The Washington Post
At Alabama, a 21st-century scandal minus accountability
The police blotter that the University of Alabama calls its men’s basketball program remains more concerned about its postseason seeding than its moral responsibility. The Crimson Tide, ranked second in the nation, is steamrolling its way to a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Nothing can stop it — not even the blood of a 23-year-old mother that now stains its season.
From the outside, Alabama’s circle of trust, a group that includes Coach Nate Oats and Athletic Director Greg Byrne, appears to have followed the law to a T in response to a former player’s involvement in the shooting death of Jamea Jonae Harris. And because there is no law under which the Tuscaloosa district attorney could charge the team’s star player, Brandon Miller, for transporting the gun, Alabama has allowed him to play on. There has been no pause for Miller to reflect on the gravity of the situation, no break to allow a young man who allegedly witnessed a traumatic event a moment to sit for a game or two — and nothing to
interrupt Alabama’s chances to win basketball games in March.
College sports scandals have been around since the invention of college sports. From the beginning, greasy adults have found ways to seduce studentathletes with the promise of small fortunes while more grievous crimes such as sexual assault and murder have pierced the idyllic bubble of a college campus. But what’s happening at Alabama is a tragedy with a contemporary twist.
One of the murder suspects had a clothing line. The star freshman drove a Dodge Charger, allegedly transporting the firearm that was used to kill, and weeks later he would advertise a similar muscle car to his Instagram followers. And the coach, the public-facing spokesperson of this scandal, is a multimillionaire who earns roughly 41 times more than a College of Education professor at the same public university.
This is college athletics in the 21st century: glittering with commercialism on the surface with all the slimy parts oozing underneath.
For no other reason than Darius Miles was tall, athletic and male — possessing three of the most significant qualities in the get-rich-quick scheme known as college sports — he had the ability to make money from his name, image and likeness. Before Jan. 15, Miles was the basketball player with a career average of 4.2 points per game. He was also a brand ambassador with something to sell. His red, black and white Tshirts featured his nickname, “Freak,” and sold for $39.99 each.
Now, Miles is charged with capital murder in the shooting death of Harris.
Miller, likely to be a top-five pick in the NBA draft this summer, was there that night. He was a witness, authorities say, as Michael Davis, who was a friend of Miles but did not play on the basketball team, shot Harris in the face as she sat in the passenger seat next to her boyfriend. Harris may be alive today had Darius Miles not retrieved the gun that he allegedly left in Brandon Miller’s Charger.
That tragic detail, however, did not stop Miller from announcing he had obtained a new car in early February — and encouraging others to shop at the same dealership. A website that specializes in NIL evaluations lists the car dealer as Miller’s sponsor.
“Tell them Bmill sent you!” is how Miller signs off his ad.
His pitch is at least more straightforward than Oats’s reactionary statements, which always seem to be a note off and a day late. Seems that Oats can’t get through a news conference without saying something regrettable.
On the day law enforcement publicly revealed Miller’s connection to the case, Oats attempted to mitigate his player’s involvement: “Wrong spot at the wrong time.” He apologized for that statement. Earlier, when Alabama heard some inappropriate heckles from the Missouri student section — this happened a week after Miles’s arrest — Oats tried to scold the wrong people.
“Sometimes college students don’t understand the severity of things,” Oats said from his high horse following the game.
Oats didn’t extend the same standard of maturity to his own 20-year-old player. Until the team faced backlash, Miller continued his pregame tradition of spreading his arms while a teammate patted him down during introduction of the starters. On Tuesday, days after the incident, Oats handled the cleanup again and took responsibility for allowing the routine. He explained it as players mimicking a TSA check, before Miller is cleared to take flight, instead of the way many interpreted the scene Saturday: a willing fool pretending to search Miller for a weapon. Saturday night, however, Oats opened his postgame comments by saying the routine was “not appropriate” after the controversy was brought to his attention, without offering any clarification involving the Transportation Security Administration.
Oats didn’t seem to mind Miller’s instinctual but woefully myopic reactions during a testy road game. At South Carolina, as fans chanted in scorn, Miller tapped his forearm, suggesting to everyone watching that only ice, not awareness, coursed through his veins. Miller scored 41 points and hit the winning shot. And because Oats speaks more like a basketball coach than the well-compensated crisis manager he should be, he praised Miller for his mental toughness.
“Basketball kind of becomes a safe haven for some of these guys. They get on the floor, they can kind of lock in to what they’ve done their whole lives and get some of the outside stuff out of their mind,” Oats said after the Feb. 22 game.
The “outside stuff.” Only a man who can’t dislodge his loafer from his mouth would equate transporting a murder weapon and allegedly witnessing the death of a woman to “outside stuff.”
As the scandal continues to swirl around his program, Oats has sounded nothing like the coach who introduced himself to Alabama almost four years ago. Back then, Oats promised to bring his very own culture playbook to Alabama, a code of conduct centered on working hard, getting better each day and having standards.
“We want a culture of accountability. If I love you, and you and me are roommates, and we go back and you’re going to smoke weed, well, that’s not what’s best for you. If I really love you, I’m going to call you out for that,” Oats said and later added: “If all I do is teach you how throw a ball through a ring, I’m wasting a lot of time. We have to develop character in our guys. I firmly believe this: The better young men you have, the better basketball team you’re going to have.”
And to build a better program, Oats brought along his love for hard hats. When he arrived in Tuscaloosa, with the intention of turning the Crimson Tide into a blue-collar team, Oats introduced the headwear prop as hackneyed motivation. Following games, one of his chosen players would get to wear it if and only if his work ethic was worthy of a construction worker paid by the hour. The hard hat now follows Alabama everywhere. But in his rehabilitation project, Oats forgot to build on his own foundations.
There is no character, no accountability in this college scandal. Only a sad tale, distorted by America’s culture of gun violence, which could cost a former college player his promising future and more importantly already cost a young mother her life. All the while, a basketball season marches on.