By Michael S. Carroll, PhD
On November 10, 2023 US Magistrate Judge Roy Percy paused proceedings in a lawsuit filed against the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) and head football coach Lane Kiffin filed in September of 2023, by a former football player on the team who was kicked off in March of 2023. The pause in the case comes one day after the university and Kiffin filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
The plaintiff, DeSanto Rollins, filed his initial suit in November of 2023, alleging:
- Racial discrimination by head coach Lane Kiffin and Ole Miss
- Disability-based discrimination on the part of Lane Kiffin and Ole Miss
- Sexual discrimination on the part of Ole Miss
- Intentional infliction of emotional distress on the part of Lane Kiffin
- With negligence and gross negligence on the part of Lane Kiffin and Ole Miss
The case also listed 10 unnamed parties, listed as John Does 1-10, with the stipulation that when their names were realized the complaint would be amended.
The lawsuit alleges that, despite NCAA guidelines regarding best practices on understanding and supporting student athlete mental wellness and requiring member institutions to have written institutional procedures for identification and referral of student athletes to qualified practitioners as it relates to mental health, Ole Miss had no such procedures. The lawsuit further alleges that neither head coach Kiffin, the football coaching staff, nor football trainers were aware of any written institutional procedures or guidelines with respect to the referral of student athletes with non-emergency mental health concerns. Furthermore, Ole Miss provided these parties with no training regarding the signs and symptoms of mental health disorders and the behaviors of student athletes to monitor that may reflect these types of concerns. In January 2019, the five major conferences of the NCAA, including the SEC, in which Ole Miss is a member, made a rule change that required Ole Miss to distribute to student-athletes mental health educational materials and resources. Despite the fact that Rollins enrolled in June of 2020 after this rule went into effect, he was never provided any such educational materials.
In July of 2022, Rollins suffered a concussion in the Ole Miss Spring game that impacted his ability to concentrate, think, and remember. He was never referred for a mental health evaluation. In July 2022, he ruptured his Achilles tendon in his right foot, substantially impacting his ability to perform major life activities, such as walking, jumping, standing for long periods of time, and sleeping. As a result of these injuries, Rollins suffered severe depression, anxiety, frustration, embarrassment, humiliation, a loss of sleep, and loss of appetite that substantially limited his ability to perform major life activities. He was unaware of the need for a mental health evaluation or mental health referral when he suffered this severe depression, anxiety, frustration, etc., as he had never been provided any mental health education materials by the football coaching staff, trainers, athletic department, or university. In August 2022, Rollins aggravated his lateral collateral ligament (LCL) injury in his left knee. Despite the impacts of these injuries on his ability to perform his major life activities, Rollins contends that Kiffin and the football coaching staff forced him to continue to participate in practice. In November 2022, Rollins had an exit meeting with Randall Joyner, the defensive line coach for Ole Miss, who pressured Rollins to enter into the transfer porter and join another institution. Rollins contends that he felt useless, undervalued, humiliated, and embarrassed. As a result of the meeting with Joyner, Rollins suffered severe depression, anxiety, frustration, embarrassment, humiliation, and loss of sleep.
In February of 2023, Rollins was told that coach Lane Kiffin wanted to meet with him. Rollins met with Kiffin that same day, and Kiffin informed Rollins that he was being moved from his defensive tackle position to the scout team on the offensive line, since he did not take the opportunity to enter the transfer portal. When Rollins inquired as to whether the move was a choice or a command, he contends that Kiffin yelled at him in a hostile and verbally threatening tone telling him that he was the coach and that Rollins was the player. Following this meeting, Rollins reached out to his strength coach and discussed how the meeting made him feel. He informed his coach that he needed to take a mental health break.
