Mitchell Miller: what the NHL bullying uproar shows us about hockey culture

The NHL’s Arizona Coyotes cut finally ties with a top draft pick who bullied a black classmate with disabilities, but their handling of the situation embodies the worst of hockey culture When deciding how to begin this piece, I contemplated two options: * Mitchell Miller is a talented young hockey player who had the world at his skates … * Mitchell Miller brutally abused and psychologically scarred a black disabled classmate at his school …Each felt absolutely hollow. And yet both are true.Miller was the Arizona Coyotes’ top pick in the NHL entry draft held earlier this month. He was unceremoniously released on Thursday by the team a few weeks after being selected – and only days after the Coyotes defended their decision to draft him amid mounting controversy.What needed to happen initially – and never did – was for the league, the team, an executive, a coach or somebody to connect with and hold space for Isaiah Meyer-Crothers.Meyer-Crothers is the young man who at an Ohio junior high school in 2016 was given a lollipop that Miller and another boy, Hunter R McKee, rubbed in a urinal. The boy wanted to be friends with Miller and McKie, so he accepted the candy and had to be tested for hepatitis, HIV and STDs, according to a police report. The abuse didn’t end there. For years he was the target of their taunts, which included racial slurs. At the time of the abuse Meyer-Crothers had the mental ability of a 10-year-old.The Arizona Republic first reported the abuse and anger quickly reverberated across social media. Miller’s lack of a sincere apology, and the many levels of failures within hockey come to light, including the team that regarded themselves as the saviors in Mitchell’s redemption arc.But when the situation escalated quickly in the past week, they cut ties.A report by the Athletic details that the organization knew about Miller’s past, but they decided to draft him anyway. Bill Armstrong, the Coyotes’ new general manager, responded by stating that the scouts knew of Miller’s past but felt needed to help him by “providing him with a second chance to prove himself”. Armstrong did not fail to mention that Miller was 14 when the abuse occurred. He also reiterated that Miller had sent apology letters to all 31 NHL teams.What is more angering and heartbreaking is that while Miller was busy crafting written statements of admission masquerading as remorse, the young man who should be centered in all of this, Meyer-Crothers, was ignored and his trauma dismissed. The Coyotes’ releasing Miller does not change the fact that they erred every step of the way.It is unfathomable that all this contorting was being done in order to set the narrative of Miller’s redemption and dropped as quickly. As I pictured it: the Coyotes would embolden him to become a champion against bullying, and through a lucrative professional hockey contract, the University of North Dakota freshman would have risen from the ashes of a tarnished reputation and slightly inconvenienced past and become the true hero that hockey deserves.Now the Arizona Coyotes are posturing to act as if they care about a boy whose pain they never even bothered to acknowledge.> The Arizona Coyotes have renounced the rights to Mitchell Miller:https://t.co/ZZ3WPmDIaT> > — Arizona Coyotes (@ArizonaCoyotes) October 29, 2020Meanwhile, I think of the harrowing words of Joni Meyer-Crothers’, Isaiah’s mother.In a letter penned to the Coyotes after Miller was drafted, she confirmed that McKie had apologized in person, but the Coyotes’ new hope had not:> Something to think about. It’s not ok to hate and it’s not ok to ignore what this parent is saying. pic.twitter.com/SbqSpruw5K> > — Players Against Hate (@players_X_hate) October 27, 2020She reiterated that the magistrate in the case did not find Miller’s behavior remorseful. I think of if my son had been bullied and beaten this way, and then a sports team that promises to care for the marginalized treated my child’s abuse with the same disregard, I would be livid and I would be unforgiving. At the same time, I can’t help think about Miller. I was on a call today with a good friend, a former professional hockey player. We both wondered at the absence of Miller’s parents in all this. Who was guiding him? Would he be more resentful now that his dream was over? Would he still be motivated to change? He has an obligation to the boy he abused. How was he going to do the work?In the media, athletes are centered in the story and their past transgressions are often sportswashed over with promises of possibility, sports glory and the chance to enthrall on the pitch or the ice. This approach is spun by PR teams, hungry executive and then interwoven into reports by sports media. We see that redemption narratives for occurrences as horrific as rape as peddled through hockey media, and embraced because the accused has allegedly grown, matured or learned. The Stanley Cup has the power to morph them into god-like figures – even if the trails of victims are left behind in a reckless manner. This can not be interpreted as a story of overcoming challenges, or righting a wrong. It is a story of mismanagement, of disappointment.In the story that began with the abuse suffered by Meyer-Crothers, there is a dereliction of duty at the Arizona Coyotes, and at the accountability level for Miller. While no one expects an 18-year-old to be flawless, the physical abuse and emotional humiliation of a disabled person is pretty grotesque. Miller’s family, community and hockey coaches should have ensured that the young man, who was not always forthcoming about the incident, got support in order to show true remorse and grow. There have been situations where players have learned, and grown from their past behaviors, and even changed their harmful opinions. Miller might have been one of these. Now we may never know.> From the bottom of my heart… pic.twitter.com/dd9FhrOjB5> > — Kendall Coyne Schofield (@KendallCoyne) June 2, 2020It seems unfathomable that a journey of repair, and unlearning problematic racist, ableist behaviors, can begin without a direct acknowledgement of the person who was hurt. Now there is no chance of that. I am doubtful that Miller will be picked up by another team. The failures are immense and those in a position of power should be accountable.The Coyotes did not reply to Meyer-Crothers’ letter. They knew and failed to act in a manner befitting the situation. How can they be responsible for helping Miller become a champion against bullying when they don’t have the decency to reply to a woman explaining how their draft pick hurt her child – a young black child in the most vulnerable margins of society? Hockey culture is imperfectly trying to change and care about anti-blackness in society, while one of their teams mishandles this situation involving a young man. But instead of learning he is being conditioned to be more concerned with his hockey career instead of the person whose head he smashed against a brick wall.In a bizarre coincidence, the chief executive of the Coyotes, Xavier Guiterrez, became the NHL’s first Latinx CEO in June. He was quickly named to the NHL’s executive inclusion council, which is intended to foster conversations and provide guidance to the league. If Guiterrez was fine with the handling of Miller’s draft, then I have major concerns for the NHL that is already doing a subpar job at navigating issues of racial injustice and police brutality. Any hope for impactful and reasonable leadership comes under doubt.The Coyotes issued a team statement to the Arizona Republic that included a lengthy statement on how leading Miller to betterment is part of their hockey duties: “We felt it was our responsibility to be a part of the solution in a real way – not just saying and doing the right things ourselves but ensuring that others are too.”I was unclear how the Coyotes are ensuring that Miller acts accordingly and are contributing to a healthy hockey culture. And now, I remain unconvinced that their motives were anything else other than self-serving. Two young men have been failed by a system governed by something other than genuine care.The best way for this story to continue is for the Coyotes to realize that the focus needs to be on Meyer-Crothers for as long as he and his family require, and that before trying to prop Miller up, they should have steadied themselves first. And in a manner that is not performative.


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