March Sadness: A Tale of Two Student Athletes

Thom Weidlich 03.23.23


Well, this is a bit messy. Two University of Alabama student athletes have gotten themselves into varying degrees of hot water in separate incidents. The circumstances and consequences are different, but both bring agitation. This is especially so because one of the jocks is a basketball star currently shining in a wee tournament.

The Crimson Tide is the No. 1 seed in the NCAA March Madness basketball extravaganza. That would all be fine and dandy except back in January its star player, Brandon Miller, transported — he says unwittingly — the gun that was used in a killing. Two people have been charged with capital murder, but authorities said they had nothing to charge Miller with, and he wasn’t. Charged, that is.

Some people feel the team should have at least suspended Miller (pictured, right). They’re also upset at basketball coach Nate Oats’ comments at the time, which seemed to belittle the event. “Can’t control everything everybody does outside of practice,” Oats said. “Nobody knew that was going to happen.”

Considered Statement

When those utterances didn’t go over well, Oats issued a more considered statement — giving us yet another example of what happens when you don’t get the crisis messaging right the first time. “In no way did I intend to downplay the seriousness of this situation or the tragedy of that night,” the statement said in part.

Fast forward two months. On Monday this week — the first day of football practice — Nick Saban, the Crimson Tide’s longtime coach, said freshman defensive back Tony Mitchell was suspended until further notice due to his arrest in Florida last week. Mitchell was charged with possession of marijuana with intent to sell and/or deliver (he also reportedly drove 141 mph fleeing police).

“Everybody’s got an opportunity to make choices and decisions,” Saban said. “There’s no such thing as being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” He added: “There is cause and effect when you make choices and decisions that put you in bad situations.”

In what might be a reach, Fox News’ Scott Thompson wrote that Saban’s comments “could’ve been a subtle jab at a fellow Crimson Tide head coach.” Meaning, Oats and his allegedly lackadaisical management of the Miller matter.

Different Facts

The circumstances were handled differently, but the facts were also different. Brandon Miller denies he knew the gun was in the car. He hasn’t been criminally charged. Tony Mitchell has. It’s an example of how facts shape crisis response.

Another (more cynical) difference is that we’re at the climax of the college basketball season where the stakes are highest, and football hasn’t yet kicked off. Yes, coaches seek to protect their players. But might Oats have acted more forcefully against Miller (as in, suspended him) if it were the off-season and he weren’t a star? On Tuesday, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association named Miller its National Freshman Player of the Year.

The way the play is going, Alabama will probably make it into the Final Four. It is likely, therefore, with the spotlight burning brighter on the team, concerns about its handling of the Miller episode will intensify. The team must be prepared to deal with that.

In the meantime, the Tide rolls on.

Photo Credit: University of Alabama

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