It was popular in the last several days, after the depth of Urban Meyer’s callousness and deceit was revealed, to say that the Ohio State football coach has now “surrendered the moral high ground” for the remainder of his career or that he has been “diminished” in the court of public perception.
In a situation in which there is very little humor, this is about the funniest thing I’ve ever read.
The morality of big-time college football coaches is spelled out entirely in numerals on the scoreboard. The higher ground is occupied only by those who, by whatever means, recruit the best talent to their teams. A coach who wins a national championship cannot be diminished in the minds of the zealots of that program.
Meyer did win a national championship at Ohio State and his team was invited to the White House to celebrate the accomplishment. That one of his assistant coaches, a deviant freak whom Meyer protected from criminal prosecution, took that opportunity to photograph his junk in a White House bathroom — with a towel bearing the presidential seal in the frame as proof — does absolutely nothing to diminish Meyer in the pantheon of great college football coaches. He had already taken the high ground in his profession. What it says about him as a human being is another matter, but you’ll never convince the Buckeyes’ boosters of that.
No, there is only one entity that exited last week diminished forever and that is Ohio State University. We expect nothing more of football coaches than to lie and cheat and accept whatever means are necessary to justify the goal of winning football games and protecting their own glorious fiefdoms. We expect a lot more of our institutions of higher learning, however, places at which there are supposed to be values that can’t be purchased at the ticket window.
Ohio State spit the bit on its core mission this time, and whatever disrepute Meyer might suffer as a result of this situation, the school should be tarred by it a hundred times over. Of course, at the power conference schools in which priorities are turned upside-down, the idea is to build a university that the football program can be proud of. That is precisely what happened in this case.
For those blissfully unaware of the circumstances, a Meyer assistant coach, Zach Smith, was accused of physically abusing his pregnant wife in 2009 when both Meyer and Smith were at the University of Florida. This didn’t stop Meyer from hiring Smith when he took the job at Ohio State, although Meyer didn’t think it necessary to mention the incident to his new athletic director. Smith, according to his wife, Courtney Smith, assaulted her again in 2015, while their children clung to her hip crying.
Every piece of evidence points to Meyer’s being aware of the 2015 alleged assault, although as recently as last month, he texted a player that it was just “he said, she said.” Meyer also took the trouble of deleting all texts from his phone more than a year old before surrendering it to investigators.
Meyer stonewalled the situation all the way through Big Ten media day, when he stood up and lied that he knew nothing about any 2015 incident. That stance changed only when a story broke with details that left no room for doubt.
Smith is a real beauty, certainly someone you want your head coach to protect. The investigation into the allegations found “a pattern of troubling behavior by Zach Smith: promiscuous and embarrassing sexual behavior, drug abuse, truancy, dishonesty, financial irresponsibility, a possible NCAA violation, and a lengthy police investigation into allegations of criminal domestic violence and cybercrimes.”
Oh, no! Not truancy!
A lot of it is just a sordid mess. Smith had $2,200 in sex toys and photographic equipment sent to his office at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, including a “men’s spider enhancer thong” and “candyman men’s jock suspenders.” To think that none of this — along with a selfie-documented affair with a staffer — became office fodder and common knowledge within the football program is to ignore common sense.
But, yeah, this is the guy Urban Meyer decided to keep because, well, because he could. He was Urban Meyer and that trumped all lesser hands, ultimately including that of the president of the school.
According to the reports that emerged from the 12-hour meeting on Wednesday among OSU’s board of trustees, president Michael V. Drake, athletic director Gene Smith, and Meyer; the board was willing to let Meyer off the hook, the president wanted a significant suspension and Meyer said he wasn’t going to accept any punishment. The coach essentially said, “Fire me or exonerate me.”
It was a good play to call, because the school was risking more than football wins and the enmity of deep-pocketed supporters. Meyer is owed $38 million on a contract that runs through 2022 and proving justifiable termination in court is far from a sure thing.
In the end, the sides agreed on a three-game suspension, with Meyer allowed to coach the team during the preparation weeks for the second and third of those. You can call it a slap on the wrist, but that would be insulting to slaps on the wrist. This was barely a tap.
Nothing has changed, and nothing will change until employers in this country adhere to a no-exceptions policy when it comes to physical and sexual abuse exerted by the strong upon the weak, and regarding those who tolerate it. That’s not just sports. That’s everywhere.
Ohio State had a chance to balance those tipped scales back just a bit in favor of the weak. The schools had a chance to say that there are things that are not negotiable, even if the ultimate price is the removal of someone who makes you a lot of money.
There was a chance there, and it was missed. But Urban Meyer was not diminished by the outcome. Far from it. He was empowered. If he and his coaching brothers can walk away from something like this, what can’t they do?