Please, Don’t Counsel Them

If you are a football fan, and perhaps even if you are not, you have read the allegation that current Ohio State head football coach, Urban Meyer, and athletic director, Gene Smith, knowingly employed an assistant coach, Zach Smith, who was battering his now ex-wife, Courtney Smith. The story continues to unfold as new information regarding the events from 2015 are released.

My goal here is not trial by journalism. My focus is not even on the most recent reports. I want us to look back at the undisputed account from 2009, when Zach Smith was on Urban Meyer’s coaching staff at the University of Florida. Meyer has said that in Gainesville in 2009, after Smith was arrested for domestic violence, he and his wife, Shelley Meyer, “both got involved with the relationship with that family and provided counseling, and wanted to help them moving forward.”

This may sound like a good part of the story: Someone in a position of authority cared enough about a subordinate to try to help that person and his wife in a difficult time. But this is not a good part of the story—in fact, it highlights something very dangerous.

Marital therapists distinguish between common couple violence and battering. Common couple violence, as the name suggests, is present in many romantic relationships. It involves such things as one person shoving the other during a moment of frustration. Common couple violence is not something that should be accepted. It is harmful to the relationship, can cause emotional harm—particularly in women—and while not intended to cause physical harm, physical harm is possible. Note that because on average men are larger and stronger than women that women are more likely to suffer physical harm from common couple violence than are men. Common couple violence is engaged in by men and women at approximately equal rates, though it is not equal in its effects. It would be appropriate for a trained therapist to address common couple violence during counseling.

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Anyone who has seen the photographs of the injuries that are alleged to have occurred from abuse can recognize that if Mr. Smith caused those injuries to Ms. Smith common couple violence is not what occurred, but battery. The vast majority of batterers are men. Most are boyfriends rather than husbands. The context of battery is domination and control over the woman.

Battery is not something that should be addressed in couples or marital therapy and no ethical therapist would knowingly treat a couple when battery was part of the relationship. This is because battery is not a problem with the couple but with one person. The sole responsibility for battery lies with the person doing the battering. Furthermore, discussing relationship issues in therapy could anger the batterer, resulting in still more violence.

The essential thing to do in cases of battery is to help the woman find a place of safety where she can be protected. She also must know that nothing she did deserved battery; that she is a person worthy of respect. The man doing the battering should not be trusted no matter how much he pleads that he will change his ways. The priority is to protect the woman and any children from violence. Their physical safety should not be risked in some lay counseling experiment with the abuser.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline, www.thehotline.org, 800-799-7233, can help women and those who care for them protect victims of battery. It is critical that we be aware of our limitations and get outside help when needed.

This story is getting a lot of press because of the high profile of Urban Meyer and Ohio State football. As a football fan, I am saddened that this will overshadow the greater number of truly worthwhile things that the majority of football coaches do to help boys and young men become men of good character, men who embrace the truly masculine traits of self-control, self-sacrifice, and respect for women.

My hope in writing this is that one important lesson will be clear: The lesson is that helping someone may not look the way we think it should—it may not feel good in the process.

In this case, the desire to help, and the belief that he knew what kind of help was necessary, may have led Coach Meyer in 2009 to place Ms. Smith in greater danger. Counseling is a discipline which requires specific, evidence-based training. There is no shame in getting help from experts. There is shame in placing people at risk because we fail to recognize limits to our personal expertise.

If you know of an abusive situation, please act to protect the person being abused. That is the best way to help.