I can’t imagine that there were many (if any) Ohio State fans a month ago that were actively hoping that head football coach Urban Meyer would be fired. And in turn, there probably weren’t any that thought that a situation would arise that would necessitate a rally outside of the north rotunda of Ohio Stadium in hopes of saving his job.
However, three weeks of unmitigated awfulness has led us to a situation in which the proverbial Buckeye Nation is split over whether they want the winningest coach in school history— one of the Mount Rushmore figures of modern college coaching— to lose his job or not.
The back and forth debates over whether Meyer did enough to protect a woman from abuse, or if the media jumped to the worst of conclusions before the facts were determined feels uncomfortably like the political climate in which we are living our daily lives. While a silent middle ground is increasingly unlikely when it comes to politics, I think that there is an uneasy limbo in the middle of the Buckeyes’ fractured fandom, and, honestly, I think I’m there. Sad and disappointed, but ultimately unsure of what I want to happen next.
Shortly after Meyer’s paid administrative leave was announced, I wrote an article presuming that if the information that we had at the time held up, Ohio State’s administration would likely have no choice but to dismiss Meyer for a variety of reasons large and small.
Well, all of that went out the window when Meyer admitted that he was less than forthcoming at Big Ten Media Days, and not only knew of the 2015 allegations of domestic violence against Zach Smith, but that he followed university protocol and reported the information to his superiors. Couple that with Brett McMurphy— the reporter who broke the initial story— taking repeated actions to gravely undermine his credibility and objectivity, and we find ourselves in a situation with no clear, objective truths to guide us.
The university has not yet corroborated anything from Meyer’s statement, in large part because of the active investigation, but his words have taken what, in my eyes, was a pretty damning case against the coach, and completely flipped it on its head. Now that the university has appointed an independent working group to investigate the situation, I don’t think that anyone has any particular insight into what they will announce when they present their findings, nor how the university will respond thereafter.
However, the uncertainty about what the university will decide to do is only part of the uneasiness I have felt about this situation, especially as it has progressed in an increasingly ugly direction. With the constant barrage of contradictory Facebook posts and accusations hurled by family members, trolling reporters, and self-appointed investigators, if you asked me what I hope ultimately happens in this situation, I wouldn’t know how to answer that question.
But, you know what? I think that’s okay.
The group that the university selected to complete the investigation appears to be well-qualified and serious about their charge. While there will almost certainly be people disappointed by whatever they eventually report, I don’t think that there is any reason to distrust the integrity of their investigation, and, therefore, their ultimate findings.
So, I think that fans (myself included) can take solace in the fact that the committee should be able to give us the best chance at determining what happened, what didn’t happen, and if Meyer, athletic director Gene Smith, and the university as a whole could have done things better. Ohio State’s handling of the accusations against Zach Smith are obviously only part of a larger story that involves him, his ex-wife Courtney, local police, friends, family, and who knows whom else.
But, from an OSU standpoint, as of now, I don’t see any reason not to trust that the working group will ultimately do what’s right, whatever that might be. The only actionable thing that I am certain that I want to come out of this situation is for the athletic department and/or the university to strengthen and clarify their guidelines for how accusations of wrongdoing by staff members should be reported and handled.
Obviously, I certainly don’t speak for all Ohio State fans— heck, I don’t even speak for anyone at LGHL other than myself—, but I feel pretty confident that all reasonable members of Buckeye Nation would agree with me when I say that domestic violence is a horrific crime and has no place in any program at OSU; be it by players, coaches, or staff. Nor do I want a coaching staff that turns a blind eye to it when it is happening directly under their noses. However, I also think that I can speak for most fans by saying that, in a vacuum, I don’t want anyone else coaching this football team other than Urban Meyer.
Now, those two things are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Meyer has said that he followed university procedures in relation to the Zach Smith accusations, and certainly the pending investigation will determine if that is, in fact, the case; as well as if he could have, or should have, done more than he did.
