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What the Les Moonves and Urban Meyer investigations say about #MeToo

Daniel Roberts

CBS and The Ohio State University are both embroiled in public scandals involving their most prominent leadership figure, the scandals broke within a few days of each other, and both scandals fall squarely within the broader #MeToo movement in America.

But they are handling the situations in dramatically different fashion. And their contrasting approaches say a lot about how public institutions are managing #MeToo accusations.

CBS chairman Les Moonves (left), Ohio State University football coach Urban Meyer. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP; Carlos Osorio/AP)

CBS keeps Moonves on board during investigation

CBS chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves has been accused by six women of sexual misconduct dating back to 1985. The accusations originated in a New Yorker investigation that came out on July 27.

On July 30, CBS held a board meeting to discuss what to do about the accusations. The result of the meeting: CBS hired two high-profile law firms to investigate the accusations and the CBS corporate culture at large—but kept Moonves in place as chairman and CEO during this time.

This took many media onlookers by surprise. Could CBS possibly have Moonves run the company’s quarterly earnings call as if everything was business as usual?

The answer was yes. On Aug. 2, CBS held its Q2 2018 earnings call, and opened the call by warning analysts that CBS would only take questions about the company’s financial performance. Analysts played ball; no one asked about the investigation. To listen to the call, it was as though there was no Moonves scandal.

Ohio State puts Meyer on paid leave during investigation

Ohio State did things differently.

On Aug. 1, former ESPN reporter Brett McMurphy, whom ESPN laid off in April of last year, posted a scoop to his Facebook page: leaked text messages from 2015 that suggest head football coach Urban Meyer was aware of domestic abuse by a former member of his coaching staff, Zach Smith. Meyer, just one week before, at Big Ten Media Day on July 24, had said that he did not know about Smith’s domestic abuse until just recently.

McMurphy posted his scoop in the morning on Aug. 1, and by that evening, Ohio State announced it put Meyer on paid administrative leave.

Two days later, on Aug. 3, the university announced the “independent working group” it has assembled to investigate what Meyer knew and when. The group includes a number of former Ohio government officials, and the investigative team is being led by Mary Jo White, the former chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, now with the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton.

White and her firm are also conducting one of the two CBS investigations. So the former SEC chair is the intersection point of the Les Moonves and Urban Meyer Venn diagram.

What that tells us is both CBS and Ohio State are serious about getting to the bottom of their very public problem—or at least want to look like they’re serious about it. Tapping a big-name former government official like White (who has also done investigations for the NFL into Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott and Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson) or Louis Freeh (New Orleans Saints “Bountygate,” FIFA, and Penn State University) or Robert Mueller (Russia investigation) is an effort to make a statement of seriousness.

On the other hand, some felt that Ohio State undermined the seriousness of its investigation by announcing that it expects to have the investigation wrapped up in 14 days. In other words: just in time for the college football season to begin, and potentially for Meyer to come back as head coach without missing a game.

Far-reaching impact

To be sure, the Moonves and Meyer situations are extremely different.

Moonves himself is accused of misconduct, while Meyer is accused of not reporting misconduct by someone who worked for him. But both scandals are playing out in the #MeToo era, in the shadow of Harvey Weinstein, and at a time when there is pressure on companies and institutions to react swiftly when an executive is exposed for misconduct.

To name just a few examples in a year that has been full of them: Netflix fired its head of PR in June for using the n-word; John Schnatter resigned as chairman of Papa John’s after he used the n-word on a business call; Disney cut ties with director James Gunn when years-old tweets emerged in which he made jokes about pedophilia.

Both scandals have far-reaching tentacles inside and outside the organizations involved.

The New Yorker story on Moonves also included accusations that “60 Minutes” executive producer Jeff Fager allowed and enabled a culture of sexual harassment by men at CBS. Fager has extended his current vacation until the investigation ends. In addition, CBS has the awkward wrinkle that CBS on-air anchor Julie Chen is Moonves’s wife. She has said she supports her husband, even as her employer continues to report on the issue on its news programs.

Meanwhile, the Urban Meyer situation has an impact beyond Ohio State’s football program. It touches ESPN, both because of the awkwardness of the scoop coming from a recently laid-off employee (who appeared on multiple ESPN shows in the wake of his scoop to discuss the story), and because Buckeye football fans are protesting Meyer’s leave and (bizarrely) blaming ESPN for the scandal, even though it was not first reported by ESPN. The Meyer investigation is also already having an impact at other big DI football programs, like at Boston College, where head coach Steve Addazio is having to answer questions about what he knew about Smith’s abuses when he hired Smith at Temple University in 2011.

In the weeks to come, based on the timelines both organizations have put forth, expect the Les Moonves and Urban Meyer investigations to continue to overlap in subtle ways. Perhaps the handling of one might even begin to inform the handling of the other.

Daniel Roberts covers sports business and media business at Yahoo Finance. He hosts the podcast and video series Sportsbook and the daily show Business + Coffee. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite

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