“I followed my heart, not my head. As I reflect, my loyalty to his grandfather Earle Bruce, who was my mentor, likely impacted how I treated Zach over the years.”
That was how Ohio State University football coach Urban Meyer attempted to do a little self-reflection during a press conference on Wednesday evening. He was addressing his failure to fire Zach Smith, his assistant coach and the grandson of his mentor, until July 23rd of this year despite a track record of poor behavior spanning nearly a decade.
The most egregious entanglements Smith got himself in were in regards to domestic violence allegations, the most recent of which cost him his job. If you pay attention to sportsball in any capacity, you’ve heard of this story; if you haven’t here is a nice summary of what happened:
The saga began in earnest on July 23, when Zach Smith was fired after the independent journalist Brett McMurphy reported on Facebook that Courtney Smith had requested a protection order against him. He also reported that Zach Smith had been accused of domestic violence in 2009, when he was an assistant to Meyer at Florida, and in 2015, when they were both at Ohio State.
Courtney Smith, who is now divorced from Zach Smith, had said that Shelley Meyer had extensive knowledge of the abuse allegations in 2015, McMurphy reported. Courtney Smith’s story was supported by text messages, according to the report.
A week earlier, at a news conference for the Big Ten Conference, Urban Meyer said that he had known of the 2009 accusations and that he and his wife had talked with the Smiths after a police investigation. But when confronted with questions about the 2015 allegations during the news conference, Meyer said he had learned of the accusations only the night before.
The next week, he retracted that denial, saying in his statement that he had failed to be “clear, compassionate and, most of all, completely accurate” in his previous comments.
At this point, the media frenzy went into overdrive, prompting Ohio State to put Meyer on administrative leave pending an investigation. That investigation concluded this past Wednesday, and the final conclusion was to give Meyer a 3 game suspension. The university released an independent, 23 page report about its findings:
It began by stating the relevant question:
In the hiring, retaining, supervising and firing of former Assistant Coach Zach Smith, did Head Coach Urban Meyer (“Coach Meyer”) violate any Ohio State University (“OSU”) policies or rules, Title IX, NCAA rules, Big Ten Rules, Ohio State Ethics laws, any other state or federal laws, or his contractual obligations to OSU in connection with Zach Smith’s alleged commission of domestic violence against his former wife, including any obligations to report the alleged domestic violence?
In 2009, while Smith and Meyer were at the University of Florida, Smith was arrested for aggravated battery of his wife, who was pregnant at the time. Despite this, no formal charges were ever filed by Smith’s wife, Courtney. The relevance to his hiring at Ohio State is discussed in the report as follows:
OSU performed a standard background check on Zach Smith prior to his being hired as an Assistant Coach at OSU in December 2011 by Coach Meyer; the background check did not call for or return arrest information, and Zach Smith’s arrest in 2009 was therefore unknown to others at OSU at the time he was hired.
Coach Meyer did not inform others at OSU about Zach Smith’s 2009 arrest. Coach Meyer has explained that he did not do so because no charges were filed and because he believed Zach Smith had not engaged in domestic violence in 2009.
In other words, because no charges were ever filed, Meyer felt no need to bring it up. After his hiring, Smith was involved with other conduct which is, at the very least, questionable. The report goes into detail, but here I will merely list the events, and whether Meyer knew about them, according to the report:
- In 2013 Smith was Arrested for DUI – Meyer was not made aware
- In May 2014 ran up a large strip club bill while on a recruiting trip – Meyer was made aware, and he reprimanded the coach, warning him that further behavior of this sort was a terminable offense. Meyer inserted a morality clause into the team Coaching Manual to reflect this.
- From 2014-2016, Smith had multiple occasions in which his credit card was declined and in which he was delinquent in paying for travel and other expenses. The OSU travel office and higher ups in the administration were involved. The report says Meyer had a vague recollection of the incidents
- In 2015, a domestic violence investigation into Smith was initiated by local police. Meyer noted that if it was discovered that Smith hit his wife, or that charges were filed, he would be fired.
