COLUMBUS — What got Urban Meyer in hot water? The suspended Ohio State football coach puts it this way: “My fault was in not taking action sooner against a troubled employee about his work-related issues.”
That now-fired assistant coach had been accused of past spousal violence as well as embarrassing sexual conduct, drug abuse and financial irresponsibility. Outside investigators found some of that affected his work life.
Meyer’s comments about handling that and the ensuing debate about his punishment point to a bigger question in college athletics: To what extent are coaches responsible for policing their staff’s off-field behavior?
Here was Meyer — a coach attentive enough to have staff remind players in advance about drunken-driving checkpoints around Columbus in July — apologizing for not doing more about an assistant who had demonstrated troubling behavior for years, according to outside investigators.
“I should have been more demanding of him in the same way I am of my players, other staff members, and myself,” Meyer, who is suspended for three games but is allowed to resume coaching practices this week, said as he apologized on Aug. 22.
His mea culpa comes just months after the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics recommended that the NCAA create minimum professional standards to ensure coaches are prepared for their leadership roles.
Mastering Xs and Os is different than navigating sensitive personnel matters. To address that, the commission envisions coaches in all sports getting the same training that department heads and other supervisors receive about responding to staff misconduct and other human resources issues, said Amy Perko, the CEO of the commission, which advocates changes to support “the educational mission of college sports.”
“In many cases, coaches have really never received any type of training on some of the more administrative aspects of their job,” Perko said.
Yet as highly paid standard-bearers in big-time college sports, such coaches are often publicly viewed as responsible for their programs and the people in them, sometimes even beyond the scope of what’s outlined in university policies and NCAA rules.
The coaching responsibilities highlighted by the Ohio State saga are about responding when inappropriate behavior comes to light, not about proactively monitoring employees’ private lives, said Stephen Ross, director of the Penn State Institute for Sports Law, Policy and Research, who emphasized that he doesn’t speak for his university.
“Seeing what happened to Urban Meyer, I do not think that (Alabama coach) Nick Saban, right now as he’s getting ready for a football game, is required to bring his coaches into his office on a one-on-one situation and inquire as to their domestic life,” Ross said.
But sports leaders at other universities may learn something from the Ohio State situation about how to handle these kinds of issues, said Bob Vecchione, executive director of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics, an educational body.
“Maybe they have to peel the onion back a little further, because they had things in place, and maybe now they just need to take it to a new level,” Vecchione said.
The two-week outside investigation conducted for Ohio State concluded that Meyer and athletic director Gene Smith mistakenly believed they didn’t need to do more about domestic abuse allegations against assistant coach Zach Smith back in 2015 unless law enforcement took action against him. Zach Smith wasn’t charged in the 2015 matter, denied being aggressive with his ex-wife and wasn’t fired until late July, after his ex-wife asked a judge for a protective order.
Meyer has emphasized that he doesn’t condone domestic violence, didn’t believe Zach Smith abused his wife, tried to help the struggling couple, and reported what he thought was required to the university. But Meyer’s defensiveness also has drawn him more criticism, with some observers arguing he should’ve publicly apologized to Smith’s wife sooner and challenging his insistence that he didn’t lie to reporters this summer about his knowledge of the 2015 incident.
Meyer said his decisions to repeatedly give his assistant the benefit of the doubt and not press for more information about allegations against him were probably influenced by loyalty to Zach Smith’s grandfather, former Ohio State coach and Meyer mentor Earle Bruce.
Ann Skeet, the senior director of leadership ethics at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, argues that Meyer especially had an obligation to get more facts about the domestic abuse allegations because relationship violence has been a recurring issue in football and the male-dominated sport has “a built-in blind spot organizationally in terms of what the lived experience of women who are interacting with them might be.”
Like leaders in all sorts of businesses, Meyer had to decide where to draw a line between the professional and personal behavior of employees and whether to take action, she said. But his promises to learn from his acknowledged mistakes might also provide an opportunity.
“He can be positioning himself as a resource for the sport in a tough area if he chooses to,” Skeet said, “and that’s the best of what you’d like to see from a leader who accepts leadership broadly, not just on the field.”