Opinion: OSU Can No Longer Turn Blind Eye on Abuse

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The Columbus Dispatch (Ohio)


The important issue is domestic violence, and Meyer and the others are just figures in another case.

To be sure, their involvement makes it a high-profile case. The OSU Board of Trustees suspended Meyer without pay as head football coach because he tolerated a favored employee's clearly unacceptable behavior for years; because he didn't tell the truth when asked at a press conference about the employee's controversy; and because, when people started asking uncomfortable questions about it, his first response was not to come forward with honesty but instead to make sure his old text messages were deleted.

Athletic Director Gene Smith was suspended without pay for 17 days because he failed to recognize and correct an organizational culture that allowed Meyer's failures.

Those are, under OSU's institutional policies, the offenses and omissions that triggered discipline. But there is a lot more to be troubled about in the story of Zach and Courtney Smith and their relationship to the university.

Zach Smith is a former assistant to Meyer, both at the University of Florida and at Ohio State; he is a grandson of the late Earle Bruce, beloved former Buckeye coach and mentor to Meyer. By all accounts, Smith and his former wife Courtney had a troubled relationship prone to conflict. Meyer knew about a fight between the Smiths in Florida in 2009, when Mrs. Smith accused her husband of throwing her against a wall. Mr. Smith was arrested, but no charges were filed.

Meyer has said he didn't believe Courtney Smith's claim. But over the years that followed, Meyer knew about plenty of bad behavior by Zach Smith. There was the recruiting trip on which he and another OSU assistant coach took high-school coaches to a strip club; failures to pay his credit-card and phone bills; and, during divorce proceedings in 2015 and 2016, an increasing tendency to show up late for work and not show up at all for recruiting visits and to lie about it.

In late 2015, Meyer learned that Powell police were investigating new domestic-violence accusations Courtney Smith made against her husband. In June 2016, Meyer told Zach Smith to get treatment for addiction to an ADHD drug.

But Meyer didn't fire Smith until July, after a court found he was a danger to his wife and issued a domestic-violence protection order against him.

Meyer has acknowledged that a "blind spot" about Zach Smith, rooted in his affection for Bruce, led him to repeatedly go easy on his assistant -- threatening multiple times to fire him the next time something happened, but never officially reporting his concerns to others.

Misplaced loyalty is one thing, but where was the concern for Courtney Smith? The couple's toxic relationship features many of the signs that often end up in violence and tragedy. It could have gone much worse.

Meyer espouses respect for women as a "core value" of his program; it's hard to understand how he could decline for so long to step in or speak up about a situation so fraught with danger.

Something Meyer told Zach Smith when he learned of the Powell police investigation is telling: "If you hit her, you are fired."

Domestic violence doesn't require hitting. It is an effort to control and break down a partner. It can take the form of verbal abuse, intimidation or controlling behavior.

It is worth noting that the troubles with Meyer and the Smiths play out in a larger context of the university's own blind spot.

Ohio State has struggled to respond adequately to problems of sexual violence involving employees and students. It established a Sexual Civility and Empowerment Center with much fanfare in 2015, but suspended its operations in February amid complaints that employees actually harmed people reporting sexual assaults by casting doubt on their complaints and "re-traumatizing" them.

An investigation followed and the university has promised to open a new centralized office to address sexual misconduct and harassment by explaining to people their rights and connecting them with support and resources.

And then there are questions about uninvestigated complaints of sexual assaults in previous years in wrestling and diving programs.

The saga of the Smiths and Urban Meyer suggests that the university needs a renewed emphasis on the idea that, when somebody knows that domestic violence might be happening, keeping quiet about it isn't an acceptable option.

The noisy public debate about Meyer's fate shows that many in our community don't recognize that obligation. Many have questioned why he should be responsible for "personal problems" between "consenting adults."

The answer lies in the kind of community the university and central Ohio strive to be. Victims of domestic violence often are overpowered in every way by their abusive partners and unable to protect themselves. The problem is pervasive, and turning away is shameful.

Whether Meyer and Gene Smith should have received harsher penalties is up for debate. But calling out their failure of leadership sends a message that this community needs to hear.

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August 27, 2018


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