There’s no certainty that Alabama coach Nate Oats could have said anything the past two weeks to completely stem the tide of criticism. But the athletic department’s handling of the Brandon Miller situation – and Oats’ comments in particular – ensures that the storm that has engulfed his program isn’t going away anytime soon.
At the onset of the only month when college basketball captivates the nation, Alabama is uniquely positioned in the coming weeks – it’s a leading national title contender led by a soon-to-be NBA lottery pick in Miller – to attract the brightest possible national spotlight, one that transcends the sports world. Only in this case, the spotlight will be anything but flattering.
From Oats’ initial remarks (for which he later apologized) to Miller being patted down during Saturday’s pregame introductions before a win over Arkansas, Alabama’s errors have been self-inflicted. When asked to grade Alabama’s public relations response the past two weeks, Erik Bernstein, the president of Bernstein Crisis Management who has worked with high-profile athletes, told On3 bluntly: “It’s got to just be an outright fail.”
Alabama’s turmoil isn’t the only crisis to afflict a college basketball team this season, but it is the only one bungled so egregiously. New Mexico State last month abruptly canceled its season after reviewing a police report that cited three players for allegedly hazing a teammate. And in December, Texas suspended coach Chris Beard without pay the same day he was arrested on a felony domestic violence charge (the school fired Beard in January; the charge was later dropped). But in Tuscaloosa, when the crisis hit, Oats and Co. grabbed a shovel and kept digging.
“You have to be prepared,” Ben O’Neil told On3. He is a former federal prosecutor and partner with Washington, D.C.-based McGuire Woods who has counseled an NFL team during a crisis stemming from allegations of sexual and racial harassment of former employees. “You don’t have to call in crisis people to set up a ‘war room,’ but you definitely want a [thorough] check for your big statements, your big actions. Just somebody who has done it a lot, or seen it a lot, because when it happens it’s probably the first time it has happened at a school.”
Mark Bernheimer, a former CNN correspondent who is the founder of MediaWorks Resource Group, a Los Angeles-based media training and crisis communications agency, told On3 the proliferation of social media has heightened the need for crisis management consultants. But it’s not enough to ask for help after a crisis happens, and he said “smarter departments” are engaging crisis management specialists as part of standard PR training protocol that can help prevent media crises in the first place.
Social media has intensified the scrutiny on athletic departments that confront a crisis. Rob Carolla, a PR professional and consultant who has spent more than 25 years working in sports communications and media relations, with a bulk of that in college athletics, said plenty of conferences are enlisting external communications and marketing agencies to serve as consultants. But in athletic departments, he noted, it is nowhere near as common, if it occurs at all.
An Alabama spokesperson did not respond to an email asking for clarity on its PR strategy and whether it has retained an outside PR firm.
The criticism of Alabama has been acute since February 21, when a Tuscaloosa Police detective testified in a preliminary hearing that Miller transported the gun used in the shooting that killed Jamea Harris on January 15. The detective testified that teammate Darius Miles, who was dismissed from the team immediately in the wake of the shooting, texted Miller to bring him a gun Miles had left in the backseat of Miller’s car. Miles and friend Michael Davis are facing capital murder charges in the case. Miller isn’t facing charges because, a deputy district attorney told Al.com, “there’s nothing we could charge him with.”
On the same day as the hearing, Oats inflamed matters with these comments during a news conference: “We knew about that. Can’t control everything everybody does outside of practice. Nobody knew that was going to happen. College kids are out. Brandon hasn’t been in any type of trouble, nor is he in any type of trouble in this case. Just in the wrong spot at the wrong time.”
By adopting the tone of a defense attorney, Bernheimer said, Oats came off as “flippant and dismissive. Just because Miller isn’t being charged with a crime, that doesn’t mean he’s blameless. The coach seems to have a problem differentiating legal liability from basic virtue. … He didn’t even begin by acknowledging the tragic death of this woman, which is rule number one in a crisis of this nature.”
One would assume a high-profile program like Alabama has a crisis communications plan in place, Bernstein said, with steps to address categories that include a team member’s involvement with violence. But Oats’ response, he believes, is “a sign that there’s probably a culture problem in Alabama basketball, if not Alabama sports or the university at large. They just clearly weren’t prepared for something that, unfortunately, is a predictable category. The initial comments really show that it wasn’t treated with the gravity it deserves.”
Another veteran crisis management expert, who requested anonymity because of relationships throughout the sports world, said, “Having your coach unprepared to answer those questions, which he obviously was, is like one of the most shocking lapses I can imagine. What he did – oh, my God – made it a thousand times worse, obviously. It was a huge missed opportunity. He totally blew it.”
Oats later issued an apology for what he termed “unfortunate remarks,” adding that “in no way did I intend to downplay the seriousness of the situation of the tragedy” and that his comments came across “poorly.”
Then came Saturday’s pregame introductions, during which Miller was patted down by a teammate, as if during a police weapons search. Alabama said this had occurred all season; it since has been stopped. Oats said players told him “it’s like when TSA checks you before you get on a plane, and now Brandon’s cleared for takeoff.” Oats added, “We, as the adults in the room, should have been more sensitive to how it could have been interpreted. I dropped the ball.”
Carolla believes Oats probably didn’t notice the pregame ritual – most coaches aren’t paying attention to introductions – but an assistant, a manager, a trainer or a sport administrator should have known what was coming and broached the issue beforehand. Carolla called it a “big miss there that made the school look tone-deaf.”
While assessing the totality of Alabama’s PR response the past two weeks, Bernstein believes Alabama is either simply “playing ostrich” and ignoring the issues, or officials have determined that major donors and sponsors don’t care enough to stop supporting the team so long as it keeps winning. No. 2 Alabama has won the SEC regular-season title and is positioned to earn a No. 1 seed – maybe even No. 1 overall – in the upcoming NCAA tournament.
“Unfortunately in sports, they often are right” in that major donors or sponsors don’t care enough to ask for accountability, Bernstein said. “If this were a law firm, where people were involved, they’d be cut loose, the brand would have issued something condemning the violence and maybe donated to a related cause. But we’ve seen it again and again in sports: If you keep winning, too much is forgiven.”
When a crisis hits, school officials often think they can handle matters – until they can’t and a backlash becomes an inferno. Now comes a month in which newspapers and websites will fill endless column inches with March Madness content, podcasts will yammer incessantly about storylines and CBS and Turner Sports will fill hours of studio broadcast time. And with March Madness upon us, there’s no more compelling, controversial narrative to chronicle than the one being crafted in Tuscaloosa.
Ready or not, here comes Alabama’s close-up. This month, for better or worse, is its one shining moment.