The Messages Behind Urban Meyer and Zach Smith's Public Relations Tour

The semantic language and overall ideas within Urban Meyer's and Zach Smith's Friday media relations revealed a deeper level of Ohio State's controversy.
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The controversy at Ohio State involving allegations of domestic violence against former assistant coach Zach Smith and the extent to which head coach Urban Meyer satisfied legal and ethical obligations in addressing them entered a new phase Friday night. If the Ohio State Board of Trustees, which on Thursday assembled a specialized board to investigate the matter, hoped the controversy would end anytime soon, the trustees’ hopes were dashed on Friday.

Legal and public relations impact of Urban Meyer’s “Dear Buckeye Nation” letter

Meyer on Friday released a letter ostensibly aimed at the Ohio State community. The letter no doubt also contemplates Ohio State leadership and journalists as its audience. Furthermore, while the letter is signed by Meyer, the coach’s attorneys and public relations advisors almost certainly played critical roles in the drafting of every word.

In the letter, Meyer asserts that he has “always followed proper reporting protocols and procedures” when he “learned of an incident involving a student-athlete, coach or member of our staff by elevating the issues to the proper channels.” Further, Meyer explicitly states that he followed relevant protocols in the aftermath of an alleged domestic violence incident involving Smith and his ex-wife, Courtney Smith, when the two were still married in 2015.

These assertions are important for at least a couple of reasons. First, Meyer marks his legal turf with the university. His statement communicates to Ohio State administrators and the Ohio State Board of Trustees that the university lacks the necessary grounds to fire him for cause. As I explained in a piece published on Wednesday, those grounds entail (among other things) Meyer lying to his superiors, Meyer violating university policies related to reporting and sexual misconduct and Meyer failing to adequately notify the university about alleged misconduct by employees who report to him.

By expressing that he did, in fact, provide sufficient reporting, Meyer is letting Ohio State know that if the school fires him with cause (meaning he’d lose out on the $38 million-plus remaining on a deal that runs through 2023), he’ll sue the school for breach of contract. In any lawsuit, Meyer would contend that the university lacks actionable grounds under the terms of the employment contract to dismiss him with cause. His letter is a preview of that argument.

Second, Meyer’s letter makes clear that he is ready to deflect blame onto others at Ohio State. Meyer’s strategy seems to involve turning a scandal where he is at the center into an institutional controversy that threatens high-level university officials. To that end, if Meyer reported what he knew to his superiors, such as the university’s Title IX coordinator and athletic director Gene Smith, and if the university believed that Smith had engaged in misconduct, why didn’t the university fire Smith? Alternatively, why didn’t university leadership instruct Meyer to fire Smith? To the extent Meyer has emails and texts that corroborate his account of reporting, university officials could find themselves in a difficult spot to explain why Smith remained on the payroll from 2015 to ’18.

In order to persuade the audience that Meyer reported what he learned about a 2015 incident in which Smith was accused of battering his pregnant wife, Meyer had to amend what he told journalists during the Big Ten media day July 24. During that now infamous press conference, Meyer was asked directly about the 2015 incident. Meyer seemingly dismissed it, saying he had received a text the night before concerning the incident but that “there was nothing . . . once again, there’s nothing—once again, I don’t know who creates a story like that.” Meyer’s statement on Friday admitted that he “failed” to be “clear, compassionate, and most of all, completely accurate” during the press conference. He attributed his failings to not being “adequately prepared to discuss these sensitive personnel issues with the media.”

Meyer portraying himself as unprepared and ill-equipped to handle questions in a press conference strikes many as hard to believe. The 54-year-old three-time national champion has been a head coach in 208 games and in 14 bowl games. He also is part of a weekly radio show called “The Urban Meyer Show.” Meyer is hardly a novice when it comes to press conferences and interactions with the media. He is also regarded as someone who is supremely prepared for his professional activities. It would be very out of character for him to be ignorant of the proper answers to reporters’ questions, particularly about an assistant coach he had just fired the night before.

Yet Meyer misleading journalists does not match any of the conditions in his employment contract that would empower the school to fire him with cause. In other words, Meyer admitted to the one kind of misconduct that doesn’t undermine his legal position. This was surely by design and reached in consultation with his attorneys.

