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OSU and Urban Meyer failed Courtney Smith, and it sent a message to domestic violence survivors everywhere

In a society where football dominates, survivors become an afterthought.

Editor’s note: This story contains descriptions of domestic violence. If you or someone you know is seeking help, please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

It rarely happens one time.

My former partner was arrested for breaking and entering into an ex-girlfriend’s home. Charges were never filed for reasons unknown, allowing him to go about society unnoticed. He was never forced to seek help and he never took responsibility for his actions. He was able to keep his job and live a seemingly normal life. Eventually, he would go on to try to kill me.

I sought help, but not without the cost of my emotional well-being.

Courtney Smith is another one of 10 million yearly survivors of domestic violence. Her story is unique because her ex-husband, Zach Smith, worked under Urban Meyer — one of the most successful coaches in college football — and was the grandson of former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce.

The first domestic violence allegation against Zach Smith dates back to June 2009, when he worked as a graduate assistant for Meyer. In a 2018 interview with Stadium, Courtney Smith stated that he grabbed her and threw her against a wall while she was pregnant. Police in Gainesville, Florida arrested Zach Smith on a charge of aggravated battery. Charges were later dropped due to insufficient evidence.

Six years went by before Courtney Smith contacted authorities again. In October 2015, Courtney Smith called the police in Powell, Ohio after another incident with her then-estranged husband — the Buckeyes’ wide receivers coach under Meyer. Courtney Smith claimed Zach Smith refused to return their son. She also alleged he abused her on multiple occasions.

It would take three more years until Courtney Smith was granted a protective order against her ex-husband as he pleaded not guilty to trespassing charges. On July 23, 2018, following bombshell report by Brett McMurphy, Meyer fired Zach Smith.

To receive a protection order is not an easy process. In my personal experience, It took two court hearings during which I had to face my abuser, hire an attorney, and provide detailed evidence for me to be granted one.

And just because you request a protection order doesn’t mean you’ll receive one — I witnessed firsthand the number of protection orders that can be denied by a judge. One by one as I waited my turn to present my case, the judge turned away multiple protection orders for reasons I didn’t understand. My biggest fear was I, too, would be turned away and put in danger again.

Urban Meyer’s failings

Opening up about abuse is one of the biggest obstacles a victim endures. A victim can feel alone and judged.

My former partner began with verbal abuse, accompanied with minor slaps on the arm here or there. I was often called “stupid” and made to believe I was nothing without him. After each fight, he’d tell me how much he cared for me and would surprise me with little gifts. I was brainwashed to believe it was all OK and that the fights were normal. Abusers are manipulative that way.

This year’s Big Ten Media Days were Meyer’s first opportunity to speak publicly about Zach Smith’s accusations. Instead, Meyer stated there was “nothing” to reports of the 2015 incident. It would soon become apparent there was little chance Meyer was in the dark, as Courtney Smith revealed that she told Meyer’s wife, Shelley, about the alleged abuse years ago. Courtney Smith’s text conversations with Shelley Meyer can be seen as a cry for help. They can be seen as a sign that she needed someone to help pull her out, and she believed the Meyers had the power to save her.

Meyer could’ve used his platform at Big Ten Media Days to own up to his mistakes. He had a chance to address domestic violence. Instead, he cowered behind the microphones and acted disgusted by the accusations.

Eight days after Big Ten Media Days, Ohio State had it right for a moment, as they placed Meyer on paid administrative leave and began an investigation. With the pressure mounting, Meyer had yet another opportunity to acknowledge Courtney Smith when he released a written statement on Aug. 3. But again, Meyer made Courtney Smith an afterthought and used his words to express his obvious dissatisfaction with the situation. He claimed he took the “proper reporting protocols and procedures” with information regarding the 2015 allegations.

“Please know that the truth is the ultimate power,” he wrote. “I am confident that I took appropriate action.”

Meyer speaks often of core values and treating women with respect. He had the opportunity to put those word to work. Instead, Meyer turned a blind eye and failed to address the bigger issue, letting down domestic violence survivors everywhere.

