Mitchell Miller is one of the top young hockey players in the country. He has played on two national junior-league teams in the United States Hockey League. He was drafted in the fourth round by the Arizona Coyotes in 2020 and accepted an athletic scholarship to play for the University of North Dakota. At the end of his 2021–2022 season in the USHL, he was named best defenseman and player of the year. With these kinds of credentials, Miller would have a good chance of making it to the NHL. But, at this point, that seems unlikely.
The problem is that, in 2016, at the age of 14, Miller in an Ohio juvenile court admitted to bullying Isaiah Meyer-Crothers, a Black student who was developmentally challenged. The bullying had gone on for years and had consisted of, among other things, punching and the use of racial slurs. To make amends, Miller had performed community service, discussed anti-bullying methods with elementary students, and assisted the elderly and the homeless. On the other hand, a juvenile court magistrate in Ohio told Miller that he felt the teen did not have “a sense of real remorse” for his actions.
Gary Bettman, commissioner of the NHL, responded to the mounting criticism, saying that Miller was not eligible to play in the league.
Before drafting a player, NHL teams usually vet potential draftees to uncover any past offenses. So, any interested NHL team would have known about Miller’s bullying. Miller sent a letter to every NHL team apologizing for his past behavior, but a number of NHL teams decided to pass on drafting him. The Coyotes, however, had decided to give him a “second chance.” As one Coyotes official stated: “We are willing to work with [Miller]…. We all need to be a part of the solution.”
All of this changed after an Arizona Republic exposé about Miller appeared in October 2020 describing his unfortunate behavior. To make matters worse, Meyer-Crothers and his family said that Miller had never personally apologized to them. Miller maintained that the letter he wrote, as mandated by the court, was read aloud to Meyer-Crothers and the school board in Sylvania, Ohio, and that a copy was sent to the family. (A check of court records indicated that Miller’s account was accurate.)
Meanwhile, pressure from social media and other sources was building, and the Coyotes decided to end their relationship with Miller. The next day, the University of North Dakota dropped him from its hockey team, although he was allowed to remain a student at the school. Miller decided to play another year in the USHL, where he had a very successful season, leading to an offer from the Boston Bruins this fall. The Bruins offered an entry-level contract worth $2.85 million with Miller being assigned to the Bruins’ minor-league team in Providence, Rhode Island. Like the Coyotes, the Bruins expressed a desire to work with Miller to aid in his “ongoing personal development.” But once the Bruins’ offer became known, criticism on social media mounted, and the Bruins soon rescinded their offer. The Bruins said they did so based on new information but never revealed exactly what that information was. Bruins President Cam Neely did say that they should have talked with the victim’s family. Gary Bettman, commissioner of the NHL, also responded to the mounting criticism, saying that Miller is “not eligible at this point” to play in the league.
What to make of all of this? Perhaps a good place to start is with the juvenile court system where Miller was convicted. In general, the goal of the court is to rehabilitate and not to punish. In part, that tenet is based on the belief that juveniles may not understand the consequences of their actions. In recent years, this assumption has been bolstered by research that indicates that the brains of adolescents are different from those of adults and continue to develop into a person’s mid-20s. So, juveniles are somewhat less blameworthy than adults and can change and eventually become productive members of society.
Unfortunately, that process hasn’t worked for Mitchell Miller. He has been stigmatized for behavior that resulted from a conviction at the age of 14. There is no doubt that his transgressions were serious, but to write him off, especially since he has a chance of becoming a top-flight professional athlete, seems too severe. Both the Coyotes and the Bruins said they would work with him on his personal development. Yet, their support appears to be more pretense than anything else; look how quickly he was dropped in response to public pressure. The NHL even declared that Miller is ineligible to play in the league. One wonders what it would take to make him eligible. Can he do anything to right his past wrongs?
There is something else at work here, and that is the rise of cancel culture over the last decade or so. Cancel culture involves the mass shaming of individuals or organizations who have committed acts that are considered socially unacceptable. Social media has made canceling a more potent weapon. Granted, many societies have long used shaming to influence behavior, but, in those societies, there remains a possibility of being reintegrated into society. With cancel culture, the idea of reintegration doesn’t exist. Individuals like Mitchell Miller face permanent ostracism, and the belief that everyone deserves a second chance has become obsolete.
As for organizations like the Coyotes and the Bruins, the fear of being canceled, however unlikely, makes them more prone to do the expedient thing rather than the right thing. Indeed, Miller’s canceling from the Coyotes, the Bruins, and the league itself may keep Mitchell Miller from ever getting his shot at the NHL.