Courtney Smith was conspicuously absent from Ohio State and Urban Meyer's press conference on Wednesday.
It took more than 20 minutes for anyone to say her name: Courtney Smith.
By then, Buckeye Nation had gotten its apology. Zach Smith had been painted as a troubled soul, a mystery Urban Meyer and Ohio State had failed to fully crack. There had even been a football question, a weird little moment for Meyer to tell everyone listening that being away from his team these past weeks has been one of the toughest things he’s ever been through.
Courtney Smith, I’d venture, could give Meyer a lesson in tough. And he couldn't even say her name.
It would have been so easy. The question was direct: What message do you have for Courtney Smith? (What message do you have for the woman who various times over the better part of a decade reported being bruised and bloodied by a coach you kept on your payroll despite knowing of the allegations against him?)
Meyer’s answer: “I have a message for everyone involved,” he said. “I'm sorry we're in this situation.”
But Courtney Smith is not everyone. She’s not “Buckeye Nation.” She’s not part of the Ohio State community. She’s not an administrator, not a coach, not a student, not an athlete. She’s not part of any “we” involving Meyer or the team and university that exist under his thumb. It would have been easy for the coach to apologize, or at least to acknowledge the hardship and pain Courtney Smith has gone through, to concede that maybe her experience, too, has been “tough.”
Instead, Meyer’s words could not have rung hollower. He apologized for the situation, which means he apologized for being suspended three games, for a few weeks of tumult, for an investigation that bordered on spectacle. He never said her name.
As Ohio State picks up and moves on, Meyer’s punishment will be weighed. He’ll stay away from the team until after its Week 1 game, then join it for just practices until after Week 3. Is that enough? Too little? Too much? But to answer that question, it’s important to frame the debate. Enough for what? So much of the conversation over the past few weeks has focused on Meyer’s looming slap on the wrist, as if the investigators were called in to decide how much, if at all, the Buckeyes should suffer on the field because of their coach’s transgressions. But that’s beside the point, really. Once Ohio State decided it was not going to fire Meyer, the nature of his punishment became almost immaterial. One day, one game, two games, three—who cares? What mattered was that Meyer give some sense that he accepted wrongdoing, that he show an iota of sincerity or penance. On that count, he failed; and when he returns to a likely 3-0 Buckeyes team on Sept. 16, he’ll probably be just as unrepentant.
It shouldn’t be surprising. From the moment Courtney Smith’s allegations went public in July, there’s been a looming sense that if any coach could emerge from such a situation unscathed, it would be Meyer. Put simply, he’s too good. He wins too much. As the story unfolded, it was nauseatingly predictable: horror, first, and then obfuscation, a dose of spectacle, a minor punishment. But in that final phase everyone was anticipating a speck of humanity, a moment of acknowledgement for the woman at the heart of this horror story, for her children, at the very least. Maybe it was naïve to expect that.
As kids, we all get punished for something or another: yelling inside, being mean to a sibling. Trivial stuff. And as part of that punishment, we are made to apologize. “I’m sorry,” we say, and often we mutter it under our breaths or glance sideways, not admitting what we’ve done, avoiding eye contact with our mothers or fathers or whomever we’ve wronged. Say it like you mean it, I remember being told any time I wasn’t full-throated in my penance. This is kindergarten stuff, but it seems as if Meyer, a self-styled molder of men, needs a reminder. And so as I watched his press conference on Wednesday night, I caught myself muttering under my breath. Say her name: Courtney Smith. Say it like you mean it. Say it at all. As Meyer barely looked up from the sheet of paper that bore his prepared statement, say it like you mean it. As his voice remained monotone, without a note of inflection, say it like you mean it.
Except it didn’t seem like he meant much of it at all.