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Sports Coyotes' top draft pick, Mitchell Miller, was convicted of bullying Black, mentally disabled teen four years ago

18:43  26 october  2020
18:43  26 october  2020 Source:   usatoday.com

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The Arizona Coyotes last month boasted about having their chief executive selected to an elite National Hockey League committee that pledged to stop racism, but the team then spent its first draft pick on an 18-year-old who has admitted to bullying an African American classmate with developmental disabilities.

a person sitting at a table in front of a store: Mitchell Miller, a freshman at North Dakota, awaits word that the Arizona Coyotes selected him in the 2020 NHL Draft. © Russ Hons, UND Athletics Mitchell Miller, a freshman at North Dakota, awaits word that the Arizona Coyotes selected him in the 2020 NHL Draft.

Isaiah Meyer-Crothers, the Black student, told The Arizona Republic that he was stunned and saddened when he learned the Coyotes earlier this month had selected Mitchell Miller, whom he grew up with in Sylvania, Ohio.

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Four years ago, Miller admitted in an Ohio juvenile court to bullying Meyer-Crothers, who was tricked into licking a candy push pop that Miller and another boy had wiped in a bathroom urinal. Meyer-Crothers had to be tested for hepatitis, HIV and STDs, but the tests came back negative, according to a police report.

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Meyer-Crothers, also 18 and who now lives in Detroit, said Miller had taunted him for years, constantly calling him "brownie" and the "N-word," while repeatedly hitting him while growing up in the Toledo suburb. Other students at their junior high confirmed to police that Miller repeatedly used the "N-word" in referring to Meyer-Crothers.

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"He pretended to be my friend and made me do things I didn't want to do," Meyer-Crothers said in a phone interview. "In junior high, I got beat up by him. … Everyone thinks he's so cool that he gets to go to the NHL, but I don't see how someone can be cool when you pick on someone and bully someone your entire life."

Miller was the Coyotes' first pick, in the fourth round, on Oct 7. The team didn't have its top three picks because they were either traded away or revoked by the NHL for violating the league's combine testing policy.

Attempts to contact Miller through the Coyotes, his family and attorney were unsuccessful. He issued a statement late Friday through the team expressing contrition.

The Coyotes chose Miller one month after Coyotes President and CEO Xavier Gutierrez was named to the NHL's Executive Inclusion Council, a group the league said will focus on combating racism and fostering diversity in the sport.

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In announcing his appointment, the Coyotes issued a press release that said Gutierrez wants diversity and inclusion to extend beyond the Coyotes front offices and hockey operations.

The team has boasted that Gutierrez is the first Latino president and CEO in the NHL, while owner Alex Meruelo in 2019 became the league's first Hispanic owner. The Coyotes have made clear their plans to increase their potential ticket-buying audience with expanded outreach in communities of color under the new leadership.

The Coyotes did not agree to make any of their senior management available for interviews about why they decided to draft Miller, but issued a statement from Gutierrez explaining why the organization felt the choice was justified.

“Our fundamental mission is to ensure a safe environment — whether in schools, in our community, in hockey rinks, or in the workplace — 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 statement said.

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“Given our priorities on diversity and inclusion, we believe that we are in the best position to guide Mitchell into becoming a leader for this cause and preventing bullying and racism now and in the future. As an organization, we have made our expectations very clear to him. We are willing to work with Mitchell and put in the time, effort, and energy and provide him with the necessary resources and platform to confront bullying and racism. This isn’t a story about excuses or justifications.  It’s a story about reflection, growth, and community impact. A true leader finds ways for every person to contribute to the solution.  We all need to be a part of the solution.”

Joni Meyer-Crothers et al. posing for the camera: Isaiah Meyer-Crothers, middle, stands with his parents, Joni and Jamie, at graduation. Photo by Meyer-Crothers family © Meyer-Crothers family Isaiah Meyer-Crothers, middle, stands with his parents, Joni and Jamie, at graduation. Photo by Meyer-Crothers family

'Hurt my heart'

Meyer-Crothers, who is developmentally four years behind his peers, is like most teenagers. He's well-versed in social media, but he said he was sick to his stomach when he saw on his phone that Miller had been drafted.

He texted his parents, writing: "Did you see this?"

"It hurt my heart to be honest," Meyer-Crothers said. "It's stupid that they (Coyotes) didn't go back and look what happened in the past, but I can't do anything about it."

Most professional sports teams do extensive research on the background and character of draft picks, especially high picks that command larger financial commitments.

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Coyotes General Manager Bill Armstrong was not involved in drafting Miller — that was part of the arrangement with his previous team, the St. Louis Blues, that enabled him to accept the Coyotes' job before the NHL Draft. Armstrong said in a statement that Arizona scouts were aware of the bullying incident.

“The Arizona Coyotes do not condone any type of bullying behavior. I was unable to participate in this year’s draft but prior to drafting Mitchell Miller, our scouts were made aware of his history and the bullying incident that occurred in 2016 when he was 14 years old," 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.”

Joni Meyer-Crothers, Isaiah's mother, said the Coyotes never contacted their family.

