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  • Writer's pictureMorgan Blunt

Ole Miss Fumbles its Obligation to Protect Player’s Mental Health

The NCAA’s mission is to “provide a world-class athletics and academic experience for student-athletes that fosters lifelong well-being.”[1]  Since its inception in 1906, many players allege that the NCAA has ignored a growing mental health problem for decades.[2]  Many student-athlete stressors stem from balancing academic and athletic schedules with the constant demand to win.[3] According to an NCAA Student-Athlete Well-Being Study from May 2022, student-athletes continue to report increased levels of mental health concerns and that number is 1.5 to 2 times higher than prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.[4]  Furthermore, student-athletes may be more vulnerable to developing mental health problems due to stressors associated with competing and injuries from contact sports.[5]  The NCAA requires that universities take several courses of action to provide quality mental health care for student-athletes.[6]  However, in many universities, mental health is still an overlooked part of being a student-athlete.

 

Ole Miss football player DeSanto Rollins filed a suit on September 14th, 2023 in the Oxford Division of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi.[7]  Rollins is suing head football coach Lane Kiffin and the University of Mississippi, alleging racial discrimination, sexual discrimination, and negligence.[8]  The suit alleges the school ignored Rollins’ mental health problems over a prolonged period of time.[9]  He is seeking $30 million in punitive damages from Kiffin, and $10 million in compensatory damages from Kiffin and the university.[10] 

 

Rollins is currently a senior and has played as a defensive lineman at Ole Miss since June 2020. Since then, he has suffered several injuries.[11]  In the summer of 2020, he injured his Achilles tendon and was unable to work out or stand for prolonged periods of time.[12] This, along with his other injuries, resulted in “severe depression, anxiety, frustration, embarrassment, humiliation, a loss of sleep, and a loss of appetite.”[13] He claims Kiffin’s failure to recognize his mental health requests resulted in the deterioration of his mental health state.[14]  The lawsuit further details that neither the coaching staff, nor those working at the university provided Rollins with a referral for mental health services, nor did he receive proper mental health educational materials after his several injuries and the death of his grandmother.[15]  

 

In November 2022, Ole Miss’s defensive line coach told Rollins to transfer schools.[16]  When he refused, Rollins alleges that Kiffin demoted him to an offensive tackle on the scout team in February 2023.[17]  Rollins questioned this move, and Kiffin allegedly replied that he could quit if he did not like the changes.[18] Moreover, Rollins’ mental health continued to worsen due to the continued verbal abuse from Kiffin. As a result, Rollins expressed to Kiffin that he needed a mental health break.[19]  In March 2023, Rollins and Kiffin arranged a meeting, in which Rollins recorded the conversation without Kiffin’s knowledge.[20]  The transcript allegedly shows Kiffin repeatedly yelling and using expletives to intimidate Rollins. [21]

 

Rollins is suing on the grounds that the university and Kiffin violated Title IX and Title VI, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, and other state laws.[22]  However, Kiffin argues he has immunity from these claims because his actions were not state actions.[23] In contrast, Rollins claims they were state actions because Kiffin was an employee of the university who was acting in his individual capacity and his official capacity as the university’s head football coach.[24] Furthermore, he argues the university and football program have allowed white student-athletes at the university to take mental health breaks, while he has not received the same treatment.[25] The lawsuit shows that Ole Miss women’s volleyball and softball players can take mental health breaks throughout the season.[26] Rollins also claims that Kiffin has never dismissed a white football player for requesting a mental health break.[27]

 

Although the NCAA has implemented several mental health programs for universities, these existing programs are aimed to be available when the student-athlete feels the need to reach out.[28] It does not guarantee that student-athletes will take advantage of these resources, and instead, can dismiss student-athletes from asking for help. With practices, workouts, and other normal struggles that college students deal with, it is incredibly difficult for student-athletes to succeed without support. One of the only ways to guarantee a healthier student-athlete population is to implement mandatory mental health meetings and promote a safe environment where athletes can openly discuss their struggles.[29] The programs designed by the NCAA are inadequate and can only improve if universities take it upon themselves to establish mental health programs within their athletic departments.


References:

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Emma Vickers. The Stigma of Mental Health: Is It Increased for Athletes?. https://members.believeperform.com/the-stigma-of-mental-health-is-it-increased-for-athletes/

[6] Id.

[7] Pier Cummings. Ole Miss Player Sues Kiffin, University Alleging Mistreatment. (21 Sept 2023). https://thedmonline.com/ole-miss-player-sues-kiffin-university-alleging-mistreatment/

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Elizabeth Chuck. Ole Miss’ Desanto Rollins Sues Coach and School After Mental Health Crisis: It’s Definitely Been Hard. (15 September 2023). https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/university-mississippi-lawsuit-ole-miss-football-coach-lane-kiffin-rcna105250

 

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Jade Martinez-Pogue. Ole Miss Football Player Highlights Coach’s Troubling Actions. (22 Nov 2023). https://www.law360.com/sports-and-betting/articles/1769465/ole-miss-football-player-highlights-coach-s-troubling-actions

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

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