kiffin lawsuit win reflects a fading college sports landscape

Kiffin Lawsuit Win Reflects a Fading College Sports Landscape

kiffin lawsuit win reflects a fading college sports landscape

In dismissing Ole Miss defensive tackle DeSanto Rollins’ lawsuit against Ole Miss and head coach Lane Kiffin over alleged anti-discrimination and disabilities laws violations, a federal judge Wednesday reaffirmed the extensive and longstanding power of college football coaches over their players.

It’s the kind of ruling we could have seen in 1984 or 2004—but perhaps won’t in the coming years.

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U.S. District Judge Michael Mills determined the school and Kiffin were exempt from many of Rollins’ claims. He also reasoned “although Kiffin’s conduct in the meetings was certainly offensive and imprudent” the law doesn’t recognize mere “immature insults and indignities” as illegal acts.

The ruling comes at a time when college athletes are inching closer to recognition as employees and union membership. In a world where college football players have a union, Rollins v. Kiffin probably wouldn’t be heard in court. The union and school would have instead negotiated a dispute resolution process. College players, meanwhile, would have collectively bargained job protections while coaches who act in “certainly offensive and imprudent” ways might run afoul of obligations to treat players as professionals.

The case stems from Kiffin informing Rollins last February that he was being demoted to the scout team on the Rebels’ offensive line. Kiffin allegedly told Rollins he should have transferred when he had the chance. As Rollins tells it, he informed Kiffin he needed to take a mental break from playing football. The team’s sports psychologist agreed, and Rollins then had counseling sessions. When Rollins met with Kiffin a month later, he says Kiffin ridiculed him for being incommunicado, made light of mental health and kicked him off the team (but didn’t rescind Rollins’ scholarship).

Rollins would go on to receive health care services. He was in talks with school officials about the fall 2023 semester when he sued. Rollins’ complaint contains claims for racial discrimination, sexual discrimination, denial of equal protection, violations of the ADA and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

In response, Ole Miss and Kiffin insisted Rollins “was not kicked off the team” but instead “remains on the team, with his football scholarship, to this day.” The defendants further assert Rollins, who is still shown on the Rebels’ roster, can return to play at any time once he obtains a release from his mental health provider. A release is not a unique requirement for Rollins, the school stresses, but instead applies to all athletes who go on leave.

Mills identified several legal problems with Rollins’ lawsuit.

As a public university, Ole Miss (and by extension its employee, Kiffin) are entitled to sovereign immunity under the 11th Amendment. States, including its public universities, are often partially or fully immune from lawsuits, meaning the court is deprived of jurisdiction to consider claims. Mills found no viable grounds for Mills to overcome immunity for purposes of his ADA claim. The judge noted Rollins “concedes” the “only thing” keeping him from returning