When Doing the Bare Minimum Goes Wrong: What Present and Future NCAA Coaches Can Learn from the Ohio State Controversy

Over two weeks have passed since Ohio State University head football coach Urban Meyer was suspended three games for mishandling the domestic violence allegations against assistant coach Zach Smith. While the influx of reactions and criticism regarding the situation as a whole have slowed down, it is important to understand what the Ohio State “Independent Investigation Full Summary of Findings” found to be reportable and what is required under the Head Coach’s and Athletic Director’s contracts. It is safe to assume that, term and salary aside, these contracts are boilerplate and the requirements in regards to reporting misconduct are likely applicable to all administrators and coaches of all NCAA sports at OSU.

The Investigation stated that Meyer is obligated under his contract to “immediately report to the [Athletic] Director and to the Department’s Office of Compliance Services in writing if any person or entity, including without limitation, representatives of Ohio State’s athletic interests, has violated or is likely to violate or may potentially have violated any [applicable] laws.” Athletic Director Gene Smith has a very similar obligation, which required him to “immediately report to the Department’s Office of Athletic Compliance and the Office of University Compliance and Integrity if the Director had reasonable cause to believe that any person or entity, including without limitation, representatives of Ohio State’s athletic interests, has violated or is likely to violate or may potentially have violated any [applicable] laws, policies, rules or regulations.”

Where The Investigation notes Meyer and Smith did not fulfill their obligations was through “heavy reliance on the absence of formal law enforcement or court action.” Meyer and Smith were allegedly unaware that their respective obligations to report misconduct were triggered whether an arrest of a player or coach was made or not, and whether charges were filed against that player or coach, or not.

Additionally, The Investigation revealed that Meyer is obligated by his contract to “represent Ohio State positively in public and private forums”, which Meyer did not do at Big Ten Media Days in July of 2018 when he denied being aware of previous incidents of domestic violence involving Smith.

Urban Meyer is likely the most successful and well-known head football coach in the NCAA right now, outside of the University of Alabama’s Nick Saban. What this means for other coaches, essentially, is that if it can happen to Urban, it can happen to anyone. Current head coaches and future head coaches alike must take immediate and deliberate action when a player or coach may have violated university policies, laws, rules, or regulations. Head coaches cannot afford to wait for law enforcement action to occur against someone under their watch, as their obligations to report misconduct can be triggered without formal charges being filed. As The Investigation notes, “Reporting requirements are intended to be both broad and redundant . . . and the obligation to report is placed on each individual, an obligation not relieved by the knowledge or reporting by another individual.”

Now is not the time to argue that Urban Meyer got off easy, or that Urban Meyer did nothing wrong. Now is the time for the entire NCAA to take notice, and for coaches and athletic department staff members to live up to the obligations written into their contracts. Being a head coach in the NCAA is about more than sixty minutes on a sideline, or forty minutes on the court, or nine innings in the dugout. Head coaches have an obligation to their players, their fans, their universities, and their program as a whole. When head coaches are hired, going forward, the Athletic Directors conducting the coaching search would be doing a disservice to their players, their fans, their universities, and their programs if the coaching candidate was not thoroughly briefed on the reporting obligations incorporated into their coaching contracts.  Ultimately, this is the only way to insure that head coaches will be prepared to fulfill these obligations and take steps that will actually protect their programs long term.

Photo Courtesy: Adam Glanzman, Wikimedia Commons.

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My name is Joe Notartomas and I am a 2019 graduate from the University at Buffalo School of Law, with a particular interest in Corporate and Sports Law. I grew up in Southwest Florida, and before law school, earned my Bachelor's Degree from the University of Florida in 2014. Thanks for reading. - Joe

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