The OSU Board of Trustees, based on the White Report’s findings, acted appropriately in suspending Gene Smith and Urban Meyer – but for all the wrong reasons. They judged both men in the scale of political correctness and failed to recognize the broader implications for the university. More specifically, they failed to address the role of the media in this debacle.
Let’s look at the facts.
Did Urban Meyer do anything wrong in his handling of the Zach Smith incident? Yes, he did – but his "sins" were those of omission, not commission. He did what any businessman would do with a valued employee who had personal issues: he recognized Smith and his wife had problems, he persuaded them to seek counseling and effect a reconciliation, and he trusted Smith to keep him informed if the facts changed. Meyer kept Smith on staff and excused his lapses in job performance because Smith ordinarily did his job well, because Earle Bruce’s kindness to Meyer in previous years affected Meyer’s judgment, and because the facts of the alleged abuse were more than a little murky. Meyer acted kindly, although naively. Among those with an ounce of Christian charity, this is known as "going the second mile."
What Meyer failed to appreciate was how the liberal press and the PC-biased academic community would perceive his actions. The press, by assuming Meyer had greater knowledge than he did, transformed Meyer’s kindness into a supposed cover up of Smith’s abusive behavior. Then, in the legalistic tone of the White Report, Meyer’s kindness is portrayed as inadequate, tending to shield a potential wife abuser. "Potential" because there are still no publicly known facts that prove Smith did, in fact, abuse his wife in 2018, or that his wife did not provoke or mischaracterize such acts. Throughout the White report is a constant reference to what the press reported. It is the appearance of being soft on spousal abuse, as portrayed by the media, that really troubles the university, not anything Meyer himself did.
But Meyer did make several major mistakes in handling the situation:
1. He failed to foresee that Smith would conceal material facts from him.
2. He failed to recognize that his conduct as Smith’s mentor would be judged on the "potential" for spousal abuse rather than on the legal fact of it (Smith was never charged).
3. He was utterly naive in dealing with the press. He failed to appreciate the animus of the press and its liberal bias; he naively tried to "game" the media by withholding information and then making a gross misstatement in his press conference; and he naively trusted the media to report the facts accurately and fairly.
4. He failed to inform the university’s compliance officer of the facts of the Smith case.
5. Then, after the investigation, he failed to appease the gods of political correctness by not apologizing in his second press conference to Mrs. Smith. (If you must eat PC crow, you begin by apologizing to the alleged "victim," even if the victim is far from innocent.)
Now, for the lesson in all this for the university.
OSU is a nationally known educational institution with a high-profile football program. Urban Meyer is the highly-paid face of that program. He is a natural target for media attention, an object of envy, and an easy target for retribution based on ills real or imagined. All played a part in this incident. We know, for example, that Mrs. Smith had a vendetta against her husband and Urban Meyer and intended to bring them both down – her own mother has so stated publicly. We also know the media failed to report the facts of the incident objectively and failed to acknowledge facts favorable to Meyer, including Mrs. Smith’s apparent vendetta, and made unwarranted assumptions about Meyer’s actual knowledge. Thus, it appears members of the press also had a bias against Meyer and\or the football program. They most likely still do.
Given these facts, the university cannot afford to let Meyer or any other coach deal with the media alone. They lack the training for it. Worse, the media is not going to play fair. It is going to slant news in a manner calculated to inspire reader interest. This is not the job of the Athletic Department publicity staff. Good PR involves more than filing timely press releases and promoting good community relations; it also involves the political and even legal moxey to advise executives of potential media pitfalls, backed by institutional authority to intervene. More than Meyer, the university itself is to blame for the inadequacy of the reporting procedures detailed in the White Report and for neglecting the PR function.
Therefore, the university ought to appoint an experienced, sophisticated PR expert to counsel every coach on the media implications of contemplated decisions and on any public statements to be made to the media or anyone else. If the university is reluctant to foot the bill, I recommend, at the very least, that Meyer himself hire a PR expert to counsel him and the entire football program (coaches and players alike) on such matters. Lord knows, he can afford it – and it is a necessity, because Meyer and every other coach in America is a media target. A chance Twitter comment by a player or a private decision by an assistant coach will be held, rightly or wrongly, against every head coach in the future – and most especially against Meyer. And next time, naivety will be no defense.
[In the interest of full disclosure, the writer is not a graduate of Ohio State University or a friend or relative of Urban Meyer. I am, however, a friend of college football and a advocate for media accuracy and fairness.]