- In 2015-2016, Smith is described to have shown diminished job performance, being late to practices and other team functions, among other things. Meyer warned him that such continued behavior would lead to termination
- During the 2015-2016 period, Smith was involved in a sexual affair with a member of the staff. Meyer was not made aware of this
- In 2016, Smith was advised by Meyer to seek treatment and rehab for an addiction to ADHD mediation
- In December 2017, Smith was given a trespass warning by local police for entering the premises of his now ex-wife. Meyer did not know about this
- In May of 2018, Smith was charged with criminal trespass. Meyer did not know about this until July 20th, after a further civil protection order was made against Smith. Meyer found out about this through media reports.
- On July 23rd, Meyer fired Smith.
On first glance, Meyer’s failure to act after this laundry list of problematic behavior is damning. It is much less damning when one considers the fact that Meyer was not made aware of everything. What Meyer did know in real time was about Smith’s hanky panky in the strip club, his financial issues, an apparent medication addiction affecting his job performance and an official suspicion of domestic violence by authorities.
Taking account of the sentimental nature of his relationship with Smith, the fact Meyer kept giving Smith a pass is understandable. Call it nepotism, preferential treatment or whatever, but that’s just what people do for their own. And excuse me for trying to read Meyer’s thinking here, but it’s entirely possible that knowing that Smith was in a trainwreck of a marriage, Meyer viewed all of Smith’s issues as interrelated, and as such he was perhaps more inclined to cut him a few extra breaks.
Poor judgment? Sure. But was any of this in violation of OSU policy, or indeed federal, state or local law? The investigation answers with the following:
Under his employment contract with OSU, Urban Meyer had at all relevant times an obligation to “immediately report to the [Athletic] Director and to the Department’s Office of Compliance Services in writing if any person or entity, including without limitation, representatives of Ohio State’s athletic interests, has violated or is likely to violate or may potentially have violated any [applicable] laws,” including all federal, state and local laws. (Meyer Employment Contract §4.1.d)
Because they believed Zach Smith’s denials and because there was no charge or arrest in connection with the 2015-2016 events, neither Coach Meyer nor AD Smith believed that there had been a violation or a potential violation of the law and therefore neither had reporting obligations regarding what they knew about the law enforcement investigation of Zach Smith. In addition, Coach Meyer, because he was first informed of the investigation by AD Smith, believed that he had no further reporting obligations.
In assessing their reporting obligations, both Coach Meyer and AD Smith placed heavy reliance on the absence of formal law enforcement or court action. Neither made any report of the matter to Athletic Compliance or University Compliance for consideration of whether an internal investigation should be conducted. Under the broad language of their contracts, reporting obligations can be triggered in the absence of formal, external action.
Reporting requirements are intended to be both broad and redundant – in the case of Coach Meyer, they require reporting (in writing) to two places (to the AD and to Athletic Compliance) and the obligation to report is placed on each individual, an obligation not relieved by the knowledge or reporting by another individual. While we find that both Coach Meyer and AD Smith believed in good faith that they did not have sufficient information to trigger any reporting obligation, we believe that they viewed the issue too narrowly through the lens of law enforcement action.
Here’s where things start to get interesting. The investigative team ruled that Meyer had done nothing wrong based on the narrowest interpretation of his contractual obligations. Recall that Smith had not been formally charged with anything until May of 2018. So despite Meyer’s knowledge of Smith’s domestic issues going as far back as 2009, the lack of formal charges meant Meyer was technically not required to report anything to Ohio State compliance. Note that when Meyer did find out about the formal charges of May 2018 through the media two months later, he did fire Smith – which is consistent with the warning he gave to Smith during the 2015 period.
