Corruption in Sports, Toxic Masculinity, and American Universities

by Neil H. Buchanan

With the beginning of the college football season, the conversation should be about whether one's favorite team is looking good or bad.  There is, of course, plenty of that.  As a longtime Michigan fan, for example, I am aware of a mini-controversy over (completely accurate) negative comments that former Wolverine great Braylon Edwards leveled -- via Twitter, of course -- at the team's truly terrible performance in its opener against Notre Dame.

Although I hate to be on the losing side of things, this is exactly how sports should be.  One of my alma maters (actually almae matres) is overpaying an overrated and under-performing coach, and I am disappointed.  This gives me a respite of sorts, something to think about other than whether the U.S. political system will survive the mid-term elections.

On a slightly more intense level, a professor at the University of Kansas has called for his university to drop its football program entirely after its loss to a lower-division school on Saturday.  There, the argument was not merely about performance -- fans of Kansas's perennially losing football team can only dream of being disappointed by something like Michigan's 28-11 record over the past three years -- but about the financial drain of running a football program at Kansas.  (Even with the TV money and all that, only a dozen or so of the most dominant programs actually make money from college football, while the rest subsidize their disappointments.)  Most importantly, everyone should worry about the mental and physical toll of the game on the young men and boys who play it.

But the biggest story in college football in the last few months has revolved around spousal abuse by a now-former assistant coach at Ohio State and, much more to the point, the multiple levels of enabling that have been exposed at that university.  As I will explain, the head coach enabled the abuse, and the university then enabled the head coach by whitewashing the whole thing.

Although mistreatment of women is very much a part of Donald Trump's story, at least the Ohio State situation is otherwise a distraction from the existential issues that the country now faces.  Again, therefore, I am treating this column -- as serious as its subject matter is -- as a break from the rest of what is wrong in the world.

The story itself is quite ugly, and the university's response provides further evidence of how completely out of control big-time sports has become at places like Ohio State -- and, in this regard, there are far too many places like Ohio State.

For those who have not followed this controversy and who never otherwise would care about a football-related story, the first thing to understand is that Ohio State's head coach, Urban Meyer, is one of the most successful coaches in the country.  Ohio State has always had a winning program, but Meyer's seven years at Ohio State have included a national championship as well as general dominance of the Big Ten conference (one of the country's top leagues).  Before Ohio State, Meyer won two national championships at the University of Florida in six years.  Fans of the team are happy about having him on board.

What we now know, however, is that Meyer had an assistant coach on staff at Florida who later joined Meyer at Ohio State.  That assistant, Zach Smith, had a volatile temper that apparently was obvious to everyone around him -- but, because this is football, that tendency toward violence was welcomed as evidence of "being a winner."

At Florida in 2009, Smith's then-wife Courtney called the police after her husband physically attacked her, but she later declined to press charges.  As too often happens, her decision was treated by others as proof that there was no real problem.  She stayed with her abuser for several more years, extending into his time at Ohio State.

Readers who want to wade further into the details can do so here, but my focus is on the university's treatment of Meyer and the reaction to it.  The current scandal broke when Meyer spoke to the media over the summer and simply lied about what he knew about the Smith situation.  The university, under pressure, hired some big legal guns to conduct an "internal investigation," which was followed by Meyer receiving a slap on the wrist that involves merely missing some early-season games against over-matched opponents.  (They won their first game, 77-31, without Meyer in attendance.)

Earlier this week on Verdict, my colleague and Illinois Law School dean Vikram Amar wrote an interesting column in which he focused on the inherent conflicts of interest in the types of internal investigations that Ohio State authorized.  He concludes that assembling (unpaid or nominally compensated) panels of law professors might solve that problem, and he makes a good argument.  (On the other hand, he compares Ohio State to the New York Yankees, which implicitly likens Michigan fans to Boston Red Sox fans.  I can think of no greater insult.)

Before offering his proposal, Dean Amar summarizes in one devastating paragraph some key points about Ohio State's BigLaw-assisted whitewash:
"The findings themselves are not particularly plausible given the evidence the independent investigation team had before it. The team, headed by Mary Jo White (a partner at the law firm of Debevoise and Plimpton and a former United States Attorney and Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission) and David Saratt (Senior Chair of Debevoise and a former Assistant United States Attorney), in concluding that Coach Meyer’s false statements were not deliberate, intimated instead that the statements may have been the product of “memory issues [even as to matters on which he had] prior extensive knowledge of events” and (relatedly) his “periodically tak[ing] medicine that can negatively impair his memory, concentration and focus.” This even though there was no mention of his having taken any medication in the period leading up to the Media Days Event. This even though the precise topic of Coach Meyer’s misstatements—his knowledge of domestic abuse allegations against Zach Smith in 2015—had been the very subject of text messages sent by OSU’s Athletic Director to Coach Meyer literally the night before and morning of the Media Days event. And this even though Coach Meyer is often reputed to be one of the most detail-oriented coaches—in preparation, tactics, strategy, and execution—in all of college football. It’s one thing to suggest that Coach Meyer may have gotten flustered and misspoke at the Media Days Event. It’s another to suggest that he intended to say what he did but that he simply forgot key facts that he lived through and was reminded of by the AD just several hours earlier."
Yikes.  This is not the legal profession's finest hour, to say the least.  More to the point, however, what was most interesting to me was the immediate aftermath of the late-night news conference at which Ohio State announced its minimal punishment and at which Meyer delivered what many observers described as a prepared statement that strongly resembled a hostage video.

