Brett McMurphy, who is about as plugged in as any college football reporter can be, was always going to scoop ESPN on the Urban Meyer-Zach Smith story. But that the Worldwide Leader paid him to not publish the scoop on their own website, well, that’s the result of a very particular kind of corporate derangement.
McMurphy published a lengthy, thorough report to his Facebook page on Wednesday, detailing through public records, text messages, photos, and interviews how recently fired Ohio State wide receivers coach Zach Smith abused his wife Courtney, and how Urban Meyer and his wife Shelley were both almost certainly aware the abuse was ongoing. This was in the wake of Meyer publicly denying any existence of a 2015 domestic violence incident between Zach and Courtney. Within hours of McMurphy’s report being published, Meyer was put on paid leave by the Buckeyes, and McMurphy’s phone was exploding.
The story was instantly the biggest college football report of the year—it suddenly looked like one of the winningest coaches in the sport knew of repeated instances of domestic abuse and continued to employ the man committing the abuse. ESPN, which recently laid off McMurphy, was four hours late to the story, eventually having to aggregate McMurphy’s scoop on ESPN.com. They had to do this despite the fact that McMurphy is currently receiving a salary from the company.
In April 2017, for reasons you can read about here, the mass layoffs came at ESPN. McMurphy was among the casualties, and the worst part, for him, was that because he still had 18 months on his contract, he assumed that there was no way the company would try to fire him with a year-and-a-half of payments remaining. He was wrong, and ended up among the dozens of reporters and analysts laid off on April 26.
Looking back on it, the layoffs being targeted at reporters with lengthy contracts makes more sense to him, from a cruel business perspective.
“The majority of the people [that were laid off] had long-term deals,” McMurphy said. “The thinking is, ‘Why would they lay off someone when they have that much time left?’ Well, they’re actually diabolical, because what they do is, they lay off all these hard-working, aggressive analysts and reporters and think, ‘They are not going to want to go one, two, three years being out of the game.’ So what happens is, I could take another job after I got laid off at ESPN, but then ESPN would be off the hook for paying me the rest of my contract.”
McMurphy offered to continue doing work for ESPN if they were going to pay him, but they declined—they wanted the reporters to either go away, or get new jobs so they could drop them from the payrolls.
So, McMurphy, realizing the game ESPN was playing, talked to a couple lawyers to see how he could skirt the non-compete and continue his reporting work. They told him that as long as McMurphy didn’t violate the non-compete and produce work for another company or a third-party, which could possibly include a site like Medium, ESPN would be on the hook to pay him his salary every two weeks for the next 18 months. And, unfortunately for ESPN, he didn’t exactly disappear.
“If [ESPN] would have said yes [to letting me keep working for them], they would have had Scott Frost going to Nebraska, [Joe] Moorhead to Mississippi State, and they would’ve had Urban Meyer and what’s going on at Ohio State. But they didn’t allow me to.”
Instead, ESPN let him walk, and while they’ve been depositing checks into McMurphy’s account every two weeks in return for absolutely nothing, he’s completed work that would make any sports media outlet kick itself for missing out on.
McMurphy and I spoke for about an hour on Friday morning. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation focused on his reporting process throughout the Urban Meyer-Zach Smith story and the status of digital sports media in the age of relentless layoffs.
Okay, I know you’ve probably told this story a million times already, but take me through the process of reporting out this story—the public records requests, the interviews, the writing. How did it come together?
I heard Zach Smith had some domestic violence issues so I did a public records request in Florida and Ohio and found information that hadn’t been reported. I found it out on the Friday before Big Ten Media Days. It’s not like I held this information. It was just coincidence that I had scheduled to go to Big Ten Media Days because I was just trying to go around to the different media days and spring meetings to kind of remind people, “Hey, I’m not dead! I’m still out here.” You can text people a million times but if you don’t see them face-to-face, they’re going to stop responding.” So then Monday I report what happened and Urban denies it the next day.