Ohio State got it wrong when they announced the fate of Meyer. Three games without pay is all Meyer will miss for his knowledge of Smith’s accusations. In taking accountability. Meyer’s press conference following the announcement of his suspension was even more eerie. With plenty of talk about football and, again, respect for women, little was mentioned of Courtney Smith. Meyer couldn’t even say her name when ESPN reporter, Greg Amante, asked what he would say to her.

“I’m sorry we’re in this situation.”

Courtney Smith didn’t ask to be in this “situation.” Courtney Smith is the victim of a failed system.

On Friday, Aug. 24, Meyer finally uttered Courtney Smith’s name in a cheap Notes app statement released on Twitter. After reiterating how seriously he takes “relationship violence,” Meyer finally apologized to Courtney Smith and her family.

But it’s too little too late. Meyer had his chance to be a part of the solution, but he failed time and time again.

It’s never that easy

It was the night of my birthday when my then-boyfriend strangled me and threw me through a door after a fight. My friends were in the next room when they heard the commotion. They cautiously walked into a scene of me bleeding and my boyfriend on top of me, with his hands grasped around my neck. They saved my life because they called the cops. I didn’t because I couldn’t.

It’s gut-wrenching to call the cops on someone you love. It takes an immediate emotional toll. Twenty-four hours after the incident my boyfriend was placed in jail, I felt guilt. I felt guilt that he was sleeping in a jail cell and not in the comfort of his home. I felt as if it was my fault for starting the fight and I’d cry myself to sleep. Without my parents and friends, I wouldn’t have been strong enough to press charges.

Nearly half of all domestic violence cases go unreported. I’m one of the statistically few survivors to press charges against my abuser.

Many have turned to the same tired questions to give Meyer and the university a pass while vilifying Courtney Smith. Why didn’t she just leave? Why didn’t the cops take more action? Was she just being vindictive?

Courtney Smith wasn’t out for vengeance. She tried for years to seek help. Ohio State and Meyer had numerous chances to save one of their own, but they made it clear that football is more important.

I floated in the court system for a year before my final pre-trial date with my abuser. During that time I had countless phone calls and meetings with the DA’s office to help build my case. I endured three separate court hearings with my abuser only for him to plead not guilty. Before each hearing, I had to mentally prepare to see him again, leading me to experience severe anxiety attacks. It cost me time, energy, and thousands of dollars — none of which I’ll ever get back.

Not everyone has the support system I did to get through it. It’s clear Courtney Smith’s failed her repeatedly. Not everyone has the resources to stop abuse. Not everyone has the ability to leave. And not everyone survives.

It just isn’t that easy.

Ohio State’s message

Ohio State sent a message to their players and recruits that if you’re winning, living up to ethical standards off the field doesn’t really matter. In a recent story published by 247Sports, Ohio State’s commits for 2019 and 2020 were “fired up” to hear about the Meyer decision. Words such as “excited,” “awesome,” and “great news” were used to express the eventual return of Meyer to the Buckeyes’ program.

By its mishandling of this entire situation, Ohio State encouraged the notion that Meyer was the real victim. Instead of taking a firm stance in support of survivors, the school hid behind closed doors and allowed the culture surrounding domestic violence to thrive. Ohio State and Meyer showed that in a society where it pays to protect football, victims are forgotten and rendered powerless.

Domestic violence is a burden for organizations. It affects their wins, their football seasons, their focus. Some fans will react by siding with the players, coaches, and the administrations no matter what. From tasteless comments to aggressive backlash, there’s often little empathy for the survivors. To those strong enough to speak up, like Courtney Smith, their names will only become tarnished.

As a survivor of domestic abuse, I’ve been called a liar. I’ve lost friends. I sat in a courtroom and was told that I “fell through the door” on my own and that my cuts and bruises were self-inflicted. I had to hear the empty words of my abuser say he was “sorry” and that he didn’t actually do anything wrong.

Ultimately, my abuser only received a total of six months in jail. I had a judge look me in the eyes and say, “I don’t want to ruin two lives.” My abuser still has his job and good reputation to this day.

For Meyer to keep Zach Smith on his staff for years tells us Meyer didn’t care to believe Courtney Smith. For Ohio State to keep Meyer as head coach tells us they value wins over morals. But in a society where football dominates, victims’ claims are often shelved until they’re slowly forgotten.

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