Courtney Smith has said, repeatedly, that she feared her ex-husband, Zach. She said he physically and emotionally abused her, in court documents, to police officers in two different states, to two reporters, including one interview on camera, and now to Ohio State investigators. All this became public knowledge because she went to court to get a restraining order; in her request, Courtney Smith wrote that Zach Smith stalked her, threatened her, and hacked her email. What Courtney Smith wanted was something every human being craves: to feel safe.
But the entire narrative around the Smiths and Ohio State and Zach Smith’s former boss, head football coach Urban Meyer, long ago stopped being about what Courtney Smith wants and needs.
On Wednesday night, Ohio State announced that Meyer will be suspended for the first three games of the football season. At the press conference that followed, viewers got what anyone with a tinfoil hat and internet access could have predicted: a lot of talk about football, even more talk about how all parties involved respect women, the bare minimum in punishment, and almost no mention of Courtney Smith. Her name wasn’t even mentioned by any of the men who took to the podium until one of the questions near the end when ESPN producer Greg Amante asked Meyer what he would say to Courtney Smith. Meyer gave this pithy answer: “Well, I have a message for everyone involved in this. I’m sorry we’re in this situation. And, um ... I’m just sorry we’re in this situation.” He couldn’t even be bothered to say her name.
I have no interest in what length of suspension would have been appropriate because the NCAA is a corrupt institution designed to do little more than enforce the scam concept of the “student-athlete,” a term first used to keep from having to pay workers’ compensation to injured football players, and which now busies itself suspending those unpaid football players when they dare try to make money. It’s a fool’s errand to expect anything logical from them, let alone an adequate response to something as ubiquitous and horrifying as domestic violence. And that’s before you unpack how ludicrous the entire exercise even is, to turn a woman’s pain and suffering and desperation into the language of, literally, a game. Either Meyer was getting axed or allowed to stay. He was allowed to stay.
From this point on, the sports media cycle will do what it does best: Turn controversy into content. Should Meyer have been suspended more games? What does this mean for his next recruiting class? For his legacy? Can Ohio State still make the College Football Playoff?!? This is what any discussion of violence against women in the sports world looks like; it turns women into just another pawn, a thing to be debated in sports terminology of missed games, impacted statistics, upcoming schedules, and how it will affect a man’s career. Any concern for the safety of Courtney Smith and her family will discarded without a second thought.
It was nearly seven years ago that people were asking questions about the knowledge and actions of another Big Ten coach, Joe Paterno. When asked if he had known about reports that one of his assistants, Jerry Sandusky, had been sexually abusing young boys, Paterno said, “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.” On Wednesday night, when asked what his role is in observing the behavior of his employees and eventually firing Zach Smith, Meyer said, “I wish I had done more. I wish I had known more.” Paterno claimed he had no idea a man could rape another man. Meyer’s explanation is that he does know domestic violence is bad, he just didn’t know enough about Zach Smith. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that the two men reached for the same phrase as they grasped for absolution, but it doesn’t feel like it. Time and time again, the important football men insist they will get it right—next time—while the narrative-machine pushes onward, like the victims were never even here.