers, etc." and that's not just accepted, it's demanded. But apparently holding Urban Meyer to a higher standard of behavior (specifically, not just following the letter of his contract when it comes to allegations of abuse), is too much to ask of him.
ALISON: Right, Johnny. On a personal level too, it's hard for me to identify with knowing someone might be at risk for DV and not doing something. I'm not saying that's what Urban did, but to say "report it and move on" was ok doesn't sound human to me. I also own that as a woman, you feel the perception this puts on other abused women who are now less likely to come forward. It's terrifying.
KYLE: In an effort to put myself in the shoes of Gene or Urban, they obviously aren't experts at diagnosing the signs of abuse or at how to counsel those going involved in it. That's not something you learn in a weekend first aid course.
If I saw something happening like this in my day job, I wouldn't know how to handle it either, and I think a lot of their defenders are setting up camp on this hill. However, I think that misses the point of why so many in the national media are unhappy with the way this situation was handled, as there was a clear lack of humanity here. There was a relationship that had obviously deteriorated to a dangerous level, whether or not it became physical, and as leaders, you'd hope that two men whose job it is to lead other people would care enough about the Smiths to try and stop that from getting worse.
JOHNNY: I'd say that in their position, it's their responsibility to be able to recognize signs of abuse. They work with and manage hundreds of young people an ostensibly public education setting, some not even adults. Even if they aren't mandated reporters, they should act like it.
KYLE: As for Lori's point about domestic violence, I think the school sincerely tried to get ahead of that issue with the announcement of a new office to respond to sexual violence and harassment the other day. However, those plans were vague and have been overlooked already. But if the school follows through and develops powerful programs that prevent future abuse, there will be some silver lining in this whole, sad episode.
I get your point that they should do something, my question is what, exactly, should they do given that they aren't trained counsellors in this field? That's not rhetorical or sarcastic, it's a real question.
LORI: Maybe that could be a lesson from all this, Johnny: Whatever our jobs require of us, that's usually a bare minimum. And to Kyle's point, that means educating ourselves and having these types of tough discussions.
Let me give you an example: The report makes it sound as if Meyer tried to defend himself by arguing that in 2009 he met with Zach and Courtney Smith. The wording suggests, although does not explicitly state, they were together for that discussion. ("Shortly after the 2009 arrest, both Zach and Courtney Smith met with him in his office at Florida...")
Someone educated about domestic violence would never ask an accuser about potential abuse in front of the accused.
JOHNNY: To me it just seems fairly clear cut to report any suspected abuse, either by or of an employee or student-athlete, to any of Ohio State's offices that investigate harassment or misconduct, including the Title IX office or HR.
KYLE: Johnny, I agree with that completely, and think that's why Gene Smith deserves his suspension. How does he, as the AD, not know to at least report it? To my and Lori's point, though, what else should someone in that position of power be expected to do?
JOHNNY: Kyle, the first thing to do would have been to suspend Zach from his football duties and put him on administrative leave.
ALISON: And, it’s worth noting, Meyer knew what to do when he advised Zach to get help with some form of substance abuse. I’d expect a person in his role to apply the same logic to DV. Meaning “I don’t know what to do but let me get these people to some specialists.”
1) Fire well 2) Hire well. In that order. It means when you made a hiring mistake, you take care of IT before it takes care of you.– Ramzy Nasrallah
LORI: A caveat on my previous point: The report suggests investigators do not believe Meyer met with Courtney, so they found other flaws with his argument. Also, Smith's potential addiction is a complicating factor that is uncomfortable to talk about, I think. Is it outside the bounds of our discussion?
RAMZY: I think the obligation for an institution like OSU re: substance addiction is access to help, which they gave him and he failed to complete.
LORI: I get that. I'm just saying, if I knew someone who was battling addiction and was simultaneously in what - at the very least - both Smiths acknowledge was a volatile relationship, it would complicate the calculus of which expert I would steer someone toward, which issue I would prioritize, etc.
I can imagine that there are some people who would imagine helping someone deal with their addiction would "solve" their relationship problems. I think that's a misconception, but not necessarily an uncommon or heartless one.
KYLE: Alison, should Ohio State have these specialists on-staff?
ALISON: Kyle, I don’t know if on staff is necessary? But it’s be likely with the medical arm right there? A referral network would be fine though in my opinion.
KYLE: I agree, Alison. I'm trying to come up with a Power-5 program not tied to a large medical institution, and while I'm there are some, I'm struggling to come up with any. As such, I don't think it's a huge lift to ask programs to connect those two pieces of a University together. While I'm sure there are some.
ALISON: Totally agree.
LET'S TALK ABOUT THE MEDIA IN ALL OF THIS
ALISON: From the minute this all started, we knew there was never going to be a "good" outcome. And I think the target was missed on some opportunities to educate the public on the realities of DV situations. So many times I read or heard "why didn't she leave? Why didn't she file charges?" and yet I so rarely saw media outlets take the onus to find one of the many DV resources available to talk about this. A rare benefit could have been education on a very real issue and crime and it's not happened.
