All eyes in the college football world seem to be focused on Urban Meyer as Ohio State nears the conclusion of a two-week investigation into how the championship football coach handled allegations of domestic violence against Zach Smith, his former assistant coach.
Meyer’s future with the Buckeyes has been unclear since he was placed on administrative leave with pay when that probe began. And though it’s unknown what criteria the university’s six-person investigative group will use to decide Meyer’s fate, the language in his contract gives some insight into the university’s power to sever ties with the three-time national champion.
A USA TODAY Network examination of Big Ten football coaches’ contracts revealed boilerplate language requiring coaches to follow university policies, indirectly subjecting them to the university sexual misconduct policies which are outlined in separate documents. Yet some contracts, like Meyer’s — in addition to that of Illinois coach Lovie Smith and embattled Maryland coach D.J. Durkin — go further by giving specific instructions for how to handle such matters.
Meyer’s university-policy obligations includes serving as a mandatory reporter of Title IX-related issues, and he also is required to report allegations of sexual misconduct/relationship violence that happen within the university community, which could include Zach Smith’s now ex-wife, Courtney Smith.
Meyer’s contract was amended in April to include specific guidelines for reporting these types of allegations. And while some of the verbiage may seem redundant to university policy, one legal expert says it follows a recent trend of doubling down on the responsibility that coaches have to report misdeeds within their programs.
Meyer was thrust into a national firestorm earlier this month after Courtney Smith said she was abused by Zach Smith on multiple occasions, including a 2015 incident that was reported to police and purportedly was known to many inside Ohio State’s athletic department. The investigation centers on what Meyer knew about the 2015 incident and when he knew it. Ohio State’s Board of Trustees is expected to meet Wednesday to discuss Meyer’s future.
“By including the legal language that’s required, they’re making sure that the coach actually has notice of what that law might be,” said Barbara Osborne, a University of North Carolina law professor specializing in sports administration. “By including it specifically in the contract, you avoid any question of what you knew or should have known, and then it really clearly provides the university with the option for termination for cause.”
What was Meyer required to do?
Meyer’s contract requires him to “promptly report” any known violations of Ohio State’s sexual misconduct policy to the university’s Deputy Title IX Coordinator for Athletics. Intimate violence — such as the allegations against Zach Smith — is included in the policy.
The clause in Meyer’s contract cites violations involving “any student, faculty or staff,” and classifies a “known violation” as a “violation or an allegation of a violation of Title IX that (Meyer) is aware of or has reasonable cause to believe is taking place or may have taken place.” Title IX, according to its website, is the federal civil rights law that protects against discrimination on the basis of sex, including forms of sexual misconduct such as relationship violence.
Ohio State’s university policy also specifies that employees who are considered a supervisor, such as a teacher, coach or president of an organization, will be held to a higher standard to report allegations of misconduct “because of their positions of authority” and “heightened responsibility.”
“Title IX requires everyone to disclose when a student is at risk,” Osborne said. “There’s a little bit more question about when an employee is engaging in the activity and there’s not direct student involvement. Now there’s also some moral and ethical issues, but the language you read to me, in that language or similar languages in Urban Meyer’s contract, then that clearly indicates that it’s a broad mandate and he should’ve reported.”
Meyer lied about what he knew about the 2015 incident when asked about it at Big Ten media days in Chicago on July 24. After Courtney Smith’s accusations surfaced, Meyer apologized for his comments but insisted he followed protocol by “elevating the issues to the proper channels.” It’s not yet clear when or to whom Meyer reported the allegations.
“I understand that there are more questions to be answered,” Meyer said in a Twitter statement on Aug. 3. “At the appropriate time, I will also address the questions and speculation in a public forum.”
While the alleged violence in the Ohio State case did not take place against a student, it did take place against the then-wife of a university employee. That leads to a question of whether Courtney Smith is a member of the university “community” — within which Meyer is required by the university’s sexual misconduct policy to report any allegations of sexual misconduct or relationship violence.
“The plain meaning of the word community, relative to a college or university, is probably going to be much broader than students and employees,” Osborne explained.” When you’re talking community, you’re looking at all of those various constituencies that have a vested interest in the university. So the actual people on campus, but it’s also the surrounding area, it might be the entire town or city that that institution is in, it would most likely include alumni. So community is a much broader word than campus, students, employees.”
Does the contract language matter?
The language in Meyer’s contract is far from unique. Some coaches from non-Big Ten schools have similar language in their contracts, including Oregon State’s Jonathan Smith and Arkansas’ Chad Morris. In the case of Smith, Oregon State felt it was important to make the head coach’s duty as a mandatory reporter “abundantly clear.”
“This language is based upon Oregon State University’s commitment to create a university environment free of sexual misconduct, violence, harassment and discrimination,” Oregon State spokesperson Steve Clark said. “OSU requires that all university employees are considered “responsible employees and must contact the OSU’s Title IX coordinator or the Office of Equal Opportunity and Access with knowledge of any form of sexual harassment, sexual violence, domestic violence or stalking.
“We customarily evaluate best practices used at many other universities when considering many Oregon State practices and policies. In the case of writing this new contract, yes, we looked at example head coaching contracts from other universities, including Ohio State.”
And while Arkansas drafted Morris’ contract without consulting Ohio State or examining the language that appears in both Meyer and basketball coach Chris Holtmann’s contracts, senior associate athletic director Kevin Trainor said Arkansas was “familiar with similar provisions” in other contracts around the country.
“It is a statement of the reporting obligation of ‘responsible employees’ on this campus (which includes our athletic coaches) regarding violations of the University of Arkansas’s Sexual Assault and Harassment Policies,” Trainor said when asked about contract language identifying Morris as a mandatory reporter. “It also reflects a recommended practice standard within the industry.”
According to Osborne, contract language that outlines a coach’s responsibility to serve as a mandatory reporter is a “risk management tool.” It also doubles down on the boilerplate language used in many university policies that identifies coaches as mandatory reporters, which means they are required to report knowledge or suspected knowledge of abuse in a timely manner.
Osborne says this type of language in a contract is a fairly recent trend, within the past five years, and it is essentially an extra level of security for universities in case the coach breaks university policy or doesn’t adhere to the language in his contract.
“Depending on what the contract language is,” Osborne explained, “if that clause is in the contract and the coach fails to perform, generally a failure to perform duties is cause for termination.”
USA TODAY Sports’ Steve Berkowitz, Amanda Christovich and A.J. Perez contributed to this report.