Professional sports organizations have a particular social responsibility to act as role models and good citizens for the legions of young fans who follow them faithfully. Zero tolerance policies can allow leaders to wash their hands of what they see as the ‘problem’ individual, without appreciating or exploring how problematic individual behaviour is rooted in attitudes and beliefs that also exist in our workplaces, our teams and our leagues. When the ‘problem’ person is traded or fired, the organization hasn’t done anything to address abusive behaviour in intimate relationships because this is not a problem that can just be traded away. The “one bad apple” approach to domestic violence obscures the social context in which these behaviours thrive.
Simply put, domestic violence needs to become more of a shared problem. Zero tolerance may seem like a righteous response, however; it actively denies the societal context in which the attitudes that tolerate violence against women and girls are rooted. When zero tolerance policies are in place, victims who don’t want to be the cause of their partner being fired are put in the untenable position of hiding the violence to save the job. They may be also pressured by others who want the offending partner to continue working, to remain silent.
Take the story of Ohio State assistant coach Zach Smith. He was fired July 23 after reporter Brett McMurphy published a news story about years of domestic violence. Smith was first arrested in 2009 for aggravated assault on his then pregnant wife, Courtney Smith. Two days after the arrest, highly influential friends of head coach Urban Meyer contacted Courtney and asked her to meet.
On a July morning in 2009, Courtney Smith sat across the table from Hiram de Fries, a former attorney and Shell Oil executive, Earle Bruce. Courtney said de Fries pressured her to drop the charges.
“He said ‘if you don’t drop the charges, Zach will never coach again,’ ” Courtney said. “ ‘He’s never hit you before. He was drinking. He’ll probably never do it again. You should think about giving him a second chance.’ “
Ultimately, Courtney said she relented to de Fries and didn’t press charges. Courtney had convinced herself this would never happen again.
She was wrong.
In the article Courtney Smith describes many instances of abuse where she would call 911 and then hang up. “I hung up out of fear because I was scared Zach would lose his job.” Her friends and family also warned her repeatedly to protect his job.
Courtney Smith left the relationship in June 2015. Even then the violence didn’t stop. She was finally granted a restraining order on November 10, 2015. Two days later, after years of abuse, verbal intimidation, threats, bullying, bruised and beaten body parts, according to police reports, text messages and photos, Courtney filed for divorce. Through it all, she was texting and talking with other coach’s wives, sending pictures of injuries and seeking their support. She described Zach as “spiralling out of control.”
McMurphy’s article makes it clear that many people at Ohio State knew about the violence, including Urban Meyer. The university policy states unequivocally that employees have a duty to report. Hours after McMurphy’s article was published, Meyer was placed on paid administrative leave, 10 days after he had fired Zach Smith for domestic violence.
“I know why nothing was done," Courtney said. "Everyone was out to protect themselves. Zach had people that were far more powerful than I would ever be that were protecting him and for the wrong reasons. I think people that knew (about the abuse) should have helped me. Instead, they chose to enable an abuser.”
Meyer insists that he followed procedures and denies knowing about the domestic violence. It is uncertain at this time whether he will be fired. He is one of the winningest coaches in the sport. It remains to be seen whether Zach Smith will ever coach again. Whether he will continue to commit domestic violence is the question that is not even considered.
The combination of the pressure to win-at-all-costs in professional sports, coupled with the ill-conceived approach of zero tolerance, boldly endorsed in media statements and implemented through strictly punitive policies, is a deadly one. Where do the traded and fired offenders go when their employer organization closes the door? It is possible that being cast-out and shamed causes them to wake up and make big life changes. It is also possible that it merely fuels their “spinning out of control” state and they move on to the next relationship or circle back to take it out on the person or people they hold responsible for losing their job. Zero tolerance creates conditions where the fear of individual consequences makes it more difficult for those involved, either as bystanders or offenders to report or seek help. It may be understandable, but it still promotes complicity through silence and cover-ups.