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Urban Meyer is not the victim at Ohio State

Urban Meyer at a Big Ten news conference last month in Chicago.Annie Rice/Associated Press

What’s going to happen to Urban Meyer?

That is the question college football fans want answered. Headline after headline and conversation upon conversation are asking the same thing: Will the vaunted Ohio State coach survive the fallout over his belated firing of assistant coach Zach Smith, or will he lose his own job, too?

And, of course, this makes sense. Meyer is the biggest, most recognizable figure in the ongoing Ohio State drama. He is the man who could have fired his onetime assistant Smith either of the first two admitted times he’d heard about accusations of domestic violence against Smith’s wife, but didn’t dismiss him until detailed reports of those accusations were revealed by reporter Brett McMurphy. He is the man who could have been honest back at the Big Ten media days, instead of later being forced to recant his defiant denials of any knowledge of the most recent 2015 incident involving Smith and his now ex-wife, Courtney.

And holding Meyer accountable feels like we’re doing something to assuage our outrage, feels like action in the face of maddening inaction, not unlike Joe Paterno’s firing in the wake of Jerry Sandusky’s reign of terror at Penn State. If these powerful bosses knew what was going on under their leadership, if they were informed of accusations of domestic abuse or child sexual abuse against a member of their staff and allowed them to remain employed, that cover-up was more than a worthy fireable offense.


But make no mistake, this is not a case of the cover-up being worse than the crime.

Urban Meyer is not the victim here. Courtney Smith is.

And that’s what is important to remember. While fans at Ohio State held a rally in support of their embattled coach, while one of the largest, most passionate fan bases in college football has turned its ire against Courtney Smith, against McMurphy, against ESPN (which formerly employed McMurphy), and anyone else who wants Meyer and his national championship pedigree dismissed, while they rail against the rush to judgment and Twitter mobs, they obscure an issue that needs more empathy and openness than ever, burying it in anger and shame.


That is where the covering up needs to end.

Whatever version of events you want or choose to believe — and Ohio State will let the public know what version it goes with when its internal investigation is set to end somewhere around Aug. 19 — what seems indisputable is how fraught with problems the Smith marriage was, and how much Ohio State wanted to deny that was anybody’s business. Meyer’s responses at that Big Ten media days press conference were as dismissive as they were dishonest.

“I got a text late last night something happened in 2015. And there was nothing. Once again, there’s nothing — once again, I don’t know who creates a story like that,” Meyer said at the time.

Translation: Create equals invent. As in someone made it up. Courtney Smith. McMurphy. Someone. Attack the messenger and obfuscate the accusation. A tried and true public relations approach.

Except Meyer put himself in the professional crosshairs with that response, because McMurphy then produced texts between Courtney Smith and Shelley Meyer, the coach’s wife and an official member of his staff. Rather than having us believe his wife never told him of her multiple exchanges with Courtney Smith (ones that included sympathetic words and an admission that Zach “scared” her) or put her in hot water for failing to meet mandatory reporting rules, Meyer recanted his media days “creation” and said he had indeed been told of the 2015 incident, and even more, that he’d followed protocol by informing his boss.


So now the investigation includes Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith as well as Meyer, a quest to find out who knew what when. And maybe official protocol was followed enough for both men to keep their jobs. But does that mean they did right by Courtney Smith? Does that change the optics that Meyer continued to support Zach Smith with a lucrative job and keep him in a position of influencing the young men in the program, despite a stated program mantra of showing respect to women? The presumption of belief is so far tilted in the husband’s direction it seems almost impossible for a woman in Courtney Smith’s position to ever be believed.

Not surprisingly the story continues to wind a twisted path. The latest turn came in a report Friday by sportswriter Jeff Snook, who quoted both Courtney Smith’s ex-mother-in-law and mother as disputing her claims, accusing her of delivering on a longstanding vow to take her ex-husband down. While inter-family dynamics are almost impossible to understand from the outside, and while it feels so uncomfortable to feel like we are prying into their personal business, there is an awful lot of smoke here for there to be no fire. And he was an employee at a publicly funded state university, whose morality is absolutely appropriate to his fitness for work.


A tweet from activist Brenda Tracy stuck with me Friday, coming as it did from a woman who survived a gang rape by college football players and who has made a career speaking to current college athletes about what she calls “setting the expectation” for appropriate behavior. “If you know about the dynamics of domestic violence & sexual assault then you know it’s not unusual for family members & friends to victim blame and turn on the victim,” she tweeted.

The victim. Let’s make sure we remember who that is. In this case, it’s not the coach.

Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.