Implications of Zach Smith’s unanticipated media tour

Although Smith’s attorney Bradley Koffel told ESPN he would only make his client available to the media after Smith and Courtney Smith were sworn in to testify, Smith made himself available to answer media questions on Friday in interviews conducted with 105.7 The Zone Columbus and ESPN. Smith made a number of statements during these interviews that will elicit sharp scrutiny. Most disturbingly, Smith seemed to blame his ex-wife for injuries that he inflicted on her. Smith’s remarks also seemed designed to protect Meyer—the person who fired Smith on July 23.

On 105.7, Smith professed complete innocence to host Matt McCoy. Smith stressed that he had “never” committed domestic violence. Along those lines, Smith asserted that he “never hit her” and that he “never did anything to physically harm her."

This depiction of the past seems starkly at odds with Smith’s other statements. As noted by college football reporter Brett McMurphy, Smith’s account differs sharply from a text exchange between he and Courtney Smith where he acknowledged that he picked her up by her neck and strangled her. While Smith is not under oath while speaking with media, if he proves himself to have lied during those interviews, it is difficult to believe him on any topic where we must rely on his retelling of events. To put it charitably, Smith hardly seems like a reliable narrator.

On ESPN, Smith told reporter Dan Murphy that wounds suffered by his ex-wife in 2015 were attributable to self-defense on his part. He explained to Murphy that, “anything that happened to her body was all just defensive movements to remove myself from the situation.” Smith further stressed that after being investigated by law enforcement he was not charged in the 2015 incident (this is true, although Smith was charged in 2009 for aggravated battery of his pregnant wife).

Smith also told Murphy that he informed Meyer about what took place in 2015. It’s unclear exactly when he informed Meyer of the incident or which details he shared with Meyer but, according to Smith, Meyer warned him, “If I found out you hit her, I swear to God you’re done—you’re fired.” Smith acknowledged that he did not share any photographs of his wife’s injuries with Meyer and that Meyer apparently did not ask for them. To this point, Smith stressed that it would not have been appropriate for Meyer to engage in such fact-finding. “He’s not an investigator,” Smith said of his former boss. “He’s not a cop. He’s not a detective ... you can't have a head coach doing investigating. Investigators do investigations."

On some level, Smith has a valid point. Meyer was neither a neutral figure as it pertained to the relationship between his assistant coach and that coach’s wife, nor was he someone trained in criminal investigations. If Meyer investigated and attempted to speak with Courtney Smith, it could be perceived as intimidating the witness or interfering with an investigation. To that point, associates of Meyer, according to McMurphy, talked her out of pursuing an aggravated battery charge against her husband in 2009.

On the other hand, it remains to be seen what, if anything, Meyer relayed to his superiors about the 2015 Smith incident. If Meyer adopted a “hear no evil, see no evil” approach and went out of his way to not learn what occurred, Ohio State would be on firmer grounds to fire him with cause. Similarly, if Meyer whitewashed what he had had learned when recounting his knowledge of the incident to Gene Smith and other Ohio State leaders, Ohio State could assert that Meyer intentionally downplayed the incident in order to protect one of his coaches.

But as noted above, Ohio State leadership may not have clean hands in this controversy. Zach Smith revealed to Murphy that Gene Smith contacted him after the athletic director learned of the 2015 incident, telling the assistant coach to return to Columbus. Zach Smith further claimed that the university “handled” the incident “exactly how they should have handled it. The police alerted them. They investigated it, and there were no criminal charges."

This depiction (if it is accurate) suggests that Ohio State was well aware of the 2015 incident, either through Meyer or other persons (such as police officers or court clerks) or a combination of Meyer and other persons. Such a depiction favors Meyer in that it is consistent with him not concealing information from Ohio State. It remains to be seen if emails and other university records corroborate or dispute this narrative.

ESPN ended the Smith-Murphy interview with Smith contending that it would be a “crime” if Ohio State fires Meyer. To say the least, it was stunning use of the word “crime” in a story where Smith is accused brutally attacking his wife on several occasions, including while she was pregnant.

Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also Associate Dean of the University of New Hampshire School of Law and editor and co-author of The Oxford Handbook of American Sports Law and Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA.