Domestic violence has long been an issue that was shoved behind closed doors and preferably never discussed. Society’s attitude was that it was a personal issue or that what happened in the home was only the business of the people who lived in the home. Fortunately, over the past decades that idea has begun to change. Domestic violence has begun to be considered the crime that it is, and people are beginning to realize that it truly is everyone’s business. The revelation of all the abuse cases in the entertainment industry has given birth to the #metoo and #enough movements. Press coverage of all types of abuse has increased dramatically and victims of both sexes are feeling safe enough to come forward with their stories. This is a refreshing and long-awaited change.
Just four short years ago, domestic violence was virtually ignored in the world of collegiate and professional sports. In February 2014, Ray Rice, a Baltimore Ravens running back, attacked his fiancée (now wife) in an elevator in a New Jersey casino. They were both arrested, and Rice was later charged with a felony. The charges were dropped at a later date. The Ravens suspended Rice for two games. There was some press coverage and some criticism of the NFL for not taking the problem of domestic violence seriously. In September 2014 TMZ located photographs from casino security cameras detailing the extent of the physical abuse inflicted by Rice. As proof of the saying “A picture is worth a thousand words” news media and social media erupted. Rice was suspended again by the Ravens and eventually his contract was terminated. It was unfortunate that it took the photos to bring about justice. The outcry in the press, especially sports media was long and loud. This incident caused the NFL to strengthen its domestic violence policy; cases since Rice have been handled in a more fair and uniform manner most of the time.
College sports have had their share of abuse cases over the years. Historically they were dealt with quietly, or not at all. In recent years, however, cases of abuse have been handled more openly, especially when the media and social media become involved. Several high- profile coaches and university officials have lost their jobs due to their handling, or more accurately not handling, these cases. Last week one of the biggest names in college football was placed on paid suspension. Urban Meyer, currently head coach at Ohio State University, has won multiple national championships; his current team had just been chosen as a favorite for this season. The university acted swiftly when the details of the domestic violence incidents were made public by a media source. Five years ago, that would certainly not have happened.
As a domestic violence advocate who is also a sports junkie, I have followed this story daily. Zach Smith, an OSU assistant coach, also worked for Coach Meyer in Florida. He was first accused of abusing his wife in 2009; at that time, friends and family urged her to drop charges against him. Meyer and his wife allegedly counseled with the couple at that time, but there was no disciplinary action taken against Smith. There was another incident in 2015; Coach Meyer was asked about this incident at a recent media event. He not only denied that it happened but asked the reporter why anyone would make something like that up. Zach Smith, however, had been fired from OSU the day before, right after the reporter had filed his first story about the incident. Within the next few days, the reporter printed evidence that not only had the incident happened, but that Meyer’s wife was aware of it and presumably Meyer was as well. I watched with interest mixed with disgust when the alleged perpetrator gave an interview portraying himself as the victim and his wife as the aggressor; this did little to explain all the bruises in her pictures or his text messages apologizing for the abuse. The university is investigating; it will be some time, if ever, before the entire truth is known. Who knew what and when did they know it? Why was Zach Smith fired nine years after the first incident and three years after the second and how many other incidents were there in between? Do the officials at the university really believe that perpetrating domestic violence is an offense that would cause someone to be fired only when the press finds out about it? If people knew about these incidents, why was nothing done to protect his wife and children? Possibly there are more questions than we will ever have answers for.
There is good news in this situation, however. Society is currently in a state of mind that they are no longer going to ignore situations like this. The press and especially social media are not going to be quiet any longer. Professional teams and university officials can no longer afford to refuse to act, especially once these situations become public knowledge. OSU may have been late in acting, but the action they finally took was severe. While we don’t know what the eventual outcome will be, we can at least be encouraged that there has been some action taken. It was especially encouraging to listen to sports media for the past few days. Male and female reporters alike were quick to jump to the defense of the victim and to condemn the actions of the abuser and those who tried to cover it up. Several of the male commentators were even more eloquent in her defense that were the females. While I watched the abuser’s interview with disgust, I had to smile at the look of total disbelief and disdain on the face of his interviewer; I am sure the look on my face was similar. We can be encouraged that we are making some progress as we try to ensure that domestic violence is treated like any other crime and that victims are respected for their courage and not blamed for the abuse. Maybe, just maybe, we finally have come a long way, baby.
Shelby County Coordinator