After an embarrassing football scandal, Ohio State University's board of trustees suspended head football coach Urban Meyer for the first three games of the season and athletic director Gene Smith for more than two weeks. OSU’s independent investigators issued a 23-page report that provided damning evidence and also gave Meyer the benefit of the doubt.
Predictably, many Ohio State fans are angry Meyer was suspended at all, and Ohio State's enemies are angry Meyer didn't get a harsher punishment, or fired.
For those who wanted Meyer fired, it smacks of exceptionalism. He’s 73-8 at OSU and led the Buckeyes to a national championship in 2014. His overall record is 177-31 and three national titles. He’s owed a cool $38 million over the remainder of his contract. College football is a big business and Meyer is one of the best ever. They see OSU choosing athletic success and money over morals and human decency.
For those who think Meyer shouldn’t have been punished at all, three games is outrageous. How can you punish someone who did everything he was contractually obligated to do?
ESPNU Radio on SiriusXM discussed the breaking news Tuesday night. Some of their guests provided a glimpse into both sides’ arguments. On "College Sports Tonight," college football reporter Brett McMurphy, whose dogged reporting unearthed the scandal, said his takeaway from the press conference was that “Urban Meyer continues to lie and that football is more important than anything else at Ohio State.” Former Buckeye linebacker Bobby Carpenter disagreed, saying Meyer “did everything he was supposed to do under the letter of his contract.”
In 2009, Zach Smith (no relation to OSU athletic director Gene Smith) worked under Meyer at the University of Florida. He was arrested for aggravated battery against his then-pregnant wife Courtney Smith. Courtney Smith decided not to pursue charges after Meyer’s life coach, Hiram deFries, and Earle Bruce, the former Buckeye football coach who was both Meyer’s mentor and Zach Smith’s grandfather, urged her not to. Meyer knew about it. Zach Smith denied everything and continued working on the staff.
[Also read: Fired Ohio State coach posted nude photos from White House: Report]
The Earle Bruce connection is important because of Meyer’s loyalty to him. Smith never faced consequences for his inappropriate behavior. He was arrested for driving a vehicle while impaired, spent about $600 at a Florida strip club in a connection with a recruiting trip, lied about attending recruiting visits, took sexually explicit photos of himself in OSU’s football facilities and at the White House on a team visit, had sex-related toys delivered to him at the OSU athletic facilities, and was investigated for domestic abuse and cyber offenses against Courtney Smith. Meyer never punished him up until the moment he fired him.
The investigators said Smith had a history of "promiscuous and embarrassing sexual behavior, drug abuse truancy, dishonesty, financial irresponsibility … and a lengthy police investigation." Not exactly a role model for young men!
In 2015, Courtney Smith reached out to Meyer’s wife and the wives of other coaches and sent them pictures of her bruises. It strains credulity to think that Shelley wouldn’t have told Meyer.
On May 12, 2018, Zach Smith was charged with criminal trespass. On July 20, he had a domestic violence civil protection order issued against him. Meyer told investigators the primary reason he fired Smith was because he found out about the criminal trespass and protection order from news reports and social media instead of Smith. Meyer saw this as “violations of the core value of honesty.”
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Not because of what Zach Smith did or his past behavior, but because Meyer learned about it from someone else. Now about that whole honesty thing …
The report shows Meyer was on a text chain on July 23 and 24 that included Gene Smith and the athletic communications director. They were preparing for what to say at Big Ten media days. On July 24, Meyer addressed the media and was asked whether he knew about the domestic violence investigation into Zach Smith in 2015. Meyer lied, saying, "There was nothing. Once again, there’s nothing — once again, I don’t know who creates a story like that.”
After McMurphy’s bombshell story dropped on Aug. 1, showing Meyer actually did know about the 2015 incident, OSU started to investigate.
Brian Voltolini, the director of football operations, talked with Meyer on the morning the story broke. “The two discussed at that time whether the media could get access to coach Meyer’s phone, and specifically discussed how to adjust the settings on Meyer’s phone so that text messages older than one year would be deleted.”
Seems totally above board, right? It reminds me of Tom Brady destroying his phone during Deflategate. Meyer’s core values of honesty and treating women with respect ring hollow. Meyer got away with it.
“Our review of coach Meyer’s phone revealed no messages older than one year, indicating that at the time it was obtained by OSU on Aug. 2, coach Meyer’s phone was set to retain text messages only for that period, as coach Meyer and Brian Voltolini discussed.”
The investigators stated the obvious. “It is nonetheless 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.”
Yes, it should be very concerning that his first reaction to the story was deleting evidence! So we know Meyer lied. Here’s where the investigators do some mental gymnastics:
We cannot logically square coach Meyer’s responses on Big Ten Media Days broadly denying knowledge of the 2015 events regarding Zach Smith with his extensive knowledge of those events in 2015 and the evident knowledge of AD Gene Smith of the 2015 events reflected in the group text message of July 23 and July 24, 2018 sent to coach Meyer.
Although it is a close question and we cannot rule out that coach Meyer was intentionally misleading in his answers, we do not ultimately find that he was. He clearly misspoke and made misstatements, but the reasons that happened are complex. Coach Meyer did not, in our view, deliberately lie.
Of course they couldn’t square Meyer’s response (claiming he knew nothing) with reality (he obviously knew and was on a group text about it). The big question is this: Did he deliberately lie or not? It’s hard to believe he didn’t know, especially when he was deleting texts because of McMurphy’s story.
I also want to address those who believe Meyer shouldn’t have been punished. They have a case too.
We have found no other facts giving rise to violations of policy, rules, law, or contractual obligations by Coach Meyer or AD Smith in connection with alleged domestic violence by Zach Smith.
Investigators determined that Meyer didn’t violate the terms of his contract or the law. It’s that simple.
If OSU had fired him, they would have gotten dragged into a costly legal battle. When Meyer was aware of an incident, he reported it to the athletic director. He didn’t take the extra step and also report it to the compliance office himself. That misstep is worth three games? Why couldn’t the athletic director's office handle it from there?
While Meyer didn’t tell Gene Smith about Zach Smith’s 2009 incident when he hired him at OSU, Gene Smith had every opportunity to vet him. Why is Meyer to blame for Gene Smith’s lack of due diligence? At the presser, Gene Smith took responsibility for most of the compliance reporting issues. If Gene Smith is the one apologizing, why is Meyer getting punished and why does he have a harsher punishment than Gene Smith? Gene Smith could have fired Zach Smith at any time and didn’t.
Making matters worse, Meyer made it seem like he was the victim Tuesday night, bungling the chance to apologize to the actual victim, Courtney Smith. When asked if he had a message for Courtney Smith, Meyer said he “had a message for everyone involved in this. … I’m sorry that we’re in this situation.”
Talk about hitting the wrong tone! He didn’t even say her name! Courtney Smith suffered years of abuse and trauma, but sure, what a truly unfortunate “situation” for Meyer and Buckeye Nation. If you were looking for remorse from Meyer at that presser, you were left wanting.
On "College Sports Tonight," Jason Horowitz, the co-host of "Playbook" on ESPNU Radio, summed up what many felt when they read the news: “Ohio State had 11 hours and botched every aspect of this.”
Noah Niederhoffer (@Noah715) is a producer at SiriusXM and a graduate of the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. Originally from Atlanta, he now lives in Washington, D.C.