The elephant in the room going into the Arkansas Razorbacks’ 1 p.m. Saturday showdown with No. 2 Alabama at Tuscaloosa isn’t the Crimson Tide’s mascot Big Al.
It’s the controversy over whether Alabama freshman phenom Brandon Miller should be playing basketball after his role in a tragedy the resulted in the murder of Jonae Harris, a 23-year-old mother.
Two former Alabama players Darius Miles and Michael Davis have been charged for capital murder in Harris’ death. Miller has not been charged with anything, but he is the one who had the alleged murder weapon in his car prior to Harris’ shooting, and he did transport that weapon to meet Miles and Davis. Miles handed the gun to Davis in the back seat of Miller’s car. During an argument with Harris, Davis is accused of shooting her.
Evidently, there is no controversy in “The Heart of Dixie.” Miller has been playing and performing great for Alabama – he scored 41 point Tuesday on South Carolina — before and since Harris’ shooting-death occurred.
Alabama is leading the SEC by a game over Texas A&M and have been bouncing between third and first place in the Associated Press Top 25 over the last month or so.
The Crimson Tide are one of the favorites to win the NCAA Tournament next month, and while they are a very talented team across the board, Miller, who leads the SEC in scoring at 19.6 ppg. is a big part of the Crimson Tide’s success.
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: at No. 2 Alabama
When: 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25
Where: Tucaloosa, Ala.
Next 2 games
Feb. 28 — at Tennessee, 8 p.m. (ESPN/2)
March 4 — Kentucky, 1 p.m. (CBS)
The 6-9 Miller is expected to be an NBA lottery pick this summer, projected perhaps to go as high as third before his involvement in the events preceding Harris’ murder became public.
Outside of Alabama, folks aren’t as enamored with the way the Crimson Tide and Coach Nate Oats have handled the situation. Evidence must show that Miller broke no law with his late-night/early morning actions on Jan. 15, or he certainly would have been charged. Again, Miller has been charged with nothing.
However, that doesn’t mean Miller’s actions were right, good, or moral, either. Was he exercising good judgment and intelligence by taking a gun to some obviously angry men late at night?
Does the Alabama basketball program have team rules and policies against risky behavior?
Shouldn’t Oats as the head of the Crimson Tide basketball program have some rules of conduct in play that govern actions that are detrimental to his players and team that do not rise to the level of criminal activity?
Razorback fans of a certain age will remember Lou Holtz’ and Eddie Sutton’s “Do-right rules” for a lack of a better term. Every Razorback coach since them has had similar rules. I’m guessing the same is true at Alabama?
But, what about Oats?
Perhaps he has some team rules that carry some form of punishment, but if he does, why didn’t he exercise them in this instance?
Of course all punishments of college athletes aren’t always acknowledged publicly, and admittedly there are other forms of punishment that can be more taxing than suspension.
Track and cross country athletes absolutely did not want to run afoul of the late, great John McDonnell. The historically successful coach had some drills up his sleeve that were literally gut-wrenching. Former Frank Broyles football assistant Wilson Matthews was legendary for his conditioning drills, which were tantamount to abuse not just punishment.
We know Alabama football coach Nick Saban doesn’t always suspend players from playing when they’ve made mistakes. He did not suspend receiver Jermaine Burton after video showed him shoving a female fan on the field after the Tide’s loss at Tennessee last fall.
Saban’s letting Burton off the hook isn’t necessarily commendable, but it’s an entirely different situation than a young man transporting a gun to those who very shorty thereafter use it to take a life of a human being.
We really have to wonder what were Oats’ and the Alabama’s administration thinking in not issuing some form of public punishment to Miller back in January when this happened.
Oats’ tone-deaf comments when first addressing the issue publicly on Tuesday showed a callousness to the situation. Oats later apologized, but while his words didn’t necessarily seem hollow, they weren’t exactly heartfelt either.
Now, how we judge a person’s words isn’t necessarily an accurate measure of a man’s heart and mind, but what we hear and see is the only tool we have in this instance.
Obviously, Oats is uncomfortable addressing the subject. Anyone would be, but this issue isn’t going to go away no matter how bad he wants it to. It’s going to be a topic of discussion every time Alabama plays the rest of this year and possibly in years to come. It’s going to follow Oats and Alabama in recruiting, and Miller to the NBA.
Oats and Alabama could have put a governor on the situation by suspending Miller for a period of time back in January. They opted not to do so, and now the program, coach, and player are suffering in the public eye.
We have no idea what Miller was thinking when he received the text to bring the gun to Miles and Davis. He might have just been relieved to get the gun out of his car? Heck, he might not have even known it was there until he got the call? Maybe.
Should Miller have ignored the text?
Possibly, but he might have been frightened of the consequences if he did? Miles and Davis certainly seem to be men worthy of instilling fear.
This situation is an ugly one no matter how you look at it.
While we can’t ever forget the loss suffered by Harris’ family and loved ones, this is a sports column and the whys behind the way Oats and Alabama are handling this situation are the topic of the day.
Are decisions being made within the Alabama program just in the pursuit of SEC and national titles? Is that what collegiate athletics is all about? If so, should it be that way?
How much of the kid-glove handling of Miller from his coach and Alabama’s administration stemmed from whatever Name, Image, and Likeness deals that Miller has with Alabama boosters, who are also donating money to the University?
If Miller didn’t play, would Alabama have lost lucrative booster support because of it?
Did Miller and his handlers threaten that the young man would just go and prepare for the NBA if he was suspended over the situation?
Those might be fantasy-land considerations. There is absolutely no evidence that anything like that is going on.
However, mixing NIL deals with the one-and-done plan of many of the best college basketball athletes has stolen a lot of the leverage away from coaches attempting to run their programs. Some players are dictating things today in college athletics that they have never had to the power to do so before.
Former Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski alluded to this last year when addressing his reasons for retiring as the Blue Devils’ coach, admittedly at retirement age.
It’s a new day in some way almost every day in college athletics. The NCAA is basically a toothless organization now. Rules are so loose in some areas coaches, administrators, and boosters are finding all kinds of loop holes, and that makes major college athletics more and more difficult to control.
And yet, we still love the games. The play on the hardwood should be dynamic when the Hogs square off with Miller and the Crimson Tide in the ESPN2-televised game Saturday.
Nick Smith Jr., who went for 26 points against Georgia, is rounding his game into shape and pulling the Razorback along with him. Smith, who has missed 19 games with a knee injury this year, is beginning to show his value. He is a talented individual, but with this mix of Razorbacks, he allows them to concentrate on what they do best as players instead of playing outside their comfort zones as they have throughout the SEC season. That makes the Hogs improved at everything.
If only all the drama surrounding athletics and this game in particular could be reduced, but white-wash only lasts so long.
Maybe the Hogs and Crimson Tide can put it all behind them for 40 minutes, and we can just enjoy the game we all love.
However, most of us aren’t that tone deaf. It will be difficult to just push aside the death of a 23-year-old mother and the loss her loved ones will suffer for a lifetime, even for 40 minutes.