At that point, while Urban’s saying, “Who would create that story?” I’m thinking to myself, “Well, I would create it because I’ve got the police report.” If I would have been able to say, “Urban, can you please say this?” that [response] would have been it, because you’re basically saying that you had no knowledge.
Do you think if he no-comments, he gets a similar reaction?
Not as strong, because “No comment” doesn’t mean you don’t know. I think on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being he gets fired, I think what he said was a 74.
Okay, so you’ve got the police report.
At that point, the timeline does not make sense. I was able to track down Courtney Smith, she called me on a friend’s phone and I was at an event and I had to call her back... I talked to her for two-and-a-half hours the first time, we have multiple conversations on the phone. At that point, I said, “I have to talk to you in person, I can’t do this over the phone.” I spent three days in Columbus, Ohio. Not once when I talked to her did she say, “I think this will damage Ohio State, I think this will bring down Urban Meyer.”
Now my initial reporting was centered on Zach Smith and the abuse that ex-wife had suffered, and as I kept talking to her and seeing everything she had, part of the story then became Urban Meyer knew about this. So I told her, you need to present documentation—text, emails, photos, whatever—to prove what you’re telling me is accurate. I believe you, obviously, but you don’t have to convince me, you have to convince everyone else.... In the article, it was, “Here’s all the information.” Then people could decide whether Urban knew about it. I believe he did based on what I found.
On Richard Deitsch’s podcast, you said, aside from the two Media Days interviews, you didn’t go back right before [the story published] to reach out to Meyer.
Right, he was asked the question multiple times on Tuesday, “Did you know about 2015?” And he said no.
But when you talked about Shelley, who sent some of the text messages to Courtney, it seemed like you were more hesitant. Do you wish you would have reached out to Shelley in the reporting process?
You know, again, I’ve seen dozens of text messages between her and Courtney. I guess if I would have reached out to her, she could have said, “No comment,” or, “I never text Courtney,” or “I text her but I never tell Urban.” But again, at that point, I had so much information about it, it wasn’t going to change what was in the story. It could have got her side, but part of me is also like, I’ve been working on this story for three weeks; there’s no way that somebody else is not pursuing the same story. And again, by not contacting Shelley Meyer, it doesn’t change the accuracy of the story, it just would’ve given her the opportunity to give a comment on her behalf. I don’t know, other people can decide. If you ask Ohio State fans, I know their opinion, but I guess other journalists should decide if I should’ve reached out to Shelley and gave her that opportunity. Because I know once I reach out to her, she’s immediately going to Urban.
Did you have an editor you worked with for these pieces?
I had a couple of friends that helped me with this. I can’t identify them—maybe someday I will because I appreciate their help. But they work for other media companies, and obviously their companies would have loved to have this story. But they helped me out, with editing, with vetting, with everything.
[Their assistance] was huge. I’ve known these guys most of my professional career and consider them close friends. And I wanted and told them to challenge it, I said, “If there’s a red flag, tell me.” They made suggestions—it was your basic editing process. But the fact that I was on my own, I didn’t want to come out and put this up and there be all these mistakes and issues. And knowing the severity of the story and the impact it would have, I wanted those guys to help me out.
Why Facebook? Did you think about places like WordPress or Medium (or Kinja!) before landing on Facebook?
Basically, the way ESPN Legal was operating, they made the suggestion that even if I created BrettMcMurphy.com, that would be a third party. So then I’m in breach of my contract. So I already had a Facebook page, I already had Twitter, so they couldn’t say I just created something to report stories. Again, when I first got laid off, I really only had one offer and I made more money not working for ESPN than I did taking this opportunity. There were some other offers but they weren’t realistic, more contributions. When I got laid off, I called every media outlet on the face of the earth. You can name any outlet and I called them.... I talked to everyone I could think of and there was nothing out there. So at that point, I’m thinking I’m going to be digging ditches in 18 months. I had to start finding ways to stay relevant.
