The announcement that Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer was placed on paid administrative leave on Wednesday as the school investigates whether he did not act on information regarding fired assistant coach Zach Smith and his reported domestic abuse of his wife, Courtney, spread quickly around the college football world as soon as investigative reporter Brett McMurphy, in a stellar act of journalism, reported it.
There were hot takes and sizzling takes, much of the Internet’s legal advice (take it for what it is worth) and analysis. There were jokes — some inappropriate, others on target but fired at the wrong time. (I’ve done the same in the past, so no finger-pointing here.) There was speculation about what Ohio State would do to Meyer — the spectrum ranging from “nothing” to “termination.” There was all sorts of talk about how this might affect Ohio State’s 2018 season to whether it would prevent them from having a top five recruiting class. Peripheral issues, at best. For the most part, I tried to stay out of it.
Ever since the death of Holt basketball star Jalen Merriweather last February, when he was killed trying to protect his sister in a domestic violence situation, I have tried to keep in mind that, first, the victim is the first priority and that, second, it isn’t just that the cover-up, the excuse, the look in the other direction never helps. It merely allows the cycle to go on, sometimes with lethal results.
That didn’t happen in Courtney Smith’s case. That’s fortunate. But it could have.
I’m not saying Urban Meyer might not have had his reasons for doing what he did. My personal opinion is that they weren’t necessarily good reasons, but this situation — and a man’s career — shouldn’t come down to my opinion. It should come down to an impartial, transparent review of the facts by Ohio State. Better still, that review should not be done in-house, but by an independent investigator. If that review finds Meyer breached his responsibility — not his contract, but his inner responsibility — he should not be retained. All cases are different. Every major institution in 21st-century America, no matter how it prepares, may face this situation someday. It’s a pervasive problem. Preparation and education helps, but it doesn’t always prevent violence. If that awful day comes, response is critical.
Times have changed, and are still changing. Coaches, prominent coaches, have lost jobs. I’m not saying that this is directly equivalent to Joe Paterno at Penn State, or Art Briles at Baylor. Those were huge, shocking cases, but they probably came down to a simple fact: A coach convinced himself he was doing the right thing. One might compare Jonathan Taylor’s admission and quick dismissal from Alabama in 2015 but, while you may or may not agree with Nick Saban’s decision to sign Taylor, or the university’s decision to admit him — many people did not, and were vocal about it — there was never a step in the process that was hidden from view or taken without the knowledge of the UA administration. That doesn’t mean it was the right choice — events proved it was not — but it wasn’t Saban’s secret.
That’s the issue here now — not just what happened, but why was it kept quiet? Why did Meyer think he could determine what was best in 2015, or since then? If there are convincing answers, Ohio State should provide them quickly. Because at the moment, it’s difficult to think what those answers might be.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.