By Nancy Armour |
Doing what’s required doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve done the right thing.
Ohio State is in the process of determining whether Urban Meyer met the school’s reporting requirements after learning in 2015 about more domestic violence allegations against then-assistant Zach Smith. Regardless of what the school finds, however, it’s clear Meyer fell far short of the moral high ground he likes to claim.
When Meyer found out Courtney Smith had again accused her husband of abuse – she provided former ESPN reporter Brett McMurphy with photos and text messages supporting the 2015 allegations – he should have alerted athletic director Gene Smith.
Then Meyer should have fired Zach Smith.
This was now a pattern, and Meyer damn well knew it. Smith had been arrested for beating his pregnant wife in 2009, when he was a graduate assistant on Meyer’s staff at Florida. In fact, Meyer said he and his wife Shelley had even counseled the young couple.
You can debate whether giving Smith a second chance in 2009 was the right thing to do. But when Meyer learned of additional allegations, it should have brought an immediate end to his benevolence. A man who hits, chokes and terrorizes his wife is not someone you want to associate with, let alone hold up as a role model for young men.
Especially in a program where “respect for women” is trumpeted as one of your core values.
Meyer issued a statement Friday saying he had followed Ohio State’s reporting procedures in 2015, an assertion that has the convenient advantage of both absolving himself and putting the blame on someone else. But Meyer’s excuse is the same one Joe Paterno gave for not reporting Jerry Sandusky to the authorities, and it’s as repugnant now as it was then.
Sure, they might have fulfilled their legal obligations. But what good is that if they also ignored the greater, moral one?
Meyer’s apologists will say policing the personal lives of his assistants is not his job, that he can’t control what someone does when he’s away from the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. You can’t have it both ways. If Meyer is going to tout his program as a model of accountability and responsibility, then he’d better make sure everyone is practicing what he’s preaching.
And don’t tell me about “university procedure.” Meyer has a provision in his contract that gives him great latitude when it comes to hiring and firing his assistants. With one national title and a 73-8 record at Ohio State, if Meyer said he wanted Zach Smith gone, Gene Smith wouldn’t have tried to dissuade him. He’d have been too busy getting university counsel on the phone to draft a separation agreement.
But Meyer didn’t do that. For whatever reason – loyalty, ego, expedience – he enabled Zach Smith, allegedly following the letter of the law while flouting the spirit of it.
Passing judgment on what Meyer did isn’t simply an existential exercise. If Ohio State fires him without cause on or before Jan. 31, it would owe Meyer nearly $38.1 million.
A USA TODAY Sports review of Meyer’s contract found there would be other grounds to fire him for cause even if he did what was required in terms of reporting – if Ohio State has the stomach for it. One provision allows him to be fired for “fraud or dishonesty … in the course of his duties or responsibilities.” When Meyer was asked at Big Ten media day about his knowledge of the 2015 allegations, he lied repeatedly.
Another clause allows for his firing if he behaves in a way that reflects “unfavorably upon Ohio State’s reputation and overall primary mission and objectives.” Still another says he can be fired for failing to “perform his duties and personally comport himself at all times in a manner consistent with good sportsmanship and with the high moral, ethical and academic standards of Ohio State and its Department of Athletics.”
Aside from the considerable mud Ohio State is now covered in because of this situation, Meyer also disparaged the reputations of Courtney Smith and McMurphy with his comments at Big Ten media day.
“I don’t know who creates a story like that,” Meyer said then.
More than a week passed before Meyer, under siege, offered a new version of what he knew, when he knew it and what he did about it. Even then, his statement was glaring in its omission of any mention of Courtney Smith.
It’s quite possible that Ohio State’s investigation, which the school said Sunday will be completed in two weeks, will find Meyer followed the proper procedures in 2015, and president Michael V. Drake and the board will decide that’s enough to justify him keeping his job. Probable even, given Meyer’s success at Ohio State and his popularity with Buckeye fans.
But as this whole mess has made abundantly clear, just because something falls within the rules doesn’t make it right.
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.