RAMZY: Right, Alison. The gaps in how people - including Urban Meyer! - grasp and understand DV was on full display throughout this whole mess. We're hardly experts ourselves.
JOHNNY: Alison, one of the biggest struggles that people both in the media and outside of it have had with domestic violence stories, in my opinion, is coping with the idea that there isn't always going to be a clear good guy and bad guy. This is especially hard to deal with in sportswriting because the concept of "winners" and "losers" is baked in from the jump; the idea that Zach and Courtney Smith's relationship involved possible domestic violence from both sides is among the many, many complexities of that issue people struggle with (and frankly most sportswriters aren't equipped to explain).
Which is why you're 100% right, people in the media and people who consume it need to be willing to accept expertise from people outside of the clubhouse, such as domestic violence experts and survivors, and avoid looking at an issue like this through the lens of a competition.
I think there's a major difference in that the former is still employed by an educational institution whose mission is to prepare young people for adult life. There's no way to shake off the idea that a big part of any coach's job is to prepare those 18-22 year-olds for what's to come, which is part of the reason any impropriety by a coach results in a scandal.– Kyle Jones
LORI: There were so many facts in this case that were used as ammunition by journalists acting in bad faith as opposed to letting them stand on their own as facts.
ALISON: I would also like to briefly interject that this has implications on men who are abused. That is a real thing. We had a dear friend in that situation. Again, providing understanding / removing stigma is huge in terms of getting these people to a better and safe place in their lives.
JOHNNY: So one of the things that I've been most interested in is the public reaction to all of this. How do you guys react to people who say that the media is after Urban or unfairly targeted him for things beyond his control or purview (Zach's personal life, in the opinion of many)?
LORI: Well the behavior of certain media members doesn't help. Although, it's not just journalists who are Meyer detractors whose coverage was problematic.
RAMZY: I resent how so many journalists, starting with Brett McMurphy - who had no scruples or journalistic integrity throughout any of this - to Ohio's credentialed fanboys and the national pearl-clutching columnists in the media who simplified what was happening into easily digestible and marginally-accurate hot takes. A whipped-up daily trash frenzy for three straight weeks, while an investigation that was immediately initiated was still in-process. Your clear good guy/bad guy statement is on point, Johnny.
But beyond this story, we're now in an era where a sizable portion of the country dismisses information that doesn't comfort them out of hand. There were a number of people - McMurphy front and center - who gave those people ammunition to reinforce the toxic delusion that whatever news upsets them must have been fabricated, and I resent the hell out him for doing that.
ALISON: Amen. First: as Media we seek the truth. Sometimes that is inconvenient or unpalatable, but everything in life isn’t a feel good story. Second: what irks me too is “he lied to the media.” Unless you personally get your updates by directly communicating with Urban Meyer, (or whomever), he lied to the public; the media is not a separate entity in this scenario. The media is a conduit.
LORI: I think someone else may have mentioned this, but some of the coverage also proved a lack of knowledge about domestic violence among some media members. I said earlier that I think we all probably have a responsibility for educating ourselves on the subject, but that that goes double for journalists covering a story that touches on the topic.
RAMZY: I'm always reminded of the press conference after Mickey Mantle's liver transplant when the surgeon was lauding the donor for having his corneas, lungs, kidneys in other recipients and a member of the Yankees press corps earnestly asked if the donor would be available for an interview. Total silence in the room, then the doc goes "...journalism major, eh mate?"
As newsrooms have been picked apart by finance vultures, journalism has shed its subject matter experts. Sportswriters in particular are generally ill-equipped to dive into these types of topics without immersion into google searches or lengthy chats with those SMEs, and it shows out loud at times. It shows right now. Siphon media resources into private equity bank accounts, put a premium on clicks to stay afloat - and you end up with ill-informed, clicky content.
ALISON: to build on this, and touch on Lori’s point, just as I’ve been vocal about OSU “doing more than expected” the same holds true here for media. This is a serious, under documented crime. We need to do right by the subject matter and put it the work that dictates. Or, find those who can supplement our knowledge and cite them.
RAMZY: I still cannot determine if getting simultaneously accused for cheerleading for OSU and virtue signaling/unfairly crushing OSU is a sign of doing it right, doing it wrong or that there's just no way to please not just everybody, but anybody.
LORI: I wasn't pleasing anybody either, but I have to say that most of the people I dealt with were pleasant. It seems to me that the same way that a few irresponsible journalists can make life harder for diligent reporters, a few vocal nitwits can make it feel like all the fans on Twitter are awful.
And there have been some valuable opportunities to educate some fans. One gentleman demanded to know why I was "bothering" Ohio State by calling them to confirm something. It provided a nice chance to explain fact-checking to them.
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