Roundtable: Mitchell Miller and the Whiteness of Redemption

Roundtables are an occasional feature on Hockey in Society. Roundtables present brief commentaries from Hockey in Society contributors on pressing or timely issues within hockey and its culture, with the aim of presenting multiple critical viewpoints on the topic under discussion.

In the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, the Arizona Coyotes signed Mitchell Miller (University of North Dakota) in the fourth round. But, at this point, what everyone knows about Miller has nothing to with his on ice abilities and everything to do with his high school bullying/harassment of a Black student with a developmental disability. I won’t re-hash the incident here but you can read about the details in this news article. While this one particular incident might have been isolated, Miller’s racist harassment allegedly took place constantly for years and included repeated use of the N-word. In light of the NHL’s newly formed diversity committees and supposed distaste for racism, Miller seemed like an odd selection. Mitchell was passed over by a number of other NHL teams in the draft process until the Coyotes decided:

Our fundamental mission is to ensure a safe environment…to be free of bullying and racism. When we first learned of Mitchell’s story, it would have been easy for us to dismiss him — many teams did. Instead, 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.

The Coyotes figured they could “guide Mitchell into becoming a leader for this cause….We all need to be part of the solution.” But, after a lot of public outcry, on October 29th the Coyotes renounced their draft rights to Miller. Coyotes’ CEO, Xavier Guttierez, explained:

We have learned more about the entire matter, and more importantly, the impact it has had on Isaiah and the Meyer-Crothers family. What we learned does not align with the core values and vision for our organization and leads to our decision to renounce our draft rights.

On October 30th, the University of North Dakota also cut ties with Miller. Since it was a tumultuous week, we’re dusting off the ol’ roundtable to try and gain some perspective on these choices.

Brett

In the summer, I wrote about how the NHL likes to sell (white) goodness in response to critique. With Mitchell Miller, we saw an NHL team try, and fail, to launder racist acts with a redemptive arc of goodness. In the Coyotes’ original statement about guiding Mitchell into becoming a leader, they attempted to position themselves as the conduit through which Miller can find goodness. Yet the NHL can never really offer a redemptive arc because they have no time for the difficult middle part of transformation. They only want to erase the problem by offering a near-immediate redemption, where Miller is now a leader. The Montreal Canadiens tried a similar tactic when they named Andrew Shaw their “LGTBQ Ambassador,” less than a year after he was suspended one playoff game for yelling a homophobic slur. If redemption is this easy then redemption doesn’t really mean much. What trust can we have that the NHL’s only interest in any form of anti-racism is to rehabilitate the image of its own racists? Miller’s release three days later confirms we cannot.  The fans who never let up on their pressure to ensure that Miller faces consequences demonstrated they’ve seen this feint too many times before. The Coyote’s commitment 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,” lasted only as long as they thought it would end the story. This quick reversal illustrates that it was not even a sincerely held, yet misguided, belief.  

Courtney

Redemption narratives are…interesting. Our social/cultural fascination with redemption is, in many ways, propped up by the whiteness of both the film and sports industries. As Smith Jr. (2009) writes, redemption for lead characters often “comes in the form of his psychological and moral repair and continued professional success” (Smith Jr., 2009, p.224). The idea that individuals can (and should) be rewarded for overcoming their own misgivings is actually built into the notion of celebrity: “Redemption, then, is a right of passage for celebrities seeking to reinvent themselves, and their careers, in the wake of public disfavor” (Smith Jr, 2009, p.223). Hollywood films often write Black characters who are meant to “save and transform disheveled, uncultured, lost or broken whites (almost exclusively white men) into competent, successful, and content people within the context of the American myth of redemption and salvation” (Hughey, 2009, p.548). The Coyotes tried to use Meyers-Crothers to fill that character role.

