COLUMBUS, Ohio – With Urban Meyer put on paid administrative leave by Ohio State University, his future at the school will be determined by an investigation. The investigation will center around what the university termed “these allegations” in a statement, which are in reference to text messages and allegations of domestic abuse against former Buckeyes assistant coach Zach Smith by his ex-wife.
Yahoo Sports contacted lawyers and administrators who have dealt with similar issues and investigations to break down how things could unfold legally. What legal issues will determine Meyer’s fate? Here’s a look at some of the legal nuance that will loom over the investigation.
What does ‘paid administrative leave’ mean?
Regardless of the results, this is a step that allows Ohio State to show publicly that they have taken the case seriously. Stu Brown, an Atlanta-based attorney who frequently works with colleges on NCAA-related cases, said that this step “puts the university in the right position to defend itself regardless of how the process plays out.”
If the university re-instates Meyer with no punishment, this step shows the conclusion wasn’t pre-determined. If they fire him, it shows they’ve given all the involved parties notice of the gravity of the issues.
“Ohio State in a very preliminary early stage of the process started out by putting itself in the right position to defend itself regardless of how the process plays out,” Brown said.
The university announced Thursday afternoon that it has formed a “special, independent working board group” for the investigation and it is comprised of both OSU trustees and respected outsiders.
What factors will investigators look at?
The heart of what the investigators will be looking at is what Meyer knew about allegations of abuse, with events from 2015 presumably at the forefront. (That’s when Courtney Smith texted Shelley Meyer pictures of the alleged abuse, and Shelley Meyer inquired her about getting a restraining order.)
“It’s based on known or should have known standards, reasonable should have known standards,” said Brown, who is not affiliated with the case. “People can be skeptical. I don’t know if it’s an established fact that he had actual knowledge. That will be an area of the investigation. What did his spouse tell him, if anything? People may tell him they presume that was shared; I don’t think we should conclude that was shared until it’s further investigated.”
What will the timeline be?
There’s no clear answer here, as universities are notoriously risk averse and Ohio State will clearly take their time until they’re comfortable with the results. There’s nearly $40 million at stake with Meyer’s contract and the football program is worth more than $100 million, so the university isn’t going to rush here. Ohio State has named offensive coordinator Ryan Day the interim coach, and he’ll be in charge when the football team practices for the first time on Friday.
How could this play out?
“I think this will be faster rather than slower,” Brown said. “For a number of reasons. This is not a typical Title IX investigation about underlying misconduct. This is not an investigation [whether] certain conduct [happened] where there needs to be a lot of information about an underlying event. Here, it was information that was out there. Was it [brought] to you? If it was, what did you do with it? That’s much more clear-cut and easier and quicker issue to explore than the he-said, she-said in [a typical Title IX] investigation.”
One lawyer estimated perhaps two weeks as a reasonable timeline.
What was Urban Meyer obligated to report?
In April, the university extended Urban Meyer’s contract through 2023 and bumped his salary to $7.6 million for the upcoming season. The contract extension included an added provision that could loom large if the university decides to part ways with Meyer.
Ohio State would owe Meyer nearly $38 million if they fire him without cause, but that scenario is unlikely. The contract addendum states that Meyer has to report a “known violation” of Title IX and defines it as “a violation or an allegation of a violation of Title IX that Coach is aware of or has a reasonable cause to believe is taking place or may have taken place.” Included in the provision are: “Sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual exploitation, intimate violence and stalking.” Meyer is obligated to report to Ohio State’s Title IX coordinator or deputy Title IX coordinator.
The added provision also covers Meyer’s time at Ohio State and elsewhere: “Encompasses findings or determinations of violations during employment of Coach at Ohio State or any institution of higher learning.” Legally, if Ohio State finds a violation, multiple lawyers told Yahoo Sports there’s ample legal justification to fire him for cause.
What are the looming Title IX issues?
Yahoo Sports spoke to an Ohio-based attorney with Title IX expertise on Wednesday night. Urban Meyer is considered a mandatory reporter under Ohio State’s Sexual Misconduct Policy. He’s required to report all violations of domestic misconduct under the university’s Title IX policy, which the policy says includes “sexual harassment, sexual violence, relationship violence, and stalking.”
This means the investigation, at its core, will likely hinge on the extent of Meyer’s knowledge and how he handled reporting it. “You have to report all violations of sexual misconduct, even those regarding third parties,” said the lawyer, who declined to be named.
What are Shelley Meyer’s Title IX obligations?
Shelley Meyer is Urban’s wife, a psychiatric nurse and clinical instructor at Ohio State. Text messages exchanged between Courtney Smith, the alleged victim, to Shelley Meyer shows she had knowledge of the alleged abuse. Shelley Meyer went so far as to encourage Courtney Smith to explore a restraining order, according to text exchanges published by football reporter Brett McMurphy: “Just want u to be safe. Do u have a restraining order? He scares me.”
From a legal standpoint, the Title IX expert said that Shelley Meyer’s role at the university doesn’t make her a mandatory reporter. “This one is interesting,” the lawyer said. “It doesn’t appear she has supervisory duties. That’s a key point under the policy. They have different reporting requirements for different categories of employees.”
According to a legal health care expert in Ohio, Shelley Meyer’s status as a registered nurse does not obligate her to report domestic violence allegations to police. If Courtney Smith was her patient, she could not legally report the allegations to police. Since she was not her patient, there’s neither a prohibition or obligation to report.
Is OSU at risk of a Title IX lawsuit from Courtney Smith?
In short, no. According to the attorney: “There’s not necessarily a Title IX claim here. The spouse of Zach Smith could not file suit against the university.” The reason, according to the attorney, is that Courtney Smith is not a student at Ohio State and not seeking an education, which means she is unlikely to make a successful Title IX claim against the school.
(Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect Ohio State’s decision to form a panel for the investigation.)
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