After news broke Wednesday that Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer had been placed on paid administrative leave, legions of fans rushed to his defense.
And hours earlier, when Courtney Smith said that she told Meyer’s wife, Shelley, about abuse by her then-husband and assistant coach Zach Smith, legions of detractors rushed to question her motives.
Outrage from fans sparked on social media Thursday, a day after Courtney Smith said in a video interview on the Stadium sports site that she believed Urban Meyer knew about the abuse.
If Ohio State University fires Urban Meyer over this they’re absolute and utter idiots. This man is one of the best college coaches of all time, and he is not the police. Let him coach football and leave him alone.
— austyn shelton (@austynshelton) August 2, 2018
Buckeyes fans were quick to jump to Meyer’s defense, though there were a few supporting Courtney Smith, causing squabbles to flood Facebook and Twitter about his fate as coach. Many also questioned what’s next for the football program, with little acknowledgement of the woman who said she’s a victim of domestic abuse.
The fans’ reaction isn’t surprising, said Adam Earnheardt, chairman and professor of communication at Youngstown State University, who studies the motivation of sports fans.
“The history built around fan culture and identity has a pattern,” Earnheardt said. “That pattern is if you say something negative about my team, my reaction is going to be negative, regardless of proof.”
Ohio State fans are notoriously loyal. In 2017, Ohio State saw more than 1.2 million fans attend the Buckeyes’ 14 games — the highest attendance in the nation.
“That kind of fan base is only equal to or rivaled by fan bases we see with National Football League teams,” Earnheardt said.
Fans might be exhibiting defensive reactions on social media and beyond because they feel personally attacked when the coach of their favorite team is scrutinized, he said.
So far, Courtney Smith has faced the brunt of negative online comments. Some fans questioned her motives in publicizing accusations against her ex-husband nearly three years after the alleged incident.
Earnheardt’s words of advice to Courtney Smith?
“She needs to continue to tell her story, and the (Ohio State fans) who are willing to listen, open to listen, these are the people we should be listening to on social media,” he said.
Those people seem to be the minority on social media platforms, but they are out there.
Ohio State fan Susan Wells said it’s “disappointing” fans are lashing out at Courtney Smith and blindly defending Meyer without knowing the facts.
“I hope he’s innocent and we see him on the sidelines in the fall,” said the 26-year-old from Vinton County. “But if it’s true, especially as a high-profile football coach, he should have to face consequences for knowing about abuse.”
Something that gets lost today but the thing I take away most from everything said and written about Urban Meyer today:
Courtney Smith is a courageous woman. An entire system is set up against her.
— Richard Deitsch (@richarddeitsch) August 2, 2018
Fans’ deep-rooted emotional attachment to the multimillion dollar program affects spending and revenue for the university, said Patrick Rishe, director of sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis. Rishe said he wouldn’t be surprised if there is an uptick in financial contributions to the program soon.
“The No. 1 reason to support a brand is emotional, which is why you see this intense reaction,” he said.