Sports

Report Explaining Why Ohio State Didn’t Fire Urban Meyer Documents Successful Cover-up by Urban Meyer

Meyer, surrounded by players, claps with a smug expression on his face.
Urban Meyer after a game in Indianapolis on Dec. 6, 2014.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

In July, an order of protection was issued against an Ohio State assistant football coach named Zach Smith on behalf of his ex-wife, Courtney Smith. Subsequent reporting by college football writer Brett McMurphy found that Zach had been arrested in 2009 and investigated in 2015 on suspicion of having physically abused Courtney, with both incidents occurring when he was employed by three-time national champion coach Urban Meyer. Zach Smith was then fired, but at a subsequent press conference Meyer—who famously has the words “Treat Women With Respect” painted in large letters in the Buckeyes’ locker room—downplayed the seriousness of the 2009 incident and denied knowledge of the 2015 incident. His denial was called into question by further reporting by McMurphy that included an interview with Courtney Smith and the publication of text messages that showed she’d told Meyer’s wife Shelley about the alleged 2015 abuse at the time. Meyer then admitted he did know about the 2015 accusations, whereupon he was suspended while Ohio State brought in a team led by former U.S. attorney Mary Jo White to investigate the matter. (Zach Smith denies abusing his ex-wife and has never been formally charged with domestic violence, but Courtney Smith maintains that he assaulted her on multiple occasions and a text published by McMurphy appears to show Zach Smith acknowledging that he had choked her.)

On Wednesday, Ohio State president Michael Drake announced the outcome of that investigation. While Meyer “fail[ed] to take sufficient management action” to address Zach Smith’s behavior and spoke inaccurately in July, Drake said, he will be suspended for three games this year rather than being fired. The school then released White’s report, which concludes that Meyer did not attempt to evade any school rules or contractual obligations and did not intentionally lie in public.* The report, though, portrays Zach Smith as an individual whose instability was common knowledge—and tells the story of what appears to have been an impressively thorough effort by Meyer to prevent investigators and the public from obtaining information about his handling of his assistant coach’s many transgressions.

Among the things the report documents about Zach Smith, some but not all of which was previously known:

• He was arrested in 2009 for allegedly shoving his wife, who was pregnant, during an argument that began because he brought an intoxicated woman to their home after a party. At the time, both Meyer and Zach Smith were employed by the University of Florida.

• In 2013, at which point Smith and Meyer had begun working at Ohio State, he was arrested for operating a vehicle while impaired. (He pleaded guilty to a lesser misdemeanor; the judge in his case was an Ohio State alum.)

• He spent $600 at a strip club in 2014 during a work trip with a colleague and at least one professional contact.

• He was investigated by Powell, Ohio, police in 2015 and 2016—and possibly arrested, but more on that later—on suspicion of domestic violence and undefined “cyber offenses” against Courtney Smith. (The Smiths separated in 2015 and were divorced in 2016.)

• He was repeatedly late to work engagements in 2015 and 2016, missing some completely and later lying to superiors about his absence.

• He took “sexually explicit” photographs of himself in Ohio State facilities at some point during the same time period and had sex toys shipped to his office.

• He checked into rehab for stimulant use in 2016. (The report doesn’t say it, but McMurphy has reported that Smith left the rehab facility after completing only four days of a 10-day treatment course.)

• He was given a trespass warning in December 2017 for entering his ex-wife’s home while intoxicated.

• He was charged with criminal trespassing in May 2018 for again intruding at Courtney Smith’s home.

Remember, Zach Smith was able to do all of that without getting fired; he wasn’t dismissed until the July protection order became public.

The report does say investigators found no evidence that Meyer knew about the 2013 driving arrest, the sexually inappropriate behavior on school property, or the December 2017 and May 2018 incidents. It concludes that Meyer was not engaged in “a deliberate cover-up” of domestic violence because he didn’t believe Courtney Smith’s allegations were truthful—and asserts that Meyer “would have” fired Smith “if he ever came to learn or believe” that the assistant coach had physically abused his wife.