The investigators insert what can only be described as their personal lament that Meyer did not take the broadest interpretation of his obligations. Under that interpretation, Meyer should never even have hired Smith at Ohio State because of his 2009 arrest, but having done so, Smith should have been fired on several occasions because of the mere accusations against him. The lack of any charges, let alone convictions, are irrelevant. This is consistent with the moral attitude of the current day which places the outrage of the mob above fundamental conventions such as due process.
With this in mind, consider the following from the investigation about other obligations Meyer had:
Termination for cause is permitted based on the “Commission of or participation in by Coach of any act, situation, or occurrence which, in Ohio State’s judgment, brings Coach and/or Ohio State into public disrepute, embarrassment, contempt, scandal or ridicule or failure by Coach to conform Coach’s personal conduct to conventional and contemporary standards of good citizenship, with such conduct offending prevailing social mores and values and/or reflecting unfavorably upon Ohio State’s reputation and overall primary mission and objectives, including but not limited to, acts of dishonesty [or] misrepresentation . . . .”
Based on this, Ohio State easily could have fired Meyer, on two counts. First, the aforementioned failure to adhere to the modern day convention that allegations are functionally equivalent to convictions flouted the requirement to conform to such “prevailing social mores and values.” Beyond this, Meyer unquestionably lied to the media when he was asked the proverbial What did You Know and When Did You Know It question at Big Ten Media Day, after he had fired Smith. Meyer also deleted all of his text messages older than a year on his cell phone.
That OSU did not fire Meyer was ultimately a giant double barreled middle finger raised at both the media and the social mores and values it champions. Of course in the immediate sense, the decision was not made because of a principled opposition to mob outrage, but rather because Meyer is one of the best coaches in college football history and his departure would likely cause a loss of tens of millions of dollars over the next several years. The mere existence of requirements to adhere to whatever ephemeral values the Social Justice set would foist upon the rest of us shows Ohio State’s core belief in these concepts. But the fact Meyer got off with a slap on the wrist suspension is absolutely just.
The media engaged in its usual mob vigilantism when it charged, tried, convicted and sentenced Meyer, starting within hours after the first reports of the allegations against Smith, and his subsequent firing surfaced. It ballooned into a full scale crisis after it was shown that Meyer had lied about his knowledge of the situation.
Mind you, Meyer’s actions in this matter boil down to not firing a guy who hadn’t been charged with anything, until he had been formally charged with something. From observing the avalanche of outrage, impassioned sports radio rantings and grand proclamations about how this of all things, shows how broken society is, one would be forgiven for thinking it was Urban Meyer who had been battering his wife.
Indeed it is not even clear that anyone was being battered at all. Courtney Smith’s own mother has cast some doubt on the matter with her comments regarding her daughter’s marriage. The only thing we really know for sure is that Zach and Courtney had an extremely bad marriage. We’ll find out the rest definitively after it plays out in court, and only then.
For completeness, beating your wife is wrong. It should go without saying, but judging by all the sanctimonious finger wagging going on, it seems that men across the land have not learned that being among the Accused is a grave sin. We must teach them.
Silliness aside, the modern rush to judgment in social matters does no one any good, apart from those who seek power for the purposes of lording it over others at will. What do those vilifying Meyer wish to see? With his Bad Personhood confirmed by the press, was he never to coach again, anywhere? If his judgment now precludes him from coaching young football players, what profession do these media adjudicators, in their infinite wisdom, deem acceptable for a Bad Person like Meyer to participate in? Or is he simply unfit to contribute to society, period?
The reality of it all is that the only thing Meyer did wrong was to brazenly lie to the press. Naturally, the media, highlighting its unbelievable arrogance, behaved as though Big Ten Media Day was some sort of Federal Court setting, and that Meyer had raised his right hand while placing his left on the Bible before answering questions.
It was wrong, yes. But no one in this Clown World age should be begrudged for attempting to head off an outrage mob at the pass. Particularly when one is in the right. In retrospect Meyer should have told the truth – that he didn’t, and thus intensified a media storm unnecessarily – renders his suspension just about fair.