Bringing this back to sports, David J. Leonard (2017) has written extensively about how redemption narratives are articulations of white privilege:

When not ignoring or excusing the bad behavior of white athletes, media discourses often transform these bad choices into moments for celebration, evidence of growth and maturation…Privilege and power allow white athletes, those who stumble because of transgressions, to move forward without interruption, stopping only to celebrate and bask in the praise about their steps taken toward redemption. Redemption remains one of the most valuable ‘wages of whiteness.’ (p.134)

In drafting a *possible* redemption story, the Coyotes made a choice. They could have chosen a player who has neither bullied a developmentally disabled child nor regularly used the N-word, proving that good character does matter to the NHL. Instead they chose to reward appalling behaviour with the promise of better behaviour. Some critics continue to argue that something done at the age of 14 shouldn’t affect one’s future but he’s not being barred from other forms of employment; he is, however, being barred from the privilege of being held up as a role model to youth and celebrated as some sort of hero without first proving himself worthy.

Would these repercussions have come to Miller before the summer of George Floyd? I’m not entirely sure. It seems like general consensus is if we can’t find accountability in the police and judicial system, then we will try our darnedest to find accountability elsewhere.

Martine

Let’s put this incident in a legal context with respect to Canadian law. Miller was charged with a misdemeanor (assault charge) in Ohio at 14 years old. Misdemeanors are minor offences. The general rule is that crimes with a maximum sentence of one year imprisonment or less are misdemeanors. In Canada, crimes are prosecuted as indictable, summary, or hybrid offences. The closest equivalent to a misdemeanor crime is a summary conviction. A summary conviction in Canada generally includes offences that carry a maximum penalty of less than two years’ imprisonment. 

Canada also has the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA), which applies to youth persons between 12 and 17 years old. The law in Canada recognizes that youths are not as mature as adults, and it says that it is important to keep children out of jail. The sentence most often imposed on youths is community service, unless the crime was especially violent. The YCJA (para 3(b)) states that the criminal justice system for young people must emphasize rehabilitation and integration and fair and proportionate accountability. In paragraph 3(c), the YCJA further emphasizes that measures taken against young persons who commit offences should reinforce respect for societal values; and encourage the repair of harm done to victims and the community. Ultimately, the law seeks to rehabilitate young offenders and help them become productive members of society. 

Having been convicted on a charge of assault for bullying his classmate, Isaiah Meyer-Crothers, Miller was punished with 25 hours of community service, ordered to write an apology to the victim, participate in counselling, and pay court costs. 

This raises the question: Has Miller been rehabilitated?

Given the emphasis of the YCJA around rehabilitation and helping young offenders become productive members of society, what has 18-year old Miller done to work towards to becoming a productive member of society? 

  • He has yet to apologize to his victim (at the exception of the court ordered apology letter), yet he sent letters to all 31 NHL teams ahead of the draft 
  • According to the victim’s mother, the bullying and taunting continued for two years after the conviction 
  • Miller does not seem to understand the mental damage he did to Meyer-Crothers due to the bullying and racism  
  • The sentencing judge acknowledged that he did not have a sense of real remorse, other than Miller feeling sorry for himself  

It’s clear that the justice system failed at rehabilitating Miller, and more importantly, did not repair the harm done to Meyer-Crothers. It seems quite evident that any remorse Miller might have is based in the fact that he knows his actions have jeopardized his potential for a career in the NHL.

We can criticize the reasons why the Coyotes released Miller – they knew his history and still drafted him. And by all accounts, Miller had not learned his lesson nor understood the harm he caused to Meyer-Crothers. Miller’s release from the Coyotes, at the very least, serves as a lesson that there are consequences to one’s actions, particularly when the criminal justice system fails to meet its objectives of rehabilitation and reparation for the victim. Perhaps the Coyotes can further this lesson by focusing on Meyer-Crothers and his family’s needs, while ultimately addressing the racism and ableism that are embedded in hockey culture. 

Alvin

I deal with many young people on a daily basis, and the vast majority of them do not behave like Mitchell Miller. However, it’s easy to pat ourselves on the back and claim that we’re not overtly racist bullies. It’s much more difficult to imagine ourselves as Isaiah Meyer-Crothers. It must already be challenging to meet the educational outcomes of each school course, let alone doing so in a hostile environment. 

