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Urban Meyer Got a Slap on the Wrist

The different treatment toward players and coaches is unsettling. 

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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(Photo: Jeffrey Becker, USA TODAY Sports)

Welcome back to the world of college football. Before the season’s opening kickoff, the Ohio State University Buckeyes elected to punt on a crucial display of integrity.

The university’s football coach, Urban Meyer, has been suspended without pay for failing to take appropriate action when allegations of spousal abuse were made against his former assistant coach, Zack Smith. 

With a perfunctory suspension for head coach Urban Meyer, Ohio State University sent a clear message to the college football world: Nothing will stand in the way of our quest to win another national championship. With a slap on the wrist — a three-game suspension for Meyer — and a pathetic press conference, Ohio State enters the season as 0-2 in the court of public opinion. 

Coach Meyer’s maxim that “leaders create culture” is absolutely right. Unfortunately, the culture of plausible deniability to protect coaches — and the heightened scrutiny to police athletes — continues to shield bad behavior and produce poor results. This situation being the most recent example.

The facts surrounding this sordid drama of failed leadership are convoluted at best, but a report released by OSU from an independent investigation seems to have made a few things clear. Zach Smith worked for Meyer as an assistant at the University of Florida from 2005 to 2009. In 2009, Smith was arrested for aggravated battery. The alleged victim was his pregnant wife — Courtney Smith. She declined to press charges and Zack Smith disputes that any violence occurred. 

Meyer was aware of the 2009 arrest. Prior knowledge of this incident alone should have prompted him to not hire Smith at Ohio State. To preach “respect for women” and keep an alleged domestic abuser on your staff at the same time is hypocritical at best.  

That failure to act, along with other failures to address misconduct by Smith that did not involve domestic abuse, should warrant a sanction beyond suspension from 25 percent of the Buckeyes’ regular season games. According to a summary of the university’s investigative findings and actions, both Meyer and OSU’s athletic director Gene Smith (who was suspended from August 31 to September 16 without pay) “failed to take sufficient management action relating to Zach Smith’s misconduct and retained an assistant coach who was not performing as an appropriate role model for OSU student-athletes.” Meyer’s initial apology to “Buckeye Nation” also failed to include any mention of Courtney Smith.  

Perhaps what should unsettle us most about this saga is the different treatment toward players and coaches. The ever-vigilant NCAA recently levied suspensions on University of North Carolina football players for selling school-issued shoes . And the penalty? The players received four-game suspensions. 

In 2010, former Ohio State Buckeye Terrelle Pryor traded sacred Buckeye memorabilia for cash, which earned him a five-game suspension.  

In a world where athletics departments and the NCAA monitor everything from food intake to class attendance of athletes with the deftness of the FBI, why do millionaire coaches get a pass? Our college football culture reeks of university officials who are willing to act in a complicit manner to protect their highest-paid employees and winning streaks.

Is peddling used football gear more egregious than harboring perpetrators of domestic violence? Meyer’s place in the pantheon of high-caliber coaches (he boasts a 73-8 record at Ohio State) insulates him from the severity that would befall one of his players for misdeeds. A team gets the chance to bring in 25 scholarship players each year who could revamp the roster. But to replace a two-time winning national championship coach is a different matter. The talent pool is scarce. And that scarcity combined with the addiction to championships serves as a head coach’s most reliable insurance policy.

At a minimum, Ohio State University leaders should have levied a season-long suspension that would also bar Meyer from coaching in the postseason. This would have sent a strong message that the university would hold its head football coach to the high standard of accountability that is commensurate with his salary level.

There is a “core values” banner that adorns the Buckeye locker room. It reads:
Treat women with respect.
No drugs.
No stealing.
No weapons.

The recent events suggest that an amendment should be made: *Applies to Players Only.

Daron K. Roberts is the founding director of the Center for Sports Leadership and Innovation at The University of Texas. 

A version of this op-ed appeared on CNN Opinions

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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