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Losing and Finding Faith in Ohio State: While We’re Waiting…

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College football season kicked off in earnest last weekend, which is usually one of my favorite times of the year. But it was hard to be excited for the start of college football this year. College football has long been and remains my favorite sport, even though liking college football is now more … fraught than ever before.

My apathy this season is partially the accumulation of lots of baggage over the years, but more than anything it is the Zach Smith scandal with Urban Meyer and Ohio State. The events themselves precipitating the scandals, how it transpired, and how it’s been processed have all weighed heavily on my mind. It’s deeply affected how I relate to my alma mater, how I enjoy sports, how I generally regard with the world at large, and how I wring meaning from existence in a dark, menacing world. If you’re tired of hearing or reading reactions to the event itself and are only interested and how it impacts me more broadly, please skip the next few paragraphs. But I would be remiss and hypocritical if I didn’t say anything about Urban Meyer’s actual suspension. But while we’re waiting …

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I need to say something about the Meyer suspension because it would only serve to lessen my credibility when events like what happened at Ohio State transpire elsewhere. In sum: I think Urban Meyer probably should have been fired, but I also think a three-game suspension is not as unconscionable a punishment as it was made out to be by many.

I don’t need to reiterate, recount, and relitigate every fact from the Ohio State investigation. That’s already been done plenty, and there are many excellent summaries of the events, the findings of the investigation committee, and the related report elsewhere.

For me, it came down to the following: Firing people who have not been charged or convicted of a crime without damning evidence is generally undesirable. Furthermore, one of the reasons you have athletic directors and Title IX departments is to insulate coaches from making important decisions about dumb assistant coaches with whom the head coach has a close, utterly biased personal relationship. But Meyer was not proactive enough in maintaining that Smith’s employment was contingent upon the ongoing, assured, complete safety of Courtney Smith, he did not demonstrate that the safety of others was one of his paramount values, he misstated the facts to the media in July, and he kept a coach on his staff who — based upon the objective data available — is a complete asshat (even if a yet-to-be convicted asshat), and by letting that asshat loiter around his coaching staff because that asshat’s grandfather was a real swell guy, Urban Meyer, and said asshat, jeopardized Ohio State’s football program and reputation as an institution of higher learning. Meyer was not malicious — but he was negligent when the personal safety of people was at stake. I think he should have been fired for those reasons.

But these things are complicated. Lest anyone think I’m overly biased one way or another, I spent one summer interning at a Northeastern Ohio prosecutor’s office where one of my chief responsibilities was interviewing domestic violence victims, that work experience left lasting emotional, psychological, and philosophical imprints; I know many criminal attorneys on the side of both the prosecution and the defense; I tutored criminal procedure; and I care very deeply about these issues and how they are handled.

A three-game suspension may have been a weak punishment, but it may be fair for Meyer’s negligence. While many people wanted it, the public, professional beheading of Urban Meyer was not going to “solve” domestic violence, assure Courtney Smith’s safety, or suddenly rectify the widespread societal problems and moral quandaries associated with spousal abuse, dysfunctional relationships, law enforcement, large and powerful institutions, football, college athletics, or asshats generally. It wouldn’t have hurt, though. I see meritorious arguments on both sides of what happened — and in a world that still valued nuance and complexity, both outcomes could be reasonable. I’m not sure we live in that world.

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Now that I’ve hopefully tackled the Meyer suspension with enough ambiguity to infuriate people on all sides, let’s talk about the more interesting aspects of my reaction to the Meyer scandal.

Neglecting the final outcome of the Meyer investigation altogether: the whole thing was gross. Zach Smith is gross, Urban Meyer’s handling of the situation was gross, the unquestioning loyalty that impaired Meyer’s judgment was gross, the administrative dilution of blame was gross, how it was covered and reported was gross, the conduct of many Ohio State fans was gross, the rushed judgment without regard to the facts was gross, the treatment of those involved was gross, Meyer’s clumsily conveyed remorse was gross, the celebrations of the minor suspension were gross, the righteous moral condemnations from the media with no self-awareness whatsoever were gross, and Meyer’s attempts to rationalize the result on Twitter was gross. I feel physically ill at its mere existence. The whole episode was gross in toto.

Everything is covered in a thick layer of slime. What this most recent scandal has reinforced for me is that it’s foolish to have reverence for anything. Everything will disappoint you.

As a skeptic and non-conformist of sorts, I’ve always mistrusted authority. But Ohio State was the one thing for which I’ve been able to maintain a pure love. Since I was 13 years old, Ohio State represented an ideal yet attainable greatness I could aspire to and participate in — by watching games there, attending school there, joining a lifelong community there, making friends there, graduating from there, returning on football Saturdays there, and ignoring calls to donate there.1

When my parents were in the midst of their divorce — a disruption to my otherwise ideal childhood — I clung to the 2002 Ohio State football team as something to believe in. When I attended my first Ohio State game, in Columbus against Washington State when Maurice Clarett ran for 230 yards, it was a mind-blowing experience that made college football the greatest thing in the world to me. I was too old to go to summer camp and too young to go to Burning Man, but I had Ohio State football. The controlled anarchy — the crazed fanaticism! It was great!

