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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

The Practice of Ethical Leadership in Ohio State’s Football Program

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Sara Tangdall


In August 2018, Urban Meyer, Ohio State head football coach, faced scrutiny for his handling of domestic violence allegations against a long-time assistant coach and friend, Zach Smith. In 2009, while Coach Meyer was head coach at Florida and Smith was a graduate assistant, Smith was arrested for aggravated battery against his wife, Courtney. At that time, Meyer and his wife, Shelley, attempted to help the couple by getting them into counseling. Then in 2015, Zach Smith had two reports filed against him for domestic abuse, felonious assault, and stalking, but no charges were filed. It was not known at the time if Coach Meyer was aware of these reports. Zach and Courtney divorced in November 2015.

In mid-July 2018, Zach Smith appeared in a Delaware municipal court to face charges of trespassing, and two days after that, Courtney filed a protection order against Zach.  Three days after the protection order was filed, news broke about the 2009 and 2015 reports of domestic violence and OSU fired Zach Smith. The day after Zach was fired, Coach Meyer spoke at the Big Ten Media Days and claimed to not know about the 2015 reports.

A week later, news broke that Coach Meyer did know about the 2015 reports, and Courtney Smith did an interview where she claimed that Shelley Meyer also knew about the 2015 reports. Additionally, several news outlets reported that Courtney had sent Shelley pictures and texts about the domestic violence incidents. That same day, OSU put Coach Meyer on paid administrative leave.

The next day, the OSU board of trustees hired an independent group to investigate. The investigation concluded two weeks later, in late August 2018, with a report that sought to answer the following questions:

A. In the hiring, retaining, supervising and firing of former Assistant Coach Zach Smith, did Head Coach Urban Meyer violate any Ohio State University policies or rules, Title IX, NCAA rules, Big Ten Rules, Ohio State Ethics laws, any other state or federal laws, or his contractual obligations to OSU in connection with Zach Smith’s alleged commission of domestic violence against his former wife, including any obligations to report the alleged domestic violence?

B. When Head Coach Urban Meyer spoke at Big Ten Media Days on July 24, 2018 about the firing of Zach Smith on July 23, 2018, did he misrepresent his knowledge of a law enforcement investigation of Zach Smith in 2015 for possible domestic violence and, if so, did he do so intentionally?

C. What was the role of Athletic Director Gene Smith in the above events and did he engage in conduct violative of any laws, rules, policies, or his contractual obligations to OSU in connection with those events?

After the investigation concluded, the OSU Board of Trustees met for over eleven hours to discuss the findings. They decided to suspend Meyer without pay for the first three games of the season, and they also suspended AD Gene Smith without pay for the same period (August 31-September 18).

More specifically, the report found that Associate Athletic Director Brian Voltolini and Meyer discussed shortly after the story broke "whether the media could get access to Coach Meyer's phone, and specifically how to adjust the settings on Meyer's phone so that text messages older than one year would be deleted.” The report also said that there were no text messages older than a year old on Meyer’s phone when he turned it over to the investigative team. ESPN points out, “While that is not an admission of guilt, the investigators found it ‘nonetheless concerning that his first reaction to a negative media piece exposing his knowledge of the 2015-16 law enforcement investigation was to worry about the media getting access to info and discussing how to delete messages older than one year.’”

The report also concluded that "Although neither Urban Meyer nor Gene Smith condoned or covered up the alleged domestic abuse by Zach Smith, they failed to take sufficient management action relating to Zach Smith's misconduct and retained an Assistant Coach who was not performing as an appropriate role model for OSU student-athletes.” OSU also said, "Permitting such misconduct to continue is not consistent with the values of the University and reflects poorly on Coach Meyer, Athletic Director Smith, and the University. Their handling of this matter did not exhibit the kind of leadership and high standards that we expect of our Athletic Director, Head Coach, Assistant Coaches and all on the football staff."

A full and detailed timeline of these events is available here.

Meyer has since been criticized for failing to adequately apologize to Courtney Smith; while he has repeatedly apologized for “mishandling” the situation, he only apologized directly to Courtney Smith after he was prompted by ESPN reporter Tom Rinaldi to do so in an interview. This has also caused critics to speculate that Coach Meyer still isn’t focused on Courtney Smith and has not changed his attitude about his role in the situation. It has also called into question Meyer’s core values that he tries to instill in his players, which are painted on the weightlifting wall at OSU: 1. Honesty; 2. Respect women.