I believe that people deserve second chances in life, but such an opinion does not mean that the past should be completely forgotten and whitewashed over time, particularly if no direct apology or concrete commitment to change is made. It has been a while since I last wrote on Hockey in Society, but right before my last post was published, editor Courtney Szto recommended that I remove a favourable reference to Doug Gilmour due to his past sexual assault allegations in the 1980s – about which I had heard absolutely nothing in my 21 years of watching hockey. 

Miller might be a skilled player who could very well use his career to better society, as unlikely as it sounds. However, it’s clear that further actions are reactive and not proactive. Public pressure forced the Arizona Coyotes to renounce their draft pick, but time will tell if this is a public relations stunt or if this is a genuine action moving forward. But with this issue in the news, it’s important to honestly reflect on bullying, racism, and hockey culture. Management and players need to continually be asked these difficult questions and improve based on constructive criticism.

Jamie

In Meyer-Crothers’ own words what happened to him “hurt my heart,” and nothing I have to say feels important or timely because the same conversations (and the same inadequate responses to the same structural problems) have been going on for decades. This is yet another example of horrible and racist actions in and around hockey being treated like an isolated incident/issue rather than a systemic problem. The abuse Meyer-Crothers suffered, and I am sure still suffers, is heartbreaking, but the abuse he faced has a history—a history that makes such abuse possible and a history that makes it certain to happen again: the lack of individual and organization accountability that continually says this kind of thing is tolerated as long as you are a talented athlete (who is white) that can make the league money. Even despite the Coyotes’ decision to revoke the draft rights of Miller, it does not undo their decision to begin with—perhaps all it shows it that hockey is still behind the times since it took public outcry for the Coyotes’ to do anything. 

Hemal Jhaveri has written the best piece I have seen so far in response to the Coyotes’ draft (please read it). In response to a lot of comments I have read (particularly on Instagram) I ask: How far does an ethics of care extend, especially in hockey culture? What I mean by this is who is allowed to make mistakes? Who is allowed to redeem themselves? Who is allowed to imagine a future for themselves, especially after they do something that jeopardizes their future? Whiteness is both the answer and the alibi; and, in hockey whiteness is a presumption of innocence since as Akim Aliu points out, “A Black, or player of color would NEVER get a pass or be forgiven for something like this. EVER!” I have seen some people say that the Coyotes’ draft pick deserves a second chance and some say he doesn’t, but what I haven’t really heard (and what is still relevant since the Coyotes’ left go of his draft rights) is why was he allowed to rise to such a position as a NHL prospect to begin with? This player’s possible future hockey career should have been over four years ago—what I mean by this is that their shouldn’t even be a conversation today about if he deserves a second chance. To my knowledge this player never faced any consequences in hockey for his actions and if he did he likely wouldn’t have developed into a NHL draft prospect. Every day for four years decisions were made by people in the hockey community to disregard his past of racist abuse, and it is only because of those decisions that over four years he was able to develop into an NHL prospect without seemingly any repercussions to his hockey career. Despite the Coyotes’ decision to revoke his draft rights, this does not undo the harm they have done, and so the slogan/saying “Hockey is for everyone” remains a utopian projection of some forever belated future. Miller’s actions, the Coyote’s decision to draft him, and the several local (i.e. Tri-City Storm), state (i.e. University of North Dakota), and national organizations (i.e. USA Hockey) that overlooked (and/or accepted) his actions continually tell us that hockey is not for everyone and will not be for the foreseeable future. In the end, I hope Meyer-Crothers’ is okay as well as all the fans (particularly the Black, disabled, and the disabled Black fans) who have been victimized or hurt by this story—and who the Coyotes’ decision does little to rectify.

Works Cited

Hughey, M.W. (2009). Cinethetic Racism: White redemption and Black stereotypes in “Magical Negro” films. Social Problems, 56(3), 543-577.

Leonard, D.J. (2017). Playing while white: Privilege and power on and off the field. Seattle & London: University of Washington Press.

Smith Jr., G.D. (2009). Love as redemption: The American Dream myth and the celebrity biopic. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 33(3), 222-238.

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