Race and Disability: NHL Team Cuts Ties With Draft Pick Over Bullying Of Classmate With Disabilities

By Mark Monroe, The Blade/TNS | November 3, 2020 -- TOLEDO, Ohio — The Arizona Coyotes announced late last week that the NHL franchise has renounced the rights to Sylvania native Mitchell Miller after a bullying incident in junior high school came to light.

He and the Coyotes organization have come under intense scrutiny after a report surfaced that Miller had bullied a Black classmate with developmental disabilities in 2016.

Miller was selected by the Coyotes in the fourth round of the 2020 NHL draft on Oct. 7. The 18-year-old defenseman, who is a freshman at the University of North Dakota, was selected with the 111th overall pick of the 2020 draft.

The incident in February of 2016 led to juvenile court charges being filed against Miller and a classmate.Last Monday, The Arizona Republic newspaper posted an interview with Isaiah Meyer-Crothers, who attended McCord Junior High School with Miller. Isaiah Meyer-Crothers told the newspaper he was upset when he learned the Coyotes selected Miller earlier this month.

After the interview was published, the Arizona Coyotes said they planned to work with Miller to educate him about diversity and inclusion.

However, later in the week, the team released a statement that it had decided to renounce the rights to Miller effective immediately.

Arizona Coyotes president and CEO Xavier Gutierrez said before selecting him in the draft, the organization was aware that a bullying incident had taken place in 2016.

“We do not condone this type of behavior, but embraced this as a teachable moment to work with Mitchell to make him accountable for his actions and provide him with an opportunity to be a leader on anti-bullying and anti-racism efforts,” Gutierrez said in a statement. “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. I would like to apologize to Isaiah and the Meyer-Crothers family. Mr. Miller is now a free agent and can pursue his dream of becoming an NHL player elsewhere.”

John Miller, Mitchell’s father, said the family was caught off guard by the NHL franchise’s decision.

“Our family is in shock,” he said. “Our first priority is our son’s well-being.”

Joni Meyer-Crothers, Isaiah’s mother, said that her family was not celebrating the decision.

“The whole thing is a sad, sad story all the way around. We are not smiling. We are not jumping and cheering at all. The whole thing is a sad, sad situation. It’s a sad day,” Joni Meyer-Crothers said. “It’s so fresh. We haven’t even processed it all yet. We are all in shock.”

Miller and another youth were accused of making Isaiah Meyer-Crothers, then 14, eat a lollipop after wiping it in a bathroom urinal. Surveillance video also showed the boys punching and kicking Isaiah, who has developmental disabilities. Isaiah Meyer-Crothers told the Arizona Republic that Miller also called him racially derogatory names.

Miller was charged with assault and violating the Ohio Safe Schools Act. He admitted to the misdemeanor offense, was sentenced to 25 hours of community service, and had to write an apology to Isaiah Meyer-Crothers. However, the Meyer-Crothers family said Miller never apologized personally.

Joni Meyer-Crothers said the family was not out to ruin Miller’s life, but only wanted a direct apology.

“I was not out to get Mitchell. I was not there to destroy Mitchell,” she said. “I never contacted anyone about this. The newspaper sent me the Coyotes statement and that is when I sent a letter to the Coyotes saying to them that I don’t feel he has remorse. That was up for them to decide. If he was truly remorseful he would have sent a letter to Isaiah.”

Joni Meyer-Crothers said she talked to her son shortly after the Coyotes’ announcement.

“The only thing he said was the same thing, that this is all just very sad,” Joni Meyer-Crothers said. “Everyone’s life has changed because of what was done four years ago and now today. He said it’s just been very sad. We’re not rejoicing at all.”

Last Monday, before deciding to cut ties with Miller, the Coyotes organization said the club was aware that Miller previously had admitted to bullying Isaiah Meyer-Crothers.

“Our scouts were made aware of his history and the bullying incident that occurred in 2016 when he was 14 years old,” Coyotes’ General Manager Bill Armstrong said. “Mitchell sent a letter to every NHL team acknowledging what happened and apologizing for his behavior. Mitchell made a huge mistake, but we are providing him with a second chance to prove himself. We hope that he uses his platform moving forward to raise awareness about bullying and to discourage this type of behavior.”

Miller also issued a statement through the Coyotes last Monday.

“I am extremely sorry about the bullying incident that occurred in 2016 while I was in eighth grade. I was young, immature, and feel terrible about my actions. At the time, I did not understand the gravity of my actions and how they can affect other people. I have issued an apology to the family for my behavior, completed cultural diversity and sensitivity training, and volunteered within my community with organizations such as Little Miracles,” he said.

“Over the past four years, I have had a lot of time to reflect and grow and I am very grateful to the Arizona Coyotes for taking a chance on me. I promise not to let them down. Moving forward, I want to be a leader for this cause and help end bullying and racism,” he said.

Miller, a 5-foot, 11-inch and 194-pound defenseman, played two seasons in the United States Hockey League. According to mock drafts and rankings, he was ranked No. 49 among North American skaters.

Miller has been selected to play for Team USA Hockey in several international competitions. He also earned a scholarship to play at North Dakota, a Division I college powerhouse.

The school did not respond to an email from The Blade requesting comment on the Coyotes’ decision. However, North Dakota coach Brad Berry gave this statement to the Grand Forks Herald early last week: “We were aware of an unfortunate incident that occurred with Mitchell in eighth grade. We made a decision that our program could provide him the necessary infrastructure and culture to hone not only his hockey abilities but most importantly, assist him in his continuing growth as a human being which will last him the remainder of his life.”

Miller became a pariah on social media after the newspaper report. Many commentators condemned Miller for what they deemed as a racially motivated attack on a young person with developmental disabilities. Others claimed that he was a youth at the time and deserved a second chance.

Joni Meyer-Crothers repeated that the Arizona Republic reached out to her.

“I did not reach out to anybody. That is not my place,” she said. “They reached out to me and asked if Mitchell had ever apologized to our face or our family. So I said no. If I’m asked a question, I’m not going to lie. He never apologized to Isaiah or my family.”

Joni Meyer-Crothers said the family has faced some backlash.

“I’m getting so many messages saying I have ruined Mitchell’s life. I did not do it. I did not ruin anyone’s life. I’m sad. I truly am,” she said. “I’m not smiling and dancing around. I have a very heavy heart. This is just very, very sad for everybody.”

Joni Meyer-Crothers said she thought the newspaper story was going to be about how the NHL team’s CEO was inclusive and was implementing diversity training.

“But then this happened. It’s a very unfortunate situation,” she said. “It’s sad for everybody. The whole thing is that this could have been a life lesson for everybody. What happened, he did it. The other kid that did it was very remorseful and that’s what it comes down to. We have to learn consequences.”

Joni Meyer-Crothers said she did not see the release coming.

“This is not what I expected at all. Honestly, what I expected was more that they would have gotten him into some kind of training, like intense training on racism and bullying, showing him the impact that it has on the people that you do it to,” she said. “Never in a million years did I expect this. I was floored. My phone went nuts. I had no idea. I was blown away.”

Miller said he filled out surveys from nearly every NHL team before the draft.

“He sent 31 letters out to NHL teams, but wouldn’t you first be remorseful to the victim?” Joni Meyer-Crothers asked. “I don’t know his heart. Only God knows his heart. All I know is that he shows remorse someday. From what I’ve seen, I have not seen remorse.”

Yet she said she isn’t sure that the Coyotes’ move was the right one to make.

“When they reached out to me, I never told them they should revoke his draft pick. My message was more about understanding the victim. That there was somebody else, too,” she said. “Maybe they could have helped both sides. I never thought they’d release him. I was blindsided as well. Do I think Mitchell will ever be remorseful? I do. Do I think he is right now? I have not seen that. I’m still trying to process it all.”

Yet Joni Meyer-Crothers said she hopes some positives can come out of the situation.

“You just hope that everybody grows from this,” she said. “This tells us we have a problem in our community and other communities that need to be addressed. There is a real problem. We need to address these things head-on. We need to figure out a way to work together. The biggest thing is for the healing to begin.”

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