Buckeyes

There Are No Heroes

Greg Bartram / USA TODAY

The Ohio State University is bigger than Urban Meyer. It was bigger than Woody Hayes and Jim Tressel or any other athletic staffer you can name who’s been fired or resigned for an NCAA violation or other scandal. Ohio State will always have its pick of the coaching litter. We as fans will all be OK regardless of who coaches the team we root for. If Woody Hayes can be fired, Urban Meyer can be fired.

Accountability is important to the long-term health of any organization. It’s especially important for the staff of a college football team, who, like it or not, have been entrusted by our society to mold young players into upstanding men of character. Objectively, this makes no sense. The requirement that our colleges still have football teams and that these teams can be anything more than wholly dedicated to on-field success is an objective conflict of interest.

No one has embraced this reality, however, more than Urban Meyer. I used to love him for it.

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Meyer has long espoused that he views his role more as recruiter and mentor than as on-field manager. He holds “Real Life Wednesdays” where he brings in a variety of folks to help prepare his players for success after football. I’ve long despised the NCAA and how it treats players, and until we can move to an equitable system where players are paid commensurate to the value of their labor, the well-being of these kids is going to be entrusted to coaches.

Meyer seemed one of the best in this rotten system, taking palpable pleasure in his role as a mentor and preparing his players for success beyond the field. He has long acknowledged accountability for his position of trust and for the care of the young men in his charge.

Organizations that choose winning over accountability devolve into abhorrent situations like Baylor under Art Briles, Michigan State with Larry Nassar on the staff, or Penn State under Joe Paterno, assisting his friend and long-time assistant Jerry Sandusky. This is not to compare Urban Meyer’s potential misdeed allegedly overlooking Zach Smith’s abusive behavior to these other monsters, but they are in the same universe. These violations of conscience are all due to an abdication of accountability.

Urban Meyer is a public employee of the state of Ohio. In fact, he is the highest-paid public employee in the state of Ohio. Like public employees everywhere, we, the people of those policies, taxpayers, and citizens, should hold those entrusted with executing our will—on our dime—to the highest possible standard. Sure, Meyer coaches our favorite football team to national relevance each fall—he doesn’t issue licenses at the DMV—but he’s a public employee all the same. Not covering up the misdeeds of a subordinate or not lying to the press about said situation should be the bare minimum we expect from any public employee, let alone one we’ve granted the honor and prestige of coaching a football team as dear to hearts as the Ohio State Buckeyes.

We may never know what really happened between Zach and Courtney Smith, who is telling the truth, who is lying, who knew about it, and when. Urban Meyer may be fired, he may just resign, or he may come back. None of this is relevant to the issue at hand. The real problem was hiring Zach Smith in the first place. Smith is the grandson of Ohio State head coach Earle Bruce, who gave Urban Meyer his first college coaching job and served as a mentor to the young Meyer. Smith was a walk-on at Bowling Green under Meyer, then joined Meyer in Florida in 2004 as a QC coach and a graduate assistant. Smith joined the Buckeyes under Meyer in 2011 after a few years coaching for former Meyer assistants.

You see the pattern?

Smith is a nepotism case; he’s a Meyer family friend. Urban Meyer felt he owed his grandfather, so he took care of Smith by rostering him at BG and then giving him a job for most of his adult life. Despite knowing that in 2009 Smith pushed his then-pregnant wife against a wall, Meyer continued to employ Smith for years, even re-hiring him when Meyer won his dream job at OSU, where he has “Treat Women With Respect” painted on the wall.

But let’s leave aside all these allegations for a second. How many readers would think it unethical if the manager of the local DMV office hired the grandchild of the manager’s first boss, who remained a close family friend, then continued to hire that grandchild after the manager was promoted to other posts within the government? Many, I would wager—and they would be correct.

There is a reason nepotism is frowned upon as a concept: It leads to organizational failure. It’s difficult to fire a friend or relative, so leaders let them get away with greater and greater offenses until the weight of their accumulated shit causes the entire organization to crumble.

This should be a no-brainer to any organization, exponentially more so to a public one. The Ohio State Buckeyes are not McRainey Heating & Cooling, where old man McRainey is free to hire his shithead failsons to tank the business because who can stop him; public employees of the state of Ohio shouldn’t be hiring family friends. Of course, we all know college football (and football in general, if we want to go down this rabbit hole) is rife with nepotism. Look up Iowa’s offensive coordinator when you get a chance. But that doesn’t make it right.

Urban Meyer and Ohio State royally messed up here and should be held accountable, but this problem is bigger than Meyer and OSU. They are merely a symptom of a deeper infection.

As long as the NCAA exists in its current state, with unpaid players indentured to an athletic plantation system that controls their every move, with millionaire, publicly-employed coaches as overseers tasked to whip their charges into perfectly behaved saints while doing anything to win every game, none of this will change. Everyone will look the other way for player or coach misdeeds as long as the wins keep piling up and the five-star recruits keep coming in and the fancy pre-game hype videos get the views. Coaches will keep hiring friends and family because they need people they can trust and stand to be around for 20-hour days, on constant recruiting trips, and under endless amounts of stress. Coaches will preach accountability and respecting women and seem to genuinely mean it, then betray their so-called morals the first time it becomes convenient. Even a coach like Urban Meyer, who appears to have gone out of his way to embrace the so-called better aspects of this rotten system, can’t help but succumb to the ethical lapses required for sustained college football success.

There are no heroes in this business.

I have no solutions to offer. I’m as complicit in this thing as any other fan. I’ll keep watching the games, buying the merch, wearing my scarlet and gray, and yelling I-O every time a complete stranger tees it up with an O-H.

I’ll keep my 2014 championship painting up on the basement wall with Urban Meyer and Zeke Elliott proudly showcased, regardless of how this mess shakes out. In less than a month I’ll start up Know Your Opponent and begin planning my trip to Columbus for The Game.

I’ll shake my head at the next revelation and that little twist of unease and guilt will grip my stomach for an instant, then I’ll check the latest recruit commitments.

I’ll be relieved if Meyer is cleared, and I’ll be disgusted. I’ll be disappointed if he’s fired, and I’ll feel morally superior. I’ve long known the entire NCAA was a rotten and morally bankrupt cartel, but I was able to avoid most of the cognitive dissonance because the Meyer-era Buckeyes managed to elude the worst of it.