As just about anyone in the sports world knows by now, Ohio State head football coach Urban Meyer has been placed on paid administrative leave following a bombshell of a report from Brett McMurphy suggesting that Meyer knew about the domestic violence allegations against former Ohio State assistant Zach Smith in 2015. Meyer had previously denied being aware of the incidents that took place in 2015, though admitted he was aware of a previous incident in 2009 and tried to provide help and guidance.
The allegations surrounding the domestic abuse that Courtney Smith suffered is obviously the most important aspect of the story, but from a sports media perspective, the fact that McMurphy was able to break this story almost entirely on his Facebook page has turned the industry on its head. A casualty of the ESPN layoffs almost 18 months ago, McMurphy has been biding his time until his contract runs out by continuing to report on college football via his social media accounts. While he’s broken some big stories along the way, nothing compares to the reporting and effect involved in the Zach Smith story. The story was so important that McMurphy appeared on ESPN’s SportsCenter to discuss it despite the fact that he technically doesn’t work there anymore. The network also took a lot of flak for not jumping on the story, waiting four full hours to post their own version of McMurphy’s report on the 2015 incident.
McMurphy appeared on Richard Deitsch’s Sports Media podcast Thursday to discuss the report and what it all means that he was able to get traction based on something he wrote on his Facebook page.
— Richard Deitsch (@richarddeitsch) August 2, 2018
McMurphy laid the groundwork for those who might not be familiar with him and why he’s currently posting his reporting on a social media site and not, say, another sports site like CBSSports.com or Bleacher Report.
“I was part of the mass layoffs at ESPN last April and I had 18 months left on my contract. So we had non-compete clauses in our contracts. What that means in simple terms is if I wanted to go work for another company I was free to but by doing so ESPN was no longer required to pay me the remainder of my contract. So to get paid the remainder of my contract…I could not work for a third-party. However, I was able to tweet on my personal Twitter account. Also put information on my personal Facebook account because that was not a third party.”
“So when I got laid off, I had a decision to make. You know, I could sit on my couch and eat lime Tostitos for the next 18 months, which I did a lot of anyway, and not work and hope I get a job in 18 months or I can continue to try to report news, break news, via Twitter or Facebook, and try to stay relevant. So when my contract is up in August of 2018, then hopefully I’ll be more attractive to be hired somewhere else. So basically that’s what I did. I said I’m gonna bust my ass and I’m gonna try to keep working.”
“I just figured the way the industry was, if I didn’t stay relevant or try to stay relevant, any value I had to a future employer 18 months ago would diminish greatly if I wasn’t doing anything for the following 18 months. So I kinda worked while I wasn’t working, if you will, and tried to stay relevant, and here we are.”
Aside from being a well-connected and strong reporter, it also didn’t hurt that McMurphy still had the ESPN connection, whether real or perceived.
“I was fortunate enough to break a bunch of stories, most notably Joe Morehead going to Mississippi State, Scott Frost going to Nebraska, which Steve Levy mistakenly credited to “our own Brett McMurphy, for which I probably owe Levy a beer because of all the attention it brought to that.”
Since he is still technically under contact with ESPN, Deitsch asked if Brett considered reaching out to them to see if he might be able to post the story there or with another outlet, like say the Wall Street Journal. McMurphy says that wasn’t even a consideration.
“That didn’t cross my mind because by doing that I’d be telling them what story I had and then that would be a mistake cause then they would pursue it. And secondly, that’s not something that they would get a quick answer out of. I’d have to go through their legal department…Honestly I didn’t really think about it.”
“I didn’t have any thoughts of trying to sell this story to anybody. Certainly, I wasn’t paid. I didn’t pay Courtney Smith to talk to me or anything like that. I just said I’m gonna report this story and see what I can find out. I never would have envisioned it would have reached this point. Ultimately it started out that I heard there were some domestic violence issues with Zach Smith in his times at Florida. I did a couple simple public record requests. Got the information and then it’s been a marble down a mountain since then.”
Instead, McMurphy focused on more important issues, like, if he was going to run out of space on Facebook when he wrote his piece?
“My biggest issue when I started reporting this…well, I never knew it would lead to this, but as I started writing it and I kept going…I actually got the point where I told my wife, I need to Google and find out if Facebook has a limit on how many characters or words you can put on a post. Cause my nightmare was, when I’m ready to go with this story, and I cut and paste it and put in on Facebook, I’d get an error message that your post is too large and then I’d be like ‘what in the world am I going to do now?’ Fortunately I found out that they increased the limit of characters for Facebook posts.”
McMurphy noted that he’s had “100 media requests” since the story broke, noting that he didn’t do the story for that kind of attention, but it’s a testament to the current media landscape that someone can do good reporting independently, post the story to a social media outlet, and still get it out to the masses.
“When I first got to ESPN five years ago I thought, man, I’m at ESPN, this is awesome, it’s unbelievable. Obviously it raised my profile nationally and all that stuff. But what I found out in the last 18 months is you can stay relevant on Facebook or Twitter if you’ve got good information…people are gonna find you. In a weird way, we don’t really need these giant media corporations because we can get our message out. I think you’re seeing this with a lot of athletes that, basically when they have any type of news, they just post it on their Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, instead of going the traditional route of calling up a writer and having them break the story.”
From a career standpoint, the timing of all this ends up being solid for McMurphy. His ESPN deal officially runs out at Midnight on August 12. On August 13, he officially starts work for online sports network Stadium, with whom he signed a multi-year deal back in April. He will assume the role of college football insider doing written and on-air reports for the fledgling network. McMurphy also noted that while the details are still being worked out, there is the possibility he will be doing sideline reporting or commentary in the booth for college football broadcasts. Stadium will broadcast 15 college football games on Facebook this season.
Brett noted that while most of his writing will appear on Stadium’s site, he will have the opportunity to continue posting reports on his Facebook page if “Stadium doesn’t have a place for it.”