I still firmly believe that simply reporting the accusations up the chain-of-command is a pretty paltry bar to clear for a collegiate coach of one of the most powerful programs in the country, especially one who regularly espouses that respecting women is one of his core values. However, as of now, we don’t know whether or not Meyer did more than just that; we also don’t know if the university uncovered some sort of exculpatory evidence to indicate that Zach Smith had not in fact abused his then-wife.
I hope and expect that these are questions that will eventually be answered by the investigation. Unfortunately in the meantime, they seem to have devolved from cogent concerns about a serious matter to rhetorical retorts used simply to score points against anonymous intra-fandom internet rivals.
As has been proven by the ridiculous flurry of thinly sourced, increasingly frustrating reports over the past few weeks, the onslaught of ugly news surrounding this situation has only forced Ohio State fans back into their corners to hunker down for a fight amongst each other. For many reasons, this just makes me sad.
On the basest of levels, because it makes it difficult to enjoy what is shaping up to potentially be a really special season of Buckeye football. But, on a far more important level, because it is a microcosm of how sharply we can be divided as people; not by political party, race, religion, geography, education, or socio-economic standing (the things that are normally used to separate us in our political reality), but simply on how we instinctively approach a specific, difficult situation.
Those of us that would have been hugging and high-fiving each other at The ‘Shoe had this not happened, are now angrily arguing on social media and message boards, and treating each other as violent enemies for little more than disagreeing on how a domestic violence accusation should have been handled by the university that we love.
That of course is not to undermine the seriousness of this— or any— allegation of domestic violence. It’s just to say that this whole fiasco has gotten absurdly messy, and it has led people with no connection to the situation to behave in ways that are shocking, even in our toxic social media environment.
In an almost Pavlovian response, we are choosing sides and preparing for battle. The situation that the football program finds itself in is uncomfortable enough already, even before the entire fandom takes to their specific, aggressively defensive postures. While there is always a lunatic fringe in anything, there are valid concerns on all sides of this debate. From the need for due process to the necessity of fact-checked journalism to the importance of speaking out against domestic violence.
Despite knowing that on a logical level, I too have fallen victim to the instincts to come out fighting for what I believe in my heart; even though in my head, I know it would be better to let the facts present themselves before actively engaging.
For me personally, knowing the statistics about how hard it is for domestic violence to lead to any substantive consequences for the abuser, I feel much more comfortable taking the chance and siding with an alleged victim— even if a rare one turns out to not be telling the truth— than siding with the accused abuser who turns out not to be telling the truth. I realize that that could lead to some broken eggs along the way, but just in terms of me, I would far prefer that than remaining silent, allowing institutional pressure to intimidate another victim to the point where she feels so helpless and alone that she gives up.
That theoretical stance, in which I believe whole-heartedly, has found me defending a woman in a very specific situation with little more than abstract beliefs. I don’t know Courtney Smith, and, in all likelihood, neither do you. But the innate urge to defend our positions as if they were our very lives, nonetheless has forced many of us to become so invested in the irrelevant, salacious twist and turns of this situation that I fear we have lost the forest through the trees.
In most cases, I think that it is prudent and responsible for people to reserve judgment when an accusation is made against someone, but when it comes to cases of domestic and/or sexual abuse, I believe that it is the public’s responsibility to communicate in whatever ways possible to people in power— be it at a university, an athletic department, a movie studio, a television network, a Fortune 500 company, a seat of government, or just a mom and pop grocery store— that we will not accept that kind of behavior, or the systemic culture that allows it to go unpunished for decades.
So, I’m back to where I started; hoping that the program that I’ve loved my whole life, and the coach who leads it, lived by the values that he preaches when they were most required. But, knowing that there’s no way to know for sure if they did that until the investigation is complete, and perhaps even then.
So, I am stuck; confused, disappointed, and ultimately hoping for the best, while waiting for concrete information that has been so hard to come by in this case of lies, retractions, innuendo, and gossip.