The Urban Meyer scandal of 2018 is exactly what our misogynistic, self-absorbed culture desperately needed. Unfortunately, faced with the opportunity to make a powerful statement about the gravity of domestic abuse and the need for systemic cultural change, the Ohio State University football program fundamentally failed.
Before I go any further, let me first clarify that I say this not as a football fan and a Wolverine, but as a human being. Second, let me also clarify that I don’t necessarily believe Meyer should have been fired.
In fact, let me backtrack a little and give a quick summary for those of you who are unfamiliar with the recent scandal within OSU’s football program. Up until this August, Zach Smith was an assistant coach for the OSU football team. Smith is the grandson of Earle Bruce, the iconic former OSU football coach who, in his lifetime, served as a mentor for Meyer, OSU’s current head football coach.
Ultimately, the gist of the scandal is this: Courtney Smith, Zach Smith’s now ex-wife, pressed charges against Smith for domestic abuse in both 2009 and 2015. It is widely implicated that Meyer was aware of these abuse allegations and swept them under the rug in order to keep Smith on his coaching staff, and that he lied about doing so at Big Ten Media Day.
After a report implied that Meyer had intentionally looked the other way from Smith’s alleged domestic abuse, OSU put Meyer on paid administrative leave and launched an investigation into Meyer’s handlings of the issue.
At this point, all eyes were on the OSU football program. Why? Well, college football fans were curious about the fate of one of the country’s powerhouse football programs. But this issue extends far beyond the realms of college football. One in every three women will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime. During the investigation into Meyer, OSU had a once-in-a-lifetime stage, an opportunity to send an invaluable message about the gravity of domestic violence and how much more important of an issue it is than winning football games. But, like I said before, OSU failed. Completely, utterly failed.
First off, certain OSU fans partied at an “Urban Meyer rally” and tailgated outside of the Board of Trustees meeting that determined the fate of Meyer’s career. This is despicable because it shows a desire to win football games at all costs, even if it means treating a sensitive issue like domestic abuse with carelessness and disrespect. However, I refuse to condemn all of Buckeye nation simply because of a few disgusting fans. I’m sure every program has some fans who would do the same thing.
When the investigation concluded, OSU announced Meyer made “insufficient” actions regarding Zach Smith. Meyer was not fired, but he will have to serve a three-game suspension. As measly as that punishment may sound, I’m not an investigator and I don’t know what Meyer knew and did when faced with such a sensitive issue. I can speculate, but I can’t determine whether OSU’s punishment for Meyer is appropriate. In my opinion, OSU’s ultimate failure comes in the form of Meyer’s statements during the press conference.
It’s important to remember that the OSU investigation this August was not an investigation into whether or not Zach Smith abused his wife. Therefore, any he-said-she-said surrounding the abuse allegations is irrelevant. The OSU investigation this August was about how the football program handled a issue as delicate as domestic violence. It’s about whether Meyer took the allegation seriously and went to every length he could to ensure it was properly reported and investigated, or whether he swept it under the rug. It’s not an investigation into whether Zach abused Courtney. It’s an investigation into whether, in the case that abuse may have occurred, the football program cares more about properly reporting abuse than it does about winning football games.
In his press conference, Meyer never once addressed the issue of domestic violence or mentioned Courtney Smith. He talked only about what a pain this “situation” was to him and his fans. He began by apologizing to Buckeye Nation: “I followed my heart, not my head.” When asked what he would say to Courtney Smith, he said, “I have a message for everyone in this, I’m sorry we are in this situation.”
I know I said earlier that my disdain for OSU’s recent actions comes from me as a human being, not me as a football fan, but if you know me, then you know that I live and breathe college football every fall. It’s nearly impossible to separate Hannah the football fan from Hannah the person. I hope that if a similar situation were to arise at Michigan, I would be significantly more heartbroken that someone was abused than I would be at the thought that Harbaugh could be fired.
Ultimately, though OSU significantly missed the mark when it comes to showing the seriousness of an issue like domestic violence, this past August should be a lesson learned for all of us. Do we care about complex, sensitive issues like domestic violence no matter what, or only when it’s good PR? After OSU showed how not to handle such an issue, let’s all look a little more deeply into ourselves and see if we would’ve handled it the same way.
Hannah Harshe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org