Mike Check

Michael Cunningham’s ramblings from the world of sports
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I’m glad Urban Meyer makes it harder to pretend college sports are about higher values

Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer apologized to “Buckeye Nation” on Wednesday night, but not the woman who said she suffered years of abuse at the hands of his long-time assistant. Meyer didn’t even mention Courtney Smith’s name at the news conference announcing his three-game suspension for mishandling domestic-abuse allegations. 

Asked if he has a message for her, Meyer said: “I have a message for everyone involved in this: I’m sorry we’re in this situation. I’m just sorry we’re in this situation.” 

That’s weak even by Meyer’s standards, but I’m glad he didn’t fake it. College athletics builds up its coaches as role models for their players, who may not be paid salaries, but learn invaluable life lessons from these magnanimous leaders of men. It’s a narrative promoted by media and schools because they know their customers want to feel good about cheering for their teams. 

Now here was Meyer creating cognitive dissonance for those invested in the myth of big-time college football as character builder, its coaches as principled leaders of men. Meyer doesn’t have to apologize to Courtney Smith because he’s a very valuable football coach. Keeping Zach Smith on staff may have made a mockery of Meyer’s “core value” of “TREAT WOMEN WITH RESPECT” painted on the locker-room walls, but it’s on you if you thought that’s more than just a marketing slogan

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It’s tempting to say that this is only about Meyer, who is unlikeable and dishonest. But that excuses all those who promote the fictions that sustain a system that allows for coaches such as Meyer.  His coaching ability has always outpaced his integrity, but Ohio State, like Florida before, is willing to accept a certain amount of stain on its reputation for the glory and money of winning football. 

By now we should know those aren’t the only schools willing to make such a trade-off. 

If Ohio State fired Meyer, pretty much every program outside of Tuscaloosa would be angling to hire him just as soon as things cooled off. Those fans self-righteousness in the belief that their coach is a better guy would welcome Meyer while mumbling rationalizations about why he’s not so bad.  Sportswriters who chide Meyer now would praise his coaching greatness as soon as he won elsewhere again. 

Meanwhile the Buckeyes would be left with their principles intact, but an inferior coach on the sidelines. Values don’t sell as well as victories. 

Ohio State said its investigation determined that Meyer and athletic director Gene Smith didn’t cover up the 2015 allegations against Zach Smith but “failed to take sufficient management action.” Smith also was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence while an assistant on Meyer’s Florida staff in 2009 (he wasn’t charged). 

Ohio State launched its investigation after Brett McMurphy reported Aug. 1 that Courtney Smith sent text messages to Meyer’s wife, Shelley, with pictures of bruises she said were caused by Zach Smith. By that point, Meyer had publicly lied about his knowledge of the 2015 allegation.

Urban Meyer said he didn’t know about those texts from Courtney Smith to his wife. Ohio State’s investigators didn’t buy his explanation, and neither will anyone else who thinks critically. Meyer knows he doesn’t have to provide a plausible explanation. Heck, according to Ohio State investigators, Meyer deleted old text messages from his phone after McMurphy’s story broke. 

Once Ohio State confirmed that Meyer knew about the 2015 allegations against Zach Smith, the school had to give the impression that it takes domestic violence seriously. But it managed to not take it so seriously that it really jeopardizes a national title run. The No. 5 Buckeyes are loaded with talent, and Meyer will return after games against Oregon State, Rutgers and 16th-ranked TCU. 

Revealingly, Meyer didn’t answer directly Wednesday when asked if he thought he deserved to be suspended at all. Again, I appreciate that Meyer didn’t fake it after putting down his prepared script. I’m all for anything that makes it harder to believe the fairy tales told about the principles upheld by college sports.

My eyes rolled hard while reading Ohio State’s statement announcing Meyer’s suspension. The school faulted Meyer and Smith for keeping an assistant who was “not performing as an appropriate role model.” Doing so was “not consistent with the values of” Ohio State. The university said it expects “leadership” and “high standards” from its AD, football coaches and staff. 

Even while exposing the myth that college football is about higher values than winning, Ohio State used the language that perpetuates it. That’s what people want to hear. But what Ohio State expects most of all from its coach is winning football. 

That makes the Buckeyes no different from most big-time programs. I’m not even passing judgment for that. I long ago accepted that college sports are, most of all, a moneymaking enterprise. I wish things were different but they won’t change until the customers demand it. 

(And, yes, I’m part of the problem because I make my living in part by writing about college sports. I may speak out about the system’s problems but I’m still complicit on some level. We’re all hypocrites in this.)

Sitting there Wednesday night seemingly annoyed by his suspension and with no apologies for Courtney Smith, Urban Meyer made it harder for anyone to deny what big-time college football is really about.  

About the Author

Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010. 

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