At the same time, the report shows that Meyer had detailed knowledge of the 2009 arrest and the 2015 investigation as well as Smith’s erratic job performance and substance-abuse issues. Moreover, the report proves that his statement in July that he was unaware of the 2015 incident was false and documents a number of actions that undermine its own assertion that no “cover-up” took place. Here are some of the report’s findings of fact:

• In 2009, Meyer’s mentor Earl Bruce (who is also, not incidentally, Zach Smith’s grandfather and a former Ohio State head football coach) met with Courtney Smith before she decided not to press charges against her husband. The report says a longtime friend of Meyer’s named Hiram deFries “likely” spoke to Courtney Smith before she made that decision.

• Meyer claims Courtney Smith told him in person 2009 that she had not been truthful when she reported Zach Smith to police. But Courney Smith denies this and Mary Jo White’s report notes that Zach Smith does not remember Meyer ever meeting with his then-wife.

• Meyer did not tell Ohio State administrators about Zach Smith’s arrest in Florida before hiring him at Ohio State in 2011.

• Meyer not only knew about the 2015-2016 police investigation into Zach Smith but discussed it with him in person “a number of times” and “monitored” the police’s activity “regularly for a period of months.” Meyer says that he never spoke to his wife about Courtney Smith’s allegations, but the report says that “given the closeness of their relationship and Shelley’s concerns, we believe it is likely that Shelley and Urban Meyer had at least some communication about these allegations in late 2015.” Without any further explanation, the report additionally asserts that “we also learned during the investigation that Coach Meyer has sometimes had significant memory issues in other situations where he had prior extensive knowledge of events. He has also periodically taken medicine that can negatively impair his memory, concentration, and focus.” What?!?

• After Zach Smith was fired on July 23 of this year, Meyer sent an email to the football staff instructing them that there was to be “zero conversation about Zach’s past issues” inside the program.

• On July 25, Ohio State student journalists filed a public-information request for text messages on Meyer’s school-supplied phone related to Zach Smith’s behavior. Despite evidence that this request was known to at least some football staffers, such messages were never retrieved. And on Aug. 1, after McMurphy published his report about Courtney Smith’s 2015 text messages, Meyer and a football staffer discussed how to delete all messages older than a year from Meyer’s phone. When Meyer’s phone records were searched by investigators, they found no texts older than a year.

On top of all that, there’s the matter of the 2015-2016 police investigation into Zach Smith. Meyer’s excuse for having been untruthful in his July 2018 press conference is that McMurphy’s initial report included an accusation, subsequently denied by Powell, Ohio police, that Smith had been arrested in Oct. 2015. Meyer contends that at the press conference he only meant to deny that Smith had been arrested, not to deny that he knew anything about Smith being investigated in 2015 at all. But McMurphy has posted the original Oct. 2015 Powell incident report on Facebook, and it does indicate that Smith was arrested. The Powell police department says it “revised” the incident report this year to eliminate the record of an arrest because, quote, “the terminology was different,” but has not explained how police officers would end up having a different understanding of the word arrest in 2018 than they did in 2015.

So, the investigation commissioned by Ohio State found no evidence that Urban Meyer improperly covered up Zach Smith’s allegedly violent behavior or that he ever believed Smith had attacked his wife—but also found evidence that Meyer’s friends convinced Courtney Smith not to file domestic violence charges in 2009, evidence that Meyer’s claim about Courtney Smith recanting her allegations in 2009 isn’t true, evidence that Meyer misled the public about 2015 allegations documented in a report that was recently “revised” by police under suspicious circumstances, evidence that Ohio State was unable to retrieve texts about Meyer and Zach Smith because Meyer deleted them, and evidence that Meyer instructed his subordinates not to talk about their knowledge of Zach Smith’s past behavior on the day a bombshell media report about that behavior was published. Ohio State’s report also says that Meyer—one of the highest-functioning individuals in an extremely competitive and mentally demanding field—apparently has a propensity to forget massive amounts of information he once knew.

In summary, I don’t buy this crap. Does anyone?

Correction, Aug. 24: This sentence originally misstated that the Mary Jo White report found that Meyer did not break any school rules. It in fact concluded that Meyer should technically have officially notified administrators about the 2015 police investigation of Zach Smith. The report also said, however, that Meyer did not intentionally evade the rule because he believed (correctly) that other Ohio State officials were already aware of the investigation into Smith and (incorrectly) that he wasn’t under an obligation to report an investigation that didn’t end in an arrest.