"What they (Coyotes) are saying is what Mitchell did to him didn't matter," she said. "They owe our son an apology. They are not part of the solution. They are part of the problem and they are adding fuel to Black Lives Matter."

Joni Meyer-Crothers said she wonders how Gutierrez and Meruelo would feel if Miller had taunted one of their children and used a disparaging word for Hispanics.

"Put yourself in our position. Would you be okay with it?" she said. "It's a joke that a sports team, especially with all the stuff going on with Black Lives Matter, would do this."

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The Coyotes chose Miller during a time that systemic racism has spurred national civil unrest, including protests across America following the death of George Floyd in May after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck.

Sports leagues have responded by taking political stands, and the NBA fully embraced the Black Lives Matter movement with players putting social justice messages on their jerseys during its abbreviated season restart.

The NHL responded by creating a 15-member Executive Inclusion Council that includes Gutierrez. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Buffalo Sabres' Owner Kim Pegula co-chair the 15-member group, whose focus is to candidly assess the current state of the league, identifying opportunities for positive change and developing tangible action and benchmarks to advance its goals, according to the NHL.

Never personally apologized

Miller and another teenager were charged with assault and violating the Ohio Safe Schools Act in February 2016, when they were accused of making Meyer-Crothers eat candy that had been placed in a urinal. Other accounts in a police report indicate the boys urinated on the candy before giving it to Meyer-Crothers.

Miller and the other teen then punched and pushed Meyer-Crothers, according to the police report obtained by The Republic. The report also says Miller lied to school officials about his involvement.

At the time, Meyer-Crothers had the mental ability of a 10-year-old, according to his mom.

Miller and the other boy admitted to the misdemeanors and were sentenced to 25 hours of community service and were ordered to write an apology through the court system to Meyer-Crothers, participate in counseling and pay court costs.

Joni Meyer-Crothers said the other boy broke down in tears while personally apologizing to her son, yet Miller has never personally apologized, she said, other than the court-mandated letter.

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The Coyotes sent The Republic a copy of the letter that Miller claimed to have given to the victim and his family. The family said on Friday they never received the letter.

Joni Meyer-Crothers said one of the key reasons Miller and the other boy admitted to the crime and avoided a trial was because it was caught on a surveillance camera, and it would have been shown in court.

"It was absolutely brutal," she said. "Had he not pled guilty, the video would have been released. It would have been so much worse on Mitchell because of the brutality to our son … He's smashing Isaiah's head against a brick wall."

The family declined to release the video to the Republic because Isaiah said it would be too embarrassing for him.

"It was totally traumatizing for my kid, and he (Miller) has never show remorse. But, I guess it's okay to take him on your team. I struggle with that."

Not every NHL team was keen to drafting Miller, even though he sent letters to every club admitting his transgressions.

On Friday, the Coyotes sent a statement from Miller, who is now at the University of North Dakota:

“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. 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.”

A spokesman for the University of North Dakota said the school was aware of Miller's past and was aware he had communicated the incident to all NHL teams prior to the draft. The spokesman said the incident happened four years ago.

'We feel we can trust this player'

Miller's stock fell in the draft in no small part because of his run-in with the legal system. Chris Peters, an NHL draft and prospects analyst for ESPN, had Miller ranked No. 72 on his pre-draft top 100 player rankings, a third-round projection, and Miller fell to the Coyotes in the fourth round at No. 111.

"Obviously it's not a story that you want attached to a guy that you're picking, and I think there were some teams that were just content not to take that on," Peters said. "At the same time, there were others that were generally unconcerned. Not to say they didn't care, but it wasn't going to be a factor in whether they drafted him."

The Coyotes apparently saw enough personal growth and maturity in Miller to take him, and they weren't the first team to do so. Other teams in Miller's career looked into his past but brought him in.

USA Hockey and the Tri-City Storm of the United States Hockey League, Miller's junior team last season before he went on to the University of North Dakota, looked into the defenseman's background. The university also investigated.

"I have generally found that a lot of these guys have learned from their mistakes. It kind of crystallizes for them that what they love and care about can be taken away from them because of their own actions," Peters said. "He's been poked and prodded quite a bit. Everybody did their due diligence and they still said 'We feel that we can trust this player to be part of our team.'"

Storm coach Anthony Noreen took calls from NHL teams asking for his opinion of Miller. Noreen coached Miller with the under-19 U.S. national team and traded for him in the USHL.

He spoke highly of Miller's character and hockey ability while acknowledging that his bullying past is part of his story.

"I give him credit, he never runs away from it. He owns it. I certainly do not think it defines who he is right now," Noreen said. "Here's a kid who made a mistake when he was 14 years old. He's grown from it, he's learned from it, he's changed. He's become a responsible young man."

Have a tip on investigative stories? Reach the reporter at craig.harris@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-8478 or on Twitter @charrisazrep. Reach our Coyotes beat at Jose.Romero@gannett.com, or via Twitter at @RomeroJoseM.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Coyotes' top draft pick, Mitchell Miller, was convicted of bullying Black, mentally disabled teen four years ago

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