I watched the Texas Tech game and Illinois games at the house where my dad temporarily lived and my mother no longer did, I watched the “Holy Buckeye” game against Purdue alone in my bedroom at my mom’s new house, and I watched the Michigan game the week we moved into my dad’s new house. Ohio State eventually won the national championship with a 14-0 season. It was a magical season that restored my faith that some things could be unconditionally great.

Years later when I was a student at Ohio State, there was a bar named Too’s in a basement down the street from the dilapidated house where I lived for three years. It was one of my favorite places on campus, and not exclusively because it was in safe stumbling distance from where I lived. After I graduated, Too’s became extremely popular in part because of its prominent social media presence. It was slightly less hip from 2009 to 2011, when it was mostly a place to kill time, play pool, and listen to acoustic covers of 90s songs. In the past few years, Too’s was gradually forced out of their basement property beneath the former Campus Corner to make way for new residential and commercial developments like Gateway on South Campus — a part of campus most notable for its utter lack of personality.

A few weeks ago, Too’s posted pictures on their Twitter account of their old building’s final destruction. In the background of the third photo (upper right) you can see, valiantly still standing, 1909 Waldeck, the dumpy house where I lived in squalor for three years in college that is also slated for annihilation in the near future. Later that day, the Urban Meyer scandal and its coverage started to grow rapidly.

You didn’t have to squint hard to see the metaphor: the setting of some of my greatest memories from college being bulldozed at the same time as my previously inviolable faith in that university. The shattering of the grand illusion. I don’t know if 1909 Waldeck is still there (I assume it’s not), and I don’t know if my devotion to Ohio State is still there either (I assume it is, however impaired).

Because that’s what the Meyer scandal2 did. It damaged the purity of my optimism for Ohio State University. Even if Meyer didn’t do that much “wrong,” he didn’t do much right, either. I’m now cynical about the one thing I was never cynical about. I probably should have been jaded already: the skills of a slick recruiter like Meyer can only be had by peddling some warped version of the truth; thriving at college football requires the services of unsavory characters like Meyer and the grease of shady boosters; football itself is becoming more indefensible; and the extravagance coating a program like Ohio State’s glosses over deep inequities with the treatment of players. I could even look past Jim Tressel and Woody Hayes because I never cared about tattoos, the NCAA, or the FBI, and was content knowing Charlie Bauman made a full recovery from the feeble punch of a senile old man.

But I’d always been able to ignore a lot of it because it was all such grand fun. This scandal caused lasting harm to my Ohio State fandom because it concerns issues I genuinely care about and coincides with a larger crisis of faith in our ability to do good. I’m still tabulating the damage. It may be as little as 10 percent, or it may be as much as 75 percent. Maybe it can be fully rehabilitated over time. I won’t know for a few months or years. But even if my fandom is rehabbed to 90 percent, there is going to be residual caution and anxiety. When I cheer for Ohio State now, it’s going to be with less enthusiasm. Even if I ever get back to 100 percent, it’s still going to be tinged with the knowledge that the next scandal could take it down to zero. Worship nothing. Reverence for anything is folly.

In one scene in Almost Famous, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), the lead guitarist from the band Stillwater, playfully grabs the phone from the 15-year-old rock journalist who’s following them on tour to talk to his mother. The kid’s mother played expertly by Frances McDormand, quickly kills the amusement of the encounter and reminds Russell of the solemn power he has to shatter her son’s innocence. “He worships you people…. He’s not ready for your world of compromised values,” further warning him of the consequences if Russell and his bandmates “break his spirit.” Eventually, that world of compromised values is foisted on all of us, and it’s disorienting, disheartening, and alienating.

No one escapes with their innocence intact. For many American children, the dismemberment of their credulity begins with the revelation that there is no Santa Claus. (Spoiler alert?) Maybe being lied to about a fat man who delivered surprisingly good knockoff Nintendos in exchange for good behavior and frosted cut-outs was less of an indignity to others that it was me. But it the first pulled thread on the sweater, and the whole fabric of my reality was unraveling soon after.