Subsequent to this, Kiffin requested a follow up meeting with Rollins in March of 2021. When Rollins showed up and met with coach Kiffin, Kiffin was upset that he had not been with the program for two weeks. Rollins responded that he had taken a mental health break and had informed his strength coach as such, to which Kiffin allegedly responded in a profanity-laced tirade with respect to Rollins’ decision to take a mental health break. He informed Rollins that he was being kicked off the team for not showing up when the head coach asked him to and also called him derogatory names.
Count 1: Denial of Equal Protection
In this count, Rollins argues that head coach Lane Kiffin took adverse action against him, an African American athlete, on account of race, for requesting and taking a mental health break. However, adverse action was not taken against white student-athletes for requesting and taking a mental health break. As such, this constitutes unlawful racial discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
Count 2: Title VI Racial Discrimination
Similar to the first count, Rollins argues that Kiffin’s actions and inactions in intentionally taking adverse action against him, on account of race, and subjecting him to a hostile educational environment, for requesting and taking a mental health break, but not doing so for white student-athletes constitutes unlawful racial discrimination in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 200d, et seq.
Count 3: Title IX Sexual Discrimination
This count remains similar to those above but uses sex as a basis as opposed to race. The suit cited that female softball players at Ole Miss were allowed to take a 14-day mental break to deal with mental issues without being kicked off of the softball team prior to and during the period of time that Rollins was kicked off of the football team for taking him mental break. Additionally, female softball players were able to take such a break as well. Such disparate treatment represents a violation of Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972.
Count 4: Americans With Disabilities Act
Rollins argues that he suffers from a mental impairment that substantially limited one or more of his major life activities and was disabled within the meaning of the ADA but was kicked off of the football team by coach Kiffin because of his disability. Ole Miss is a university that receives federal financial assistance and is therefore subject to protections under the ADA. In kicking Rollins off of the Ole Miss football team because of his disability or perceived disability, Kiffin engaged in unlawful disability discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Count 5: § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act
The actions and inactions of Ole Miss, a university that receives federal financial assistance, in discriminating against Rollins due to his disability or perceived disability constitutes unlawful disability discrimination and violation of §504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794.
Count 6: Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
Here, Rollins focuses on the actions and words of Kiffin in their February 2023 meeting, which Rollins claimed were malicious, intentional, willful, wonton, grossly reckless, and indifferent to the health and well-being of Rollins. He further asserts that Kiffin’s words and actions constituted an intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Count 7: Gross Negligence
The defendants’ reckless, wanton, and gross actions, words, and inactions of the defendants caused him to suffer physical pain and emotional injury and damages, constituting gross negligence.
Count 8: Negligence
The actions and inactions of the defendants as mentioned previously in disregarding the rights and health of Rollins by breaching the duty they owed to him causing him to suffer physical pain and emotional injury and damages constitutes negligence.
Rollins is seeking compensatory damages in the amount of $10 million dollars and punitive damages in the amount of $30 million dollars. He’s also seeking an award of court costs, including attorney’s fees.
Attorneys for Ole Miss and Kiffin filed a motion to dismiss in early November, stating that Coach Kiffin is not liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress and also challenging the validity of Rollins’ numerous claims. Magistrate Judge Roy Percy stated that “Under Local Uniform Civil Rule 16(b)(3)(B) ‘[f]iling a motion to compel arbitration, or a motion asserting an immunity defense or jurisdictional defense stays the attorney conference and disclosure requirements and all discovery, pending the court’s ruling on the motion, including any appeal.’” As such, the case will not progress forward until U. S. District Court Judge Michael Mills rules on the motion to dismiss.
DeSanto Rollins v. Lane Kiffin, University of Mississippi, and John Does 1-10, Case 3:23-cv-00356-GHD-RP, (N.D. Miss. 2023). Retrieved from: https://www.wcbi.com/content/uploads/2023/09/e/v/lane-kiffin-lawsuit.pdf
Michael S. Carroll is a Full Professor of Sport Management at Troy University specializing in research related to sport law and risk management in sport and recreation. He also serves as Online Program Coordinator for Troy University and works closely with students in the TROY doctoral program.