Urban Meyer embodies the hubris of the US sports industry

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May 8, 2002
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Powerful figures like the Jacksonville Jaguars head coach believe they are above reproach – because for much of their careers they have been Urban Meyer has won three national college titles. Photograph: Matthew Emmons/USA Today Sports Just when you think the NFL cannot sink any deeper into its own particular brand of win-at-all-costs shamelessness. Just when you think the sport as a collective has broken through the cycle of player arrests, out-of-control assistant coaches and the system of enabling that extends from the high school ranks all the way to the commissioner’s office, along comes Urban Meyer. College football’s enabler-in-chief has moved to the professional ranks. The three-time national championship-winning college coach has been handed the keys to the Jacksonville Jaguars franchise. Already, he has brought with him controversy. Earlier this month, Meyer dipped back into the college game to hire former Iowa strength coach Chris Doyle to serve as his conditioning czar in Jacksonville. Doyle, who was on the staff at Iowa from 1999-2019, left the school in June after several former Iowa players accused him of racism, abuse, and bullying. Meyer defended the hire. “I vet everyone on our staff,” Meyer said. “We did a very good job vetting that one.” Within 48 hours, Doyle had resigned under public pressure. The Jaguars moved on to their second choice. Meyer continued to plot and plan the team’s offseason. But the Doyle hire-then-fire should not be forgotten. It is a reminder that, even at the professional level, Meyer will not change. A Jaguar, a leopard, whatever, will never change its spots. In just the last month, figures of power across sport have been fired or forced to step aside for abusing their power or enabling others to do so. The Seattle Mariners’ CEO, Kevin Mather, quit this week after audio surfaced of him questioning the language skills, ability and value of his own players. New York Mets general manager Jared Porter was fired after he confirmed an ESPN story that he sent graphic, uninvited text messages and images to a female reporter in 2016. Dig through all of the professional leagues and you will see the same theme: Hubris. The big, bad, powerful figures who believe they’re above accountability and reproach – because for much of their careers they have been. You can point to Mickey Callaway, the Los Angeles Angels pitching coach who is accused of making inappropriate advances toward at least five women in the sports media industry – and is still employed by the team. Or you can trawl through the toxic waste dump that is the Houston Texans organization. Or you can point back to Meyer. Hiring Doyle was an easy decision for Meyer. Others might have considered the ethics. Not Meyer. He has spent his career immune from consequences. Controversy has followed everywhere he has worked, and yet he has always graduated to bigger and better things. Meyer has always been a walking testament to that philosophy that to win big in college football, a school must sell its soul. Every college program he has touched has won at the highest level, and in nearly all cases he left in disgrace. He walked away from Florida in 2010 after winning two national titles, citing health reasons. The cost: a program rocked by roster manipulation, a toxic culture and more than 30 reported player arrests across six seasons. In 2018, he walked away from Ohio State after winning a national championship, again citing health concerns. The cost: a program beset by off-the-field scandal, including the enabling of assistant coach Zach Smith, whose alleged domestic violence while working for Meyer at Florida and Ohio State led to Meyer being suspended for three games in his final season. Smith’s abuse brought to light a pattern of enabling behavior from Meyer that will forever tarnish his reputation. He won, but at what cost? After leaving Ohio State, Meyer said that he was “done coaching”. It was the same thing he said when he walked out on Florida. It drained too much from him, physically and mentally, he said. Back in his days and upstart coach at Bowling Green, he says he shed 15lbs every season. At the height of Florida’s excellence, he lost 35lbs. All of this is part of a carefully crafted narrative: Meyer as a meticulous leader and winner, someone who pushed his teams and himself to the brink, but who in doing so brought success. Do not weep for him, though. That has always been a big part of the message. He was just caught up in the world of big-time college sports. This is what you have to do to win. There is no nobility among the national contenders. They lie and they cheat and they bludgeon their way to the top. That’s the system. He was just playing the game. And really, honestly, it drained a lot out of him, because he has always been a good, family man on the inside. Besides. They were all just allegations anyway. The star player who attacked an assistant coach and was punished with up-downs. The player who slapped a woman at a bar and was punished with a three-game suspension. The unpunished coach caught using a racial slur. The use of walking boots on the sideline to fake injuries in order to circumvent drug tests. The deleting of texts prior to an investigation into the cover-up of a domestic abuse accusation. Allegations. All Meyer has denied. It has been the same cycle at every stop. He gets caught in the act, he denies and obfuscates, he gets through the scandal and then he walks away on his own terms. After the final days of his scandal-ridden Florida run, Meyer landed a cushy media job with ESPN, the same entertainment entity that had used its journalistic arm to expose much of the misbehavior that led to Meyer leaving Florida in the first place. The cycle continued once he left Ohio State. He survived the revelations about his abusive assistant coach – just. And then he walked away on his own terms, straight into a plum analyst job at Fox Sports. He was invited back to the university to teach a character and leadership course. His book, unironically titled Lessons in Leadership, continues to sell well on Amazon. Moving on up to the NFL might be Meyer’s greatest glow-up yet. After walking away from Ohio State in disgrace, he’s now handed the keys to an NFL franchise and the highest-rated quarterback prospect to enter the league in almost a decade: Trevor Lawrence. As other powerful sports figures are let go for their abuse of power, Meyer continues to climb. He will be different in the NFL, his defenders promise. No sports figure has been the subject of more He Has Changed profiles. And even that says more about Meyer than the industry that covers him: most people do not need four or five profiles about their evolution. They change, or they’re ushered out of the industry. That battle has been an endless struggle for Meyer. A fight between the man, the leader, the coach, the powerful figure he wants to be, and the one he is. A portrait by Wright Thompson for ESPN The Magazine paints a grim picture. Meyer is miserable when he works and happy when he does not. He hates that feeling, happiness. It gnaws at him. Happiness is for others, for losers. It’s why he’s always drawn back to coaching. And once he’s back in, he cannot help himself. The thing about Meyer, the special something that has separated him from the rest, is his willingness to sink to places that others refuse to. Even in the cesspit of collegiate athletics, people have limits. Meyer does not. It’s what the Jaguars are banking on in bringing him to the NFL. It’s why he felt entitled enough to hire a strength and conditioning coach with accusations of racism still clouding his character. Meyer is a harbinger for the eternal question that faces all of sports. Winning is great. Parades are fun. But is it worth this?

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