It’s college football season, the time of year when men holler at television screens, women roll their eyes, and a good hunk of Florida’s population drapes itself in orange and blue or orange and green or garnet and gold, mainlines cheap beer, and reverts to a level of tribalism that would make the Sunni and the Shia blush. Good, clean, American fun, right?
Unless you’re the one getting whacked in the head multiple times, possibly causing degenerative brain disease and dementia at the age of 40. Or if you wish your alma mater would raise more money for the library than for coaches’s salaries: University of Florida head coach Dan Mullen makes $6 million a year. Or if you’re the wife or girlfriend of a player or a coach.
Let me confess: I love college football. I also despise college football. I grew up with the game. It’s a part of my culture. I disapprove of what it does to young men’s brains, university priorities, and the fall television schedule, but there’s something beautiful about a receiver leaping up to catch a perfectly-thrown 40 yard pass, or a crafty Flexbone triple option play that leaves defenders confused as cats chasing a laser light. Sometimes, football is as gorgeous as ballet. Other times, it’s pretty much a bar brawl, painful to play, painful to watch—especially if you’re a Seminole. Or a Gator. Both of Florida’s old, iconic teams seem to be pathetically bad this year. But I’m a masochist. And I’m ambivalent: a feminist prepared to spend hours and hours watching a herd of barely post-adolescent boys smashing into another herd of barely post-adolescent boys. Some things are beyond reason.
Still, it’s getting tougher to defend the game. We know a lot about domestic violence in the NFL; we’ve seen the video of Ray Rice punching and dragging his fiancee (now wife) Janay Palmer on the floor, and we’ve read about how the pros knew that six of their top 2018 recruits faced assault charges, yet drafted them anyway. It happens in college, too. Florida State’s starting quarterback Deondre Francois (last seen searching for his offensive line) was investigated, though never charged, by the Tallahassee cops earlier this year for allegedly throwing his pregnant girlfriend on the floor. A University of South Florida player admitted to sexual battery last November. In July, four-star recruit Justin Watkins had to leave the Gators after his second arrest for domestic battery.
Then there’s the depressing story of former UF coach Urban Meyer, now at Ohio State. He hasn’t been accused of hitting women, but he’s been protecting someone who has: Zach Smith, who started working for Meyer at UF, and was, until late July, wide receivers coach at OSU. Meyer refused to fire Smith, even though it was clear that he was hitting and terrorizing his wife Courtney. Meyer insists he didn’t know. But he had to know. Over the years, Courtney Smith had texted photos of her cuts and bruises to the other coaches’s wives, including Urban Meyer’s wife Shelley, documenting the time her husband shoved her, the time he slammed her against the wall, the time he cut her with the top of tobacco tin.
Meyer is either lying or indulging in sullen denial, the kind exhibited daily by the occupant of the Oval Office. It’s hardly surprising: along with the Taliban and the Trump Administration, college football is one of the least female-friendly institutions on the planet. It’s the only major sport women don’t play. Yes, there have been a few kickers. Katie Hnida of the University of New Mexico became the first woman to score in an NCAA Division IA game in 2003. But the game hardly welcomed her. She has said she was harassed by her coaches and sexually assaulted by one of her teammates. Women excel at rugby, ice hockey, even boxing. But the idea of women playing football sticks in the American craw: girls beating up on girls? That’s a man’s job.
Urban Meyer’s allegiance lies with his guys, never with the women some of them victimize. Zach Smith is the grandson of Earle Bruce, legendary Buckeye coach and Meyer’s mentor. In 2009, when a pregnant and scared Courtney Smith called the Gainesville cops on her husband after he attacked her, Meyer’s response was to protect his boy. Earle Bruce traveled down from Ohio to talk his granddaughter-in-law out of pressing charges. A man named Hiram de Fries, usually described as Meyer’s personal “life coach,” convinced Courtney that Zach deserved a second chance. If he got charged, his coaching career would be sunk. “He’s never hit you before,” said de Fries. “He’ll probably never do it again.”
Except he did do it again. Again and again. This is all too familiar in the kingdom of football. When FSU quarterback Jameis Winston was accused of raping a fellow student in 2012, the fans rallied around him. The local police simultaneously slow-walked and bungled the investigation. The university equivocated. Head coach Jimbo Fisher, now at Texas A&M, called Winston “a great guy.” Winston went on to win the Heisman Trophy and lead his team to a national championship. His accuser dropped out of FSU. Now Winston plays for the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, though he was recently suspended without pay for three games. Seems he made an “unwanted sexual advance” to a female Uber driver. Since Winston pulls in $8 million a year, it’s not much of a punishment.
Ohio State didn’t fire Zach Smith until July 23, 2018, after reporter Brett McMurphy publicized the story. At a press conference the next day, Meyer more or less said he didn’t believe Courtney Smith. But once everybody found out she had gotten a restraining order against her (now ex-) husband, OSU had to boot Smith. The university convened a blue ribbon panel–led by a woman, former Securities and Exchange Commission head Mary Jo White–to investigate. Their conclusion? Urban Meyer didn’t exactly lie: he was “deeply absorbed in football season” and suffered from “significant memory issues” from medication he was taking. Meyer got suspended for three games.
I’m not remotely surprised. Meyer is more valuable than some mere wife: Buckeye football brings in about $60 million a year. Florida’s big football programs (UF, FSU, USF, UM and increasing UCF) are also big money makers, important for attracting students and donors. I may be increasingly uneasy about a game that sees women as insignificant and shrugs at violence against them, but the fact is football has defined American masculinity for 150 years. We haven’t evolved as much as we think. Here’s Teddy Roosevelt in 1903: “I believe in rough games and in rough, manly sports. I do not feel any particular sympathy for the person who gets battered about a good deal so long as it is not fatal.”
Emblazoned on the locker room wall at Ohio State there’s a statement of “values” including “Treat Women with Respect.” I await the day that becomes more than a slogan.