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Amy Donaldson: Ohio State domestic violence allegations reveal some troubling realities

SALT LAKE CITY — As the controversy engulfed one of college football's most successful programs, one thing became crystal clear — it's not just university employees who are willing to put money made by winning sports programs ahead of human suffering.

In the wake of Courtney Smith’s allegations that former Utah and current Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer knew of abuse allegations against assistant coach Zach Smith and did nothing, the public discussion revealed misperceptions persist about domestic violence, one of the most insidious issues in our society.

Smith provided freelance reporter Brett McMurphy police reports, text messages and pictures to corroborate her story of years of abuse at the hands of her now ex-husband, as well as supporting her assertion that Meyer and the other coaches knew of Smith’s abusive behavior.

It was the reaction of fans, and some media members, that made it obvious that we still don’t understand the realities of domestic violence, making the search for solutions much more difficult. More importantly, the reactions reveal that we may not be as committed to protecting victims and eradicating family violence as we often profess.

Hard realities and myths

As I listened to people question everything from the timing of Courtney Smith’s decision to trust a reporter with her story to whether the blood in the pictures she provided was fake, I realized two realities that make public discussion difficult.

First, seemingly good human beings are capable of heinous behavior. Second, domestic violence is still being viewed as a "private family matter."

For me, there is no question about whether Meyer should lose his job, but that’s not the most important question we need to address.

The most important issue to be resolved is whether we really care about people trying to escape the insidious grip of domestic violence. Because if we do, we desperately need to change the way we discuss these incidents because that impacts the kind of solutions we will find.

Domestic violence is not a private family matter.

It has grave societal costs, including being one of the most dangerous calls to which police respond. By continuing to view this as something that’s "none of our business," we give abusers the privacy, the cover they need to continue to manipulate, intimidate and abuse family members.

The wrong questions

In assessing the veracity of a victim’s story, do not use their inability to leave against them.

The reasons victims don’t immediately leave or press criminal charges are incredibly complicated. People stay in violent situations for myriad reasons.

First, it might be "the normal" we know. Second, domestic violence is more complicated than other crimes because it occurs in the one place we’re supposed to be the safest. Home is the foundation of our lives. While outsiders might see the accused as a violent criminal, we see a husband or father who is also a source of love and support for us.

I wish those who become violent with their loved ones were monsters. It would be easier to deal with them, individually and as a society.

But they are not.

They have many good qualities, and for some reason, maybe it’s what they were taught, they choose to deal with conflict by intimidating through verbal, emotional or physical abuse those they love into submission or compliance.

Third, domestic violence doesn’t always start with confrontations that include blood and bruises. It begins with mental and emotional bullying that eats away at a person’s self-worth and self-confidence. But remember, these verbal lashings, these emotional assaults, are intertwined with loving exchanges, apologies and promises.

Fourth, some victims feel it is more dangerous to leave than to stay. Domestic violence advocacy groups estimate that a person in an abusive relationship will attempt to leave seven times before successfully leaving.

A complicated crime

So why don’t victims always pursue criminal charges?

In short, because the legal system isn’t equipped to deal with the complexity of one family member versus another family member. Our court system is adversarial, and it doesn’t anticipate a problem that might require the opposing sides needing to salvage some kind of emotional bond.

Specialized courts can take into consideration the nuanced issues that arise with one member accusing another of a crime that would be fairly straightforward if committed by a stranger, but even they struggle with the collision of family relationships and criminal codes.

I can tell you that if anyone outside my family had treated me the way my abuser did, I wouldn’t have hesitated to call the police. Sometimes the desire of other family members keeps victims silent, including parents or children begging for "mercy" or "forgiveness" for an abuser.

Victims risk being ostracized for seeking help or reporting violence. It’s one thing to lose the abuser, which is undoubtedly painful, but many victims risk losing far more than an angry ex-husband or abusive parent.

In the past week, there has been a chorus of, “He was never convicted of a crime.”

That doesn’t matter.

We do not need to use the legal standard (beyond a reasonable doubt) to make decisions that can be guided by our ethics. Do we want a man investigated twice by police for hitting his wife working with young people in a setting where trust and power dynamics are critical?

Protecting the wrong people

Meyer said in his statement released after he was put on paid administrative leave while the situation is investigated that he “followed protocols” in dealing with the allegations against Smith. That alone should concern anyone who is serious about addressing and eliminating domestic violence.

Those "protocols" — or rules — are not set up to protect victims or students. They’re set up to protect the university and its employees from legal action.

His statement that he "followed protocols" — which apparently didn’t include removing Smith from his job or helping his family attain any distance or protection from the alleged violence — simply says to me, “I did what I needed to do to protect myself and the Ohio State football program.”

Even after all the scandals that have forced us to reckon with how many of us are willing to look the other way when it comes to abuse in a university sports setting, we are still more desperate to win games than protect the vulnerable.

Some have asked why Meyer would risk his own career to protect Smith. I can only surmise that he didn’t see continuing to keep Smith on staff as a risk.

And that, maybe more than any of this week’s revelations, should concern those of us who want to see actual changes in the way universities deal with misconduct allegations.

If you are someone you know is struggling with domestic violence, there is help available both locally and nationally, including a national hotline 1-800-799-SAFE or 1-800-879-LINK.