Urban Meyer epitomizes how the conversation about abuse has become a team sport

The Buckeyes coach was never going to be fired

Urban Meyer.
(Image credit: Rich Schultz /Getty Images)

Can you believe that according to an "independent investigation," Urban Meyer, the championship-winning head coach of the Ohio State University football team, did nothing seriously wrong when he told a room full of journalists that in 2015 he had no knowledge of alleged domestic violence committed by Zach Smith, a former member of his coaching staff whom he later fired?

Of course you can. Even though a week later text messages emerged from Smith's wife, Courtney, revealing that she had shared her plight with Meyer's own wife and the spouses of the entire Ohio State coaching staff, even though Meyer's own immediate response to the report in question was to ask how to delete messages more than a year old from his phone, he was never going to be fired or even seriously punished. The suspension imposed on him for the first three games of the season — against one mediocre out-of-conference opponent, one ranked team, and the noted Big Ten powerhouse Rutgers (6-18 under their head coach) — is probably the harshest sanctions of which the powers that be in Columbus can conceive.

There's no point in asking why this is the case. We already know the answer. College football is a gazillion-dollar industry and Meyer is the public face of one of the best college football teams in the country.

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The worst thing about Meyer's conduct here — except for the actual lying and the actual gross negligence and the de facto assumption that a guy who is good at telling 18-year-olds how to catch pieces of leather dropping out of the sky is worth more than a woman's physical and emotional well-being — is his dehumanizing language. Not once during his press conference on Wednesday night did he refer to Courtney Smith by name or otherwise, even after being asked directly by ESPN's Greg Amante what he has to say to her: "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." I'm sure he is.

The unedifying Meyer saga has played out amid our continuing national conversation about abuse in the entertainment industry and the Catholic Church. In all of these institutions the dynamic has been the same: Bad people do wicked things, and seemingly decent people ignore their crimes or work actively to conceal them. Why would any sane human being upon learning that someone he knew — a family member, a colleague, a priest, a bishop, a teacher — had been guilty of vicious crimes ignore it?

The way these stories play out in the media scarcely does the rest of us credit either. When Harvey Weinstein was accused of creating a vast network of lawyers and hush-money payments in order to silence women he had sexually assaulted, almost the first thing I saw online was pictures of the man appearing at fundraisers with Hillary Clinton. Recent reports about Theodore Cardinal McCarrick's molestation of seminarians and at least one child — a boy he had previously baptized — have been met with I-told-you-sos from so-called "conservatives" or "traditionalists" and what-abouts from liberal Catholics asking what their brethren in the faith would say if a member of the curia with a reputation for orthodoxy had been accused of similar misdeeds. The day the news about Courtney Smith's text messages broke, I watched Buckeyes fans take to social media to argue that whatever happened with Smith was a long time ago and not Urban Meyer's "fault," as if he were the one being accused of cutting his wife with a tin of chewing tobacco. Meanwhile supporters of rival teams expressed glee at the prospect of Meyer's no-doubt imminent firing.

Buried underneath all this cynical, self-serving verbiage are men, women, and children who have been raped or beaten or otherwise abused. But somehow the stories are never actually about them. The crimes of their abusers exist to satiate our own desire to see our enemies — a broad category that would appear to include not only those who espouse political or theological views with which we disagree, but even men who are involved on opposing sides in athletic competitions in which we take an interest — humiliated. Their tears are the price demanded by our spite.

I do not know when this tendency, which seems to me more or less universal, will disappear. I do not even know what it would look like for it to become less prominent. It is the only way that I have ever heard stories about violence, sexual or otherwise, discussed in my lifetime.

There must be some other way, though. It should be possible for all of us to hear something shocking and direct our sympathies where they are deserved. , something will check the voices whispering in our ears that this will "be a bad look" for so and so.

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Matthew Walther

Matthew Walther is a national correspondent at The Week. His work has also appeared in First Things, The Spectator of London, The Catholic Herald, National Review, and other publications. He is currently writing a biography of the Rev. Montague Summers. He is also a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.