“If Santa isn’t real, what else isn’t real?” I wondered. Luckily, I never had enough trust in corporations to be disappointed. It turns out most things. Soon after the debunking of Santa Claus were many others. Baseball — the home run chase, McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds — the unfailing virtue of the American government I pledged allegiance to — the Three-Fifths Compromise, the Trail of Tears, Dred Scott, the failure of Reconstruction, and Plessy v. Ferguson, through Teapot Dome, Heart Mountain, the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, Iran-Contra, Bill Clinton’s perjury, the Iraq War, and whatever the hell is going on right now — and even my parents — the doctors just let them take me home from the hospital without so much as a subroutine on parenting, an instruction manual on “How To Not Kill and Not Traumatize Your Young Child (Ages 0-18),” or even a multiple choice test — were all fraudulent to some degree.

That’s the risk we take in placing faith in humans and things run by humans — they are by inherently fallible. Athletes, musicians, titans of industry. You idolize a person only to find out they are anti-Semitic or are abusive, or like the new Eminem album. Which is why some people turn to religions — which put their faith in God and people died a long time and thus less likely to disappoint or fire off a racist tweet. But not even religion is safe, and I don’t think it’s unfair to question the wisdom of a god who runs a universe complete with pain, suffering, genocide, famine, pestilence, and erectile dysfunction. What we’re left with are values — which have no allegiance to individual, flawed human beings, or organizations.

Ken Burns’ Vietnam War was a documentary TV series that aired on PBS last year and is a landmark piece of nonfiction in any medium (it’s now available on Netflix). There is a quote from one of the dissenters of the war — itself a watershed disillusionment in disillusionment — that struck me then and has stayed with me since. He said, “People who supported the war were fond of saying, ‘My country right or wrong,’ ‘America: love it or leave it,’ and, ‘Better dead than red.’ Those sentiments seemed insane to us. We don’t want to live in a country that we’re going to support whether it’s right or wrong. We want to live in a country that acts rightly and doesn’t act wrongly. And if our country isn’t doing that … it needs to be corrected. So we had a very different idea of patriotism.” I think about those words every day.

That moral striving and ongoing development also apply to my sports fandom, especially when it comes to Ohio State. It’s one thing to support the Browns (who may be run by a crook), the Cavaliers (who may be run by a crook), and the Indians (who have a logo issue of sorts). Those are by definition cheap (relative term) affiliations I was born into and can disown if they ever do something reprehensible like … invade Indochina or something.

But I went to Ohio State to join a lifelong community that made a dumb thing like football its chief celebratory ritual. Unless I’m willing to void my valuable (and expensive) Bachelor’s degree, I can’t turn my back on Ohio State completely. I want to affiliate with a university that acts rightly and doesn’t act wrongly. And if my university isn’t doing that … it needs to be corrected.

Ohio State was in many ways less compromised than my country had to be — in that its core missions of performing research and educating farmers, engineers, nurses, teachers, and doctors, is not as intrinsically messy as governing, meting justice, and waging war. All I wanted from college football Saturdays was to drink 10 beers, watch a well-executed option, and laugh at the occasional taxidermied squirrel holding a trumpet. Was that so much to ask? I don’t want to think of Ohio State as just another corrupt institution that’s going to lie to me all the time. But maybe that’s all it is, or ever was. Somewhere, another kid stops believing in Santa Claus.

I’m not equating the Urban Meyer saga to say, the firebombing of Dresden or even Penn State. But every time a scandal like this happens, it saps a little energy from my unquestioning enthusiasm of the devout. It’s yet another reminder that the things I love may fail me, everyone I trust will ultimately let me down, and the world is a tremendously terrible place. It adds another brick to the wall of apathy I’ve erected to defend myself from disappointment.

As unfortunate as this whole scandal was, I viewed it as another opportunity to clean the slate at Ohio State — chalk it up as the inevitable humiliation of another legendary coach in the tradition of Hayes and Tressel, and rebrand itself as the one program in the country whose players are bigger than any one person.

But Meyer’s still there. So what now? Maybe Urban Meyer will return and demonstrate real remorse over what happened, commit himself to charitable causes related to domestic violence as contrition, and I’ll quickly forget about this whole episode as an unfortunate case of negligence on the part of an otherwise decent, upstanding person. But as craven as it is, Dwayne Haskins scoring a billion points in 15 games will erase the memory of the scandal faster than genuine penitence or even liquor.

The cynic in me assumes everything was a lie from the start, the child in me wants to go living a lie, and the nihilist in me knows the lies don’t matter because nothing matters. But the idealist — the foolish, guileless, gullible idealist — in me wants to believe that lies from the things and individuals I admire are momentary lapses in judgment that are not reflective of their true natures. That’s the best I can hope for from Ohio State as well as the institutions, teams, and people I look up to and root for (and the most I can demand of myself): the introspection to recognize flaws, the willingness to learn from mistakes, the capacity to make corrections, and the strength to do the right thing in the future.

  1. Until I can afford to do so, anyway. []
  2. Along with the wrestling thing, which is a whole another layer of grossness. Banner year for scandal in Big Ten athletics. Bravo. []