The one thing that jumped out, and I guess Deadspin can relate to this, is that I realized you don’t have to be at a behemoth like ESPN to have a voice and have an impact. I realized that I could stay relevant on Twitter and certainly on Facebook. And then this week, I’m going on CNN, headline news, I was on Inside Edition—my wife said, “That show’s still on?”—and then I don’t know how many Twitter followers [I picked up].
You’ve been in the game for 23 years, and maybe you don’t have a million followers, but you’ve got a good following. For reporters that maybe don’t have 100-plus thousand followers or an 18-month severance package, do you think self-publishing on places like Facebook or Wordpress or Medium is actually a sustainable route?
I’m getting paid, I don’t want people thinking I wasn’t getting paid. But I get what you’re saying. I guess the thing is, ultimately, whether you’ve got 20 followers or two million, if you are reporting accurate information or you’re entertaining or people think you’re entertaining—specifically for me, if you’re providing accurate information, providing news that they don’t get anywhere else, people are going to come find you.... If you’ve got the story, people are going to find you, they’re going to respect you, and they’re going to follow you. All these Twitter followers I gained, I’m guessing they’re not Ohio State fans, maybe they are, but are more like, “Oh wow, I didn’t know this.” There’s no secret to it.
When something like this happens, with the layoffs still in the background, was it ever difficult for you to separate the frustrations you had with the company from, not trying to sound cliché, but the good times you had with the folks there?
Especially this week, it’s a lot of mixed feelings. I’m getting requests from Get Up!, Wingo, Finebaum, SportsCenter, Van Pelt, every ESPN radio station on the face of the earth. And I reached out to some friends and was like, “Hey, should I do these ESPN spots?” And a lot of them said no. But then I thought about it and I asked my wife and she said, “Look, they want to put you on, go ahead and go on.” The more I thought about it, the people that are asking me to be on these shows, a lot of them are friends of mine and they were always good to me. None of the people putting me on those had any say in what happened with the layoffs. Their company did, but they didn’t.... I can’t share with you who, but two people in particular sent me text messages. One, who wasn’t sure of my situation, said “Hey, I’m not sure what your situation is financially, but if I can help you with financing in your reporting, please let me know.” This is an on-air talent. I was blown away. The other was another ESPN TV personality, I wrote down their direct quote: “Your revenge story, which is what I call it, is the best F-U on the planet.”
The good news for McMurphy is that once his ESPN contract expires, he won’t be digging ditches.
In December 2017, Steve Levy credited McMurphy on-air during a bowl game for breaking the Scott Frost to Nebraska story. Levy, who McMurphy says is one of the nicest people at ESPN, accidentally said “our own Brett McMurphy,” on the telecast, when in fact McMurphy had been technically unemployed for several months. (Levy later messaged McMurphy apologizing for the slip-up.)
But the mention turned out to come at the perfect moment. That same night, a higher up at Stadium, a sports media outlet that focuses on video, happened to be watching a game on ESPN. Looking to move into the reporting arena, the Stadium employee emailed McMurphy that same night, asking what he was up to. In no time, McMurphy lined up a multi-year contract with them, joining college basketball reporter Jeff Goodman and NBA scoop god Shams Charania as future on-air personalities.
“I won’t be writing as much,” McMurphy said. “It’s funny, I was hired at ESPN to be a TV reporter. Ed Placey said, ‘We want you to be a TV college football reporter.’ And I told him I had no television experience. But then people thought I worked for ESPN.com, because ESPN rarely put me on TV.... As far as the writing element, [Stadium is] trying to figure out the best way to do that, bringing Jeff Goodman and I on. Shams is going to be coming to Stadium also—he’s going to do video for Stadium and write for The Athletic.”
At Stadium, McMurphy will have the option of doing standard news reports, sideline reporting, and even booth work for Conference USA and Mountain West games. And the beauty of it is, new options aside, he’ll be paid by ESPN up to the day before he starts with Stadium—his ESPN contract runs out Aug. 12; he starts with Stadium Aug. 13.
Before that, after he’s done doing the radio rounds, he plans on going to an unnamed beach in Florida and enjoying the final days of his “unemployment.”
After all, it’s all on ESPN’s dime.