In the same ESPN interview, Rinaldi asked Coach Meyer, “When it comes to the program’s core value of treating women with respect, who respected and protected Courtney Smith?” Coach Meyer responded, “That’s a tough question. Now that all the information’s out — now that I’ve learned more. If I fire him at the time, sever that relationship, and I see these two young kids — that’s the way I’ve always thought — how do you help stabilize something? And at the time I thought I was doing the right thing.”

Coach Meyer knew Zach Smith was troubled, and he wanted to show compassion and help him with Smith’s issues, which, Meyer now admits, may have hampered his ability to see the situation clearly. Meyer also now admits he should’ve fired Zach Smith sooner than he did. In a press conference on September 17, Meyer said that this has tarnished the reputation of OSU’s football program.

In addition to these two core values Meyer espouses, there are OSU’s mission, vision, and values. OSU’s values include excellence, diversity in people and ideas, inclusion, access and affordability, innovation, collaboration, and integrity, transparency, and trust. Then there is the Athletic Department’s mission statement and core values.

Athletic department’s mission statement: We foster a culture that provides the opportunity to develop our student athletes through success in academics and competition to achieve excellence in life.

Athletic department’s core values:

  • Integrity: We will act with integrity and personal accountability.
  • Education: We will educate each student-athlete with quality academic, competitive, leadership and social experiences to build a sense of responsibility and foster an appreciation for life-long learning.
  • People: We will keep the well-being of our student-athletes, coaches and staff at the core of every decision.
  • Excellence: We will excel in performance, achievement and service.
  • Respect: We will celebrate a climate of mutual respect and diversity by recognizing each individual’s contribution to the team.
  • Innovation: We will encourage innovation, develop a curious mindset and embrace change.
  • Community: We will enhance the lives of those in our university, city and state communities by helping and paying forward to others.
  • Tradition: We will build upon our traditions which have been developed throughout our proud history.

Practice of Ethical Leadership

Ann Skeet, senior director of Leadership Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, developed a Practice of Ethical Leadership. Using this model, we can ask the overall question: How is Meyer practicing ethical leadership? Additionally, we can consider what we learn about his character through his actions.

Along with character as a cornerstone for anyone’s practice of ethical leadership, we can look at the five additional ethical leadership practices Skeet identifies as a way to explore whether Meyer’s actions are enhancing his impact as an ethical leader in his role as Ohio State head coach.

  1. Creating Community: Did his handling of the incident promote positive relationships between key stakeholders? Did it encourage a sense of connectedness and shared values for OSU players, employees, and the OSU community?
  2. Encouraging Ethical Conduct: Did Coach Meyer openly acknowledge that his decision was based in ethics and morality? Did he reframe the issues to highlight the ethics of the situation? Did he revisit with his team their code of conduct and their core values and acknowledge where he might not have followed it? (Also worthing thinking about: Did the OSU Board of Trustees frame their suspension of Coach Meyer and AD Smith around the mission and the core values of OSU?)
  3. Showing Discipline in One’s Role: Did Coach Meyer explicitly accept responsibility for the incident and provide direction for a course correction? Did he show he understands what his role is in creating a culture that values honesty and respects women? Did his actions show he understands his role as an educator as outlined in OSU’s mission statement and the Athletic Department’s mission statement?
  4. Clarifying Culture: Did Coach Meyer clarify his values and OSU’s values in his apology and with his subsequent actions? Did the coach use his two values (honesty and respect women) as the cornerstone of his decision making when dealing with Zach Smith? Did Meyer’s actions align with OSU’s mission and vision?  Did his actions embody OSU’s core values and the core values of the athletic department? Did he identify gaps between stated and actual values? Did Coach Meyer’s apology help OSU players and Athletic Department staff figure out if their personal values align with the organization’s?
  5. Designing Ethical Systems: Did Coach Meyer’s actions have impact beyond OSU? Did they set a positive precedent for other athletic departments to follow? Did his apology create a conversation about how to handle domestic violence accusations in college athletics? How do his apology and the subsequent follow-up actions compare to other athletic departments that have faced similar problems? What is the role for OSU and the NCAA in response to this chain of events?


Oct 19, 2018