The negative responses to this travesty have been deservedly severe.  It is also notable that Meyer had earlier asked about how to delete texts from his phone for the relevant time period when he was aware of (but doing nothing about) Smith's most recent assaults, as a Washington Post article explained.

Over the past several years, I have completely stopped watching sports talk shows, for a variety of reasons.  Notwithstanding everything I have written here, I almost never watch games anymore.  (I know about Michigan's performance this past Saturday from watching two minutes of lowlights.)  But the morning after the Ohio State news conference two weeks ago, I was glued to ESPN for five hours.  It was fascinating.

I have to say that everyone at ESPN -- all of the former jocks and coaches as well as the sports reporters who understand that ESPN's revenue, and therefore their salaries, is in some sense on the line -- came through like champions.  Nobody was buying the Meyer-OSU story, and the only differences among them regarded how much more severe the punishment should have been (most agreeing that Meyer should have been fired) and whether Ohio State will have more difficulty recruiting players as a result (which might yet cause Meyer to be fired).

But the best part of ESPN's coverage was that Meyer was roundly criticized for his complete obliviousness to the real story, which was that a woman -- a woman who had been pregnant during one of the episodes of violence that her spouse inflicted upon her, throwing her against a wall -- had been terrorized for years.  Even if Meyer wanted to hold himself blameless, he at least should have said that he wished he had known and that he would have done something.  At the very, very least, he should have said that he was sorry about what Courtney Smith had endured.

Instead, Meyer spent the Q-and-A saying nothing at all about that story, instead robotically offering non-responses to reporters' questions.  Finally, one reporter served up the biggest gift of Meyer's life, asking if Meyer had anything to say to Courtney Smith.  Meyer looked non-plussed, and his brain somehow came up with this: "I have a message for everyone involved in this: I’m sorry that we’re in this situation. I’m just sorry."  He did manage to remember to apologize to Ohio State fans (ridiculously known as "Buckeye Nation") but could not mention Courtney Smith or treat her like a human being, even upon being asked directly about her.  (In damage control mode, Meyer later tweeted an apology that was obviously written by the university's legal counsel.  Indeed, the university also released his tweet as an official statement.  Too little, too late.)

As I noted, the ESPN commentary was scathing.  By far the best moment was when Trevor Matich, a former star who now covers college football for ESPN, began his remarks by saying this: "The first apology that Urban Meyer should have made was to Courtney Smith.  The second should have been to all women who are victims of domestic violence for being diminished by the way he handled the situation with Zach Smith."  (Matich has shared a personal story about his mother and father that is powerful and heartbreaking.)  For all of the other excellent commentary, Matich's cut through everything to focus on the immediate tragedy and the larger problem, all in two sentences.

One of the hosts of the show I was watching is Michelle Beadle, who was absolutely fierce in her denunciations of Meyer and Ohio State.  Even better, she has since announced that she is continuing her boycott of football (both college and pro), even though she is an ESPN host.  She said:
"I believe that the sport of football has set itself up to be in a position where it shows itself in the bigger picture to not really care about women — they don’t really care about people of color, but we won’t get into that for [the] NFL either. But as a woman, I feel like a person who has been marginalized."
This says good things about some parts of the sports world -- ESPN has not fired Beadle, and it did not feel the need to be "balanced" in coverage of domestic violence -- but of course all of this is happening in a context where sexism and racism continue to infect sports.  That is a big reason (but not the only one) why I, and so many others, have found my childhood devotions fading away over the years.

Although the fate of women in this sea of toxic masculinity is the paramount issue, it is also important to consider what this tells us about American higher education.  Ohio State is a great academic institution, a member of the elite Association of American Universities, which includes the top 62 research universities in North America.

Ohio State is also going to win football games no matter who is coaching, because -- and I do not think of this as a good thing -- the university has created a program that will attract top talent every year.  (During a different OSU scandal a dozen years ago, a Sports Illustrated writer said that Ohio State's football culture is so corrupt that it closely resembles that at Southeastern Conference (SEC) schools like Auburn and Florida, which is mutually damning to both Ohio State and the SEC, the gold standard of football rule-breaking.)  Ohio State does not need Urban Meyer, notwithstanding what I noted above about his record.  (His teams have seriously under-performed in key games in the Meyer era.)

But the university's leaders obviously thought otherwise, I suspect because they feared negative reactions by its students, alumni, and (most importantly) boosters.  In the midst of the child abuse scandal at Penn State several years ago (an even uglier story, incredibly), students actually rioted when their record-setting coach was forced out.  What would OSU fans have done if Meyer were fired?  They should have said, "Hey, we're still a great university, and we should be happy to get this sociopath out of here so that we can again be proud of our football team and university."  University leaders had good reason to suspect that the reaction would have been less calm than that.

This could happen at any sports-oriented university in America.  All of it.  We can be grimly certain that sports programs across the country continue to shield violent men who assault women.  We know that many coaches' concern is that nothing gets out, and that that is the prime concern of many administrators as well.  Several years ago, The New York Times published a searing investigative report exposing how the Florida State University athletic department worked with local police to prevent arrests of players who otherwise would have been arrested.  The FSU president's response was to attack The New York Times.  (Today, he would surely call it Fake News.)

College sports might therefore seem to be beyond redemption.  Because I need to feel hopeful about something, however, I choose to look at the signs of progress.  Major participants in the sports-industrial complex are rightly and openly appalled by Ohio State's response.  It is hard to imagine such a thing happening in years past.  There is a long way to go, but this rolling disaster has had some undeniable upsides.  Progress is progress.