The college football season starts next week, and, as has become all too customary of late, most of the chatter is not about the impressive feats we’re going to be seeing on the field, but the bleak events taking place off of it. I refer to the goings-on in Columbus, where the people who run the Ohio State University just embarrassed themselves, the program and the school by slapping coach Urban Meyer’s wrist with a wet piece of spaghetti.
If you haven’t followed this blow by blow, here’s a good timeline of events. The long and short of it is that Zach Smith, an assistant to Meyer over the years at both OSU and the University of Florida, is accused of twice physically accosting his ex-wife, Courtney, in 2009 and 2015. In the 2015 incident, which happened while Smith was at OSU, he was arrested on felony charges of domestic violence and felonious assault. Courtney Smith didn’t press charges, but the couple divorced the next year.
At OSU media day in late July, Meyer was asked what he knew about all this and when. He said the 2009 incident as reported “wasn’t actually what happened,” and that the 2015 incident was basically made up (“I don’t know who creates a story like that,” he said to the media, which is not quite up there with “Total Witch Hunt!” but which, you know, ain’t good).
Dogged reporting by Brett McMurphy of Stadium digital sports TV network then revealed that Meyer had known about the 2015 incident at the time. In other words, he lied. The next week, he was placed on administrative leave. A commission was appointed. The general press that I was reading last week suggested most people thought Meyer was going to be fired. Wednesday, his punishment was announced: suspended for the first three games of the season. But hey, without pay! So he’ll lose some chunk of this year’s $7.6 million package.
It’s outrageous. Remember, this is an athletic department already waist-deep in scandal, the one involving allegations of sexual abuse of male wrestlers, whose tentacles have reached out to touch leading U.S. House of Representatives Trump apologist Jim Jordan. You’d think they’d want to look as clean as possible.
But the Buckeyes are ranked fifth in the preseason polls! That, obviously, is what this is about. Glory and money are more important than lying about a few bruises.
Now, what would the right punishment have been? I don’t think firing him would have accomplished much. Yes, it would have sent a good, strong signal. But consider the practical consequences. Probably, like all rich and powerful men, Meyer has one of those contracts that allows him to exit, even in ignominy, on the soft wings of a several-million dollar golden parachute. So there’s that.
And beyond that, he’d land a new multi-million dollar job in like 10 minutes. So he’d be heading off to a place where they’d be thrilled to have him. Maybe a rung below mighty Ohio State, but still, a big-time program, for tons of money.
So here’s what I think the university should have done, and my solution has a broader application for all such cases.
First, suspend Meyer without pay for a full year, bowl game included (they sometimes let these guys coach the bowl game). That would sting. It would sting the program and the fans, and it would let everyone know that there is a real price to be paid for such behavior.
The second part of my proposed punishment is the interesting part. A college football season lasts 14 weeks (teams typically play 12 games and have two open dates). On each of those 14 Saturdays, Meyer should have been made to sit down with victims of domestic violence for three or four hours—the length of a college football game, in other words—and hear their stories. Listen to them. Look at their photographs. See their tears. Go home and think about what they said. He’d be resistant for the first few weeks, but in time, if he has a heart and a soul, he’d learn that this is serious business. He might even emerge a changed man.
And it does seem pretty clear that he needs to change. At Wednesday’s press conference, when he read a statement accepting the suspension as if he were a hostage, he was asked by a reporter what he had to say to Courtney Smith. His answer was appalling. He rambled on platitudinously for a couple minutes, saying not much of anything, so the reporter tried again. Meyer looked to the side and then downward and finally said: “Well, I have a message for everyone involved in this, I’m sorry that we’re in this situation, and, um… I’m just sorry we’re in this situation.”
And that’s it. He couldn’t say a word to her. But give him 50 or so hours of hearing what it’s like for a woman to be slapped or punched or pushed to the ground by a screaming, and maybe drunk, man who has 60 pounds on her, and somehow I bet some words would come to him.
Punishment should punish (which this punishment doesn’t even begin to do). But where possible, it should also educate. I’ve long thought that the best “punishment” for skinhead thugs who desecrate a synagogue or a mosque would be to make them spend a year working at said synagogue or mosque, and they’d see that the people therein are people just like the rest of us (or many of them would anyway).
What Meyer needs to see is domestic abuse is a real thing. But whatever chance there was to make that happen was blown—by people who can’t see beyond AP rankings and dollar signs.