About a year ago, with Duke legend Mike Krzyzewski about to ride off into the sunset, I wrote a column wondering who would become college basketball’s next great villain. Such a figure would need to combine arrogance with victory, infusing a talented team with an infuriating they-hate-us-’cause-they-ain’t-us attitude.
I didn’t mention Alabama and Nate Oats in that column, but the Crimson Tide and their head coach are now deep in serious villain territory, not the sports-talk Coach K version, barreling into the 2023 NCAA tournament with the wagons circled and the sports bar arguments ready to go. The heel turn of the 2023 Tide, one of the best teams in the country, would be a lot of fun if there weren’t a tragedy at the heart of it.
To recap: Jamea Jonae Harris, 23, was killed by gunfire on The Strip in Tuscaloosa on Jan. 15. The initial investigation focused on two men, one of whom was a Tide player, Darius Miles, who had confronted Harris and her boyfriend before the argument erupted into gunfire. (Here’s a thorough rundown of the events of the tragedy.)
Early last week, a detective investigating the case disclosed that Alabama’s Brandon Miller, one of the best players in the country, brought the gun, at Miles’ request, to the scene of what would become a crime. While the two other individuals involved in the crime were charged with capital murder, law enforcement officials in Tuscaloosa determined that there was not enough evidence to charge Miller or Jaden Bradley, another Tide player allegedly present at the scene. Shortly after the gun disclosure, Miller played in Wednesday night’s road game against South Carolina, scoring 41 points even as the crowd chanted “Lock him up!”
Then came Saturday afternoon’s game against Arkansas, the first one at home since Miller’s involvement was disclosed. During team introductions, with the home crowd cheering, Miller ran onto the floor … where a teammate waited and mimed a security patdown, as if searching for a weapon.
A patdown performance. Of a player just involved, even peripherally, in a gun-related killing. Seriously?
After the game, Alabama sports information officials tried to confine reporters to basketball-related questions only, yet another self-inflicted PR mistake. The media covering the game did not just stick to sports, and Oats acknowledged that the frisking act — which apparently has been performed all season, including after Harris’ murder — would not be occurring any longer. It is, at this writing, the strongest action Alabama has publicly taken regarding Miller.
Oats indicated that he didn’t watch the Tide’s pregame rituals and didn’t know about the patdown act, and that’s believable; coaches are often monomaniacally focused on their game plans in the seconds before gametime. But somebody in the Alabama program did, starting with Miller himself. And nobody thought, hey, maybe now isn’t the time for this bit?
Look, college sports are built on a foundation of talking trash, reveling in the joy of being young and part of a wild and chaotic institution. But this isn’t the Bryant-Denny public address system trolling former Auburn QB Cam Newton, accused of accepting cash to play for the Tigers, with “Take the Money and Run,” or Auburn fans taunting Bama and Nick Saban with Kick Six t-shirts that read, “Hey Nick, got a second?”
This is indifference in the face of a tragedy. Miller’s pregame stunt was small but emblematic of a much larger problem. Nothing that Alabama as an institution has done publicly suggests that it’s any more focused on the gravity of the situation than Miller himself.
Alabama officials have said they have stayed out of the way of the police’s investigation, which is the right step from a due process perspective. Still, Miller continues to play … and he continues to draw cheers, since the community takes its cues from the university.
Miller has rights, like the presumption of innocence and the right to privacy, and if Tuscaloosa law enforcement didn’t see fit to arrest or charge him, it’s not the place of the Tide’s critics to step in and play judge, jury or district attorney. Bad decisions aren’t necessarily criminal ones, and second-guessing Tuscaloosa law enforcement without all the facts is both pointless and counterproductive.
Miller doesn’t have a right to play college basketball, though, and that’s where the valid questions and the second-guessing arise. Sleeping in and missing practice, skipping curfew, mouthing off to your coach — these aren’t criminal acts either, but any athlete who attempts them will find themselves out of the starting lineup pronto. Even “wrong place, wrong time,” in Oats’ tone-deaf and regrettable words, is more than enough of a justification to suspend a player for a few games … and yet, Miller keeps right on starting, with two crucial regular-season games and the SEC tournament straight ahead.
Alabama has had the opportunity for weeks now to sit Miller as punishment for his galactically bad judgment. Instead, it’s chosen to keep Miller on the team, in the lineup, at the top of the box score. The overall look here is that Alabama is doing all it can to protect its once-in-a-generation basketball run, whatever the short-term public relations cost.
Alabama officials may well be gambling that this will all blow over soon enough, that another controversy will erupt to catch the eyes and outrage of microscopic-attention-span America. They’re probably right. Assuming nothing changes to implicate Miller, assuming he stays “witness” and not “person of interest,” once the NCAA tournament begins, there will be occasional brief obligatory on-air mentions of the story, and then it’ll be all basketball. Yes, what happened on The Strip in Tuscaloosa was a tragedy, but Alabama’s really going to help my bracket …
Basketball is a game of runs. We’ll see it throughout the next six weeks: a team up double digits loses that entire lead in minutes through self-inflicted mistakes. And when a big lead vanishes that quickly, it’s borderline impossible to regain the mojo and momentum that created it.
Alabama has had the chance to change the narrative around Miller and the program as a whole, again and again, and opted not to do so. And now one of the best teams in the country is watching its reputation vaporize in real time.