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The Bruins’ decision to sign Mitchell Miller is another ugly, mask-off moment for hockey

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When Bruins general manager Don Sweeney opened his mouth on Friday, unleashing a cascade of impotent, nasty, baffling words that had congealed into the shape of an excuse, it got a little easier to forget the statement his team had released a bit earlier in the day.

They’d signed Mitchell Miller, a 20-year-old USHL star defenseman who was available only because, as a teenager, he’d racially abused and bullied a Black classmate with developmental disabilities. It’s a matter of public record, what Miller did to Isaiah Meyer-Crothers, and it didn’t stop the Arizona Coyotes from drafting him in 2020. The public backlash is what stopped them (and the University of North Dakota) from keeping him around; the public backlash is the only reason he was available.

The statute of limitations on that, for the Bruins and the NHL at large? Two years, a bit of time served in Tri-Cities, a whole bunch of points and a tossed-off Instagram apology. That should do it.

In 2016, Miller, in juvenile court, admitted to dipping a candy push pop in a urinal and tricking Meyer-Crothers into licking it. For years, he’d called Meyer-Crothers the N-word and bullied him physically, according to Meyer-Crothers and other students at their suburban Toledo, Ohio, school. The school suspended Miller and the other responsible classmate, according to court documents, but Miller’s punishment was greater because he lied repeatedly to school administrators, who confirmed the reports of other students by using the school’s security cameras. Meyer-Crothers’ mother Joni told The Athletic that the abuse by Miller started in second grade and involved repeated racial slurs, such as calling her son a “n—–” and telling him to “go pick cotton.”

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The Bruins, just like the Coyotes before them, want you to believe that Miller’s actions were youthful indiscretions. Horrific, yes, but a one-off, and something Miller has grown from and moved beyond. They want you to look at Miller and see yourself, maybe, or your son. It’s an appeal to empathy — for Miller, not the person who actually deserves it. They don’t want you to look at Meyer-Crothers and see yourself, maybe, or your son. They’re betting that you can’t, especially if you’re a White man who does not live with a disability.

Do not buy it. Do not reflect on the mistakes you made as a kid, or the forgiveness or apathy you were graced with and think it applies here. It does not. And that doesn’t stop Boston — president Cam Neely, Sweeney and now Miller — from trying to pull the okey-doke. We’ll get into Sweeney’s joke of a press conference in a bit, but we should start with the canned P.R. statement. It came first, and it’s instructional. These are the words they had time to contemplate, choose and craft.

• Miller: “When I was in eighth grade, I made an extremely poor decision and acted very immaturely.”
• Neely: “… a significant mistake (Miller) made when he was in middle school.”

“An extremely poor decision” for a 14-year-old is smoking weed before the PSATs. It’s not a years-long campaign of physical, racial and ableist abuse that crescendos with a victim having to take an STD test, as Meyer-Crothers did. A mistake in middle school stays in middle school; it’s not compounded by years of denial, lies and an apparent lack of remorse that isn’t ordered by the court.

Miller didn’t personally apologize to Meyer-Crothers in 2016. He didn’t in 2020. He hadn’t last summer. And he hadn’t until, it seems, his conversations with the Bruins had started. Joni Meyer-Crothers told Guy Flaming of The Pipeline Show that Miller reached out to her son on Instagram recently to apologize while telling him that it “had nothing to do with hockey.” If there’s a road back for someone like Miller — from someone who’s done what he did — it doesn’t pass through this particular town. Restorative justice doesn’t end in the DMs, especially for someone seeking the privilege of playing pro sports.

That brings us to Sweeney, who followed up Boston’s P.R. release with a media conference call that was, at its best, disorienting. He didn’t speak to Meyer-Crothers, he said, and neither had anyone with the organization. They were involved with Miller reaching out, Sweeney said, and that doing so was “imperative.” The abuser reaching out because his prospective employer forced him, it seems, was good enough. How Meyer-Crothers felt about Miller’s DM — whether he actually believed it to be an apology, or how he felt that it did, in fact, have something “to do with hockey” — doesn’t seem to have been quite as important. If it had been, the Bruins would’ve called the family themselves.

Sweeney said, more than once, that the move may not be worth it. He said that the Bruins took Miller off their draft board in 2020. He said some of the leaders on his roster asked why Miller was signed at all. He said that he wasn’t sure he’d be able to forgive Miller, had Meyers-Crother been his son. He said a lot of stuff, really, and most of it was bad. When in doubt, he seemed to reference the fact that, gee whiz, Miller was a 14-year-old that did something terrible, rather than a 20-year-old who’d only made half-hearted attempts at contrition while he grasped at the brass ring.

He also said, in effect, that if other teams were willing to sign Miller, the Bruins should’ve been, too. Other organizations were willing to show their moral bankruptcy. Why not us? He almost had 40 goals as a defenseman. What are we supposed to do, not sign the USHL player of the year? 

Simple math, that. It isn’t the justification that Sweeney seems to think it is — but it is a helpful, sad reminder of the business we’re dealing with; pro sports is an immoral enterprise, and hockey does a worse job of hiding that than its peers. Friday was the latest in an endless series of mask-off moments that show how the folks in charge move when they think nobody is looking. The one thing you can’t say is that you haven’t been told.

(Photo of Mitchell Miller: Codie McLachlan / The Canadian Press via AP)

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