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July 12, 2013

Commentary: Meyer, like reality, is complicated

Follow Noon | Givler | Axelrod

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer is not the murder-enabling monster that some in the national -- and Gainesville -- media will have you think he is. In fact, he's far from it. But he's also not the knight in shining armor that the scarlet and gray faithful want to believe he is.

So often -- actually, almost always -- teams and figures in sports are viewed by fans in terms of black and white. Ohio State is good, Michigan is evil. Tim Tebow is either a proven winner or he's a tight end trying to play quarterback. Trades are won and lost -- and never anything in-between.

Want to really understand Meyer, and to a greater degree, sports in general? Look at the past decade of popular television. The altruistic protagonists of yesteryear have been replaced with antiheroes like Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), Don Draper (Mad Men), and Walter White (Breaking Bad).

While the cartoonish occupation of each respective character -- a New Jersey mob boss, a identity-thieving ad man, and a high school teacher-turned-drug kingpin -- may not hit home with their audiences, their personalities and moral dilemmas do. That's because real life, unlike sports, isn't black or white. It's gray.

Enter Meyer, who has been as successful in his field as the fictional Soprano, Draper, and White have been in theirs. How he's reached those heights, however, depends on who you ask.

According to the detractors of the two-time national champion head coach, Meyer's success is the result of a win-at-all-costs approach that allowed the inmates to run the asylum, as well as the streets of Gainesville. Ask most Buckeyes fans, and their second-year head coach is simply your standard alpha male, who does a more-than-adequate job of preparing both his teams for action and players for the real world.

Nothing more. Nothing less.

The fact of the matter is that Meyer had 31 players arrested over the course of six seasons at Florida, yet still spends at least an hour a week preparing his Ohio State players for life after football with "Real Life Wednesdays." But cognitive dissonance won't allow vengeful media members or diehard fans to accept both as truths.

Meyer isn't alone when it comes to the dilemma we so often have when it comes to our perspective on figures in sports. You'd be hard-pressed to find a person with a level-headed -- if not rational -- opinion on Nick Saban, LeBron James, and John Calipari. We're encouraged to embrace debate, not indifference, even though Ohio State's last head coach left a legacy as gray as the sweater vest he wore.

In TV, however, the gray area is the sweet spot. We root for Soprano, Draper, and White because of their professional success, charisma, and type-A personalities, yet cringe when they inevitably step out of line or compromise their morality -- no matter how limited it was to begin with. Sometimes we even empathize with the fictional characters, because we realize that in our own lives, not everything fits into a perfect narrative.

But because Meyer is a real-life football coach, he is thus confined to the limitations in which we view athletes and coaches, even though he is admittedly a complicated individual who at one point let his drive for perfection get the best of him, his health, and his family. He's not a criminal, like the aforementioned characters, but if ever there was a coach whose life would make for a great drama on HBO or AMC, it's Meyer.

Last week, the Ashtabula, Ohio native was asked to share his thoughts on former Florida tight end Aaron Hernandez, who Meyer was allegedly close with during his time in Gainesville, and was recently arrested and charged with murder. As one of three writers there to witness Meyer's answer of "I'm not going to talk about that," I feel confident in saying that his (non)response came from a place of surprise, unpreparedness, and legitimate disappointment about an unthinkable event involving somebody whom he once cared deeply about.

In other words, Meyer's reaction was human.

Only Meyer's not allowed to be human, at least when we look through the prism in which we view sports. His critics said that he wasn't being forthright and was an enabler. His fans said that he was being smart and staying out of a story that he shouldn't even be a part of. It's not enough to disagree with our opposition, we have to prove the complete opposite to be true.

Regardless of who you ask, however, his answer was calculated, for better or worse -- just like everything he's done over the course of his 11-year head coaching career.

Because Meyer's a sports figure. He's not allowed to be gray.



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