On the occasion of Urban Meyer's latest un-retirement...

Hi! As promised, though a few weeks late, I’ve finally rebranded this thing with a new name and logo. From here on out, this newsletter will be called Open Field, a name I picked to signal that I’m allowed to write whatever the hell I want: sports, non-sports, bizarre things I’ve been thinking.

If you’re here for the sports, don’t worry. I paid $30 for a logo that includes doodles of a whole lot of sports equipment, and I’m not going to let that go to waste.

So, yeah, welcome to a slightly more aesthetically pleasing space. Keep reading below to learn about my least favorite sports development this year.

There’s no friendlier job market for men who’ve messed up than the football coaching carousel. A high school put Art Briles in charge of dozens of teenage boys. D.J. Durkin is Ole Miss’s co-defensive coordinator. Teams will hire whoever they think gives them a chance to win. The incentives are all wrong. The system is broken, and it’s hard to imagine it being fixed anytime soon.

But one system in football—particularly college football—should work a whole lot better: the one that governs oversight, investigations and, when necessary, punishments. Briles was axed after the extent of the abuse and coverup at Baylor went public. Durkin lost his job in the wake of Jordan McNair’s death. Both terminations were too little, too late, but the point is that they happened. Plenty of coaches who’ve overseen lesser crimes than those have been fired in an instant.

And Urban Meyer has barely been reprimanded.

That was my first thought when I saw the news that Meyer was coming out of his second (or third, if you count 2009’s, which lasted a day) retirement to coach the Jacksonville Jaguars. Here’s a coach who’s overseen programs where assistants and players have acted with impunity, where he’s either covered up crimes or willfully ignored them. Sure, take the keys to another facility. Why not?

In 2018, I thought Meyer had done—or failed to do—enough to get fired. I wrote about him a lot that fall, when news broke at Big Ten Media Days that Zach Smith, one of his assistant coaches, had multiple domestic violence charges pending. Smith was going about his business as if nothing were amiss, and Meyer pleaded ignorance to the brewing legal mess.

Then an Ohio State investigation proved he’d known all along. Then Meyer hid behind his wife, behind a bullshit platitude about respecting women that was painted on a wall in the Buckeyes facility. I wrote about that, about how he refused to say Courtney Smith’s name as he begged forgiveness.

Ohio State suspended him for three games.

If the school had fired him, he’d probably still have gotten the Jaguars job—or even another job sooner. Very little about Meyer’s reality would be different. But firing him would’ve signaled something important: That an institution condemned his lies and total disregard for the rules.

I happened to be in Columbus for Meyer’s first game back on the sidelines in 2018. It was against Tulane, my dad’s alma mater. I’d planned to be there since long before Meyer’s suspension; I wasn’t going to work, but to watch a game with my family and friends. At a bar after the lopsided Buckeyes win, a fan approached me. He recognized me from Twitter, and he went off. Meyer hadn’t known about Smith’s domestic violence charges, he told me, and Smith might not even be guilty. Even if he was, he added, that wasn’t Meyer’s problem.

I tried to end the conversation. I couldn’t follow the mental gymnastics it would take to read the news and come away with… that. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. National championships inspire blind devotion. And Ohio State’s punishment was commensurate with what that pissed-off fan said to me. It was an aw shucks, an admission only that Meyer should have handled things a teeny bit better.

Meyer’s controversies come down to a binary: He knew something, or he didn’t. At Ohio State, it was Zach Smith. At Florida, it was the 31 players who were arrested over his six seasons there. Did Meyer realize the sheer volume of players who were arrested—some for serious crimes—and do nothing to rein his program in, or did he just… forget to add up all the charges while he was designing plays?

I’m reminded of the argument some baseball players use after getting popped for repeated steroid use: They claim they didn’t realize they’d been taking illegal performance-enhancers in substantial quantities. In reality, these men spend countless hours and dollars perfecting their bodies, and they would never ingest a meaningful amount of something they didn’t know everything about. The same holds for Meyer: How can the architect of three national championships, someone so dedicated to controlling every element of the game, expect anyone to believe he knew so little?  

But Ohio State’s punishment signaled belief in Meyer’s charade. So did Florida when it let him operate unchecked for years. It’s more likely that the schools didn’t care what Meyer knew, that they were calculated in their choice to win rather than reform locker rooms—but that doesn’t change how their inaction presented to players and fans and the rest of the football world: We don’t think this guy’s so bad.

Meyer was always going to get another chance. That’s how this works. But his fans—and the teams that hire him—shouldn’t be allowed to behave as if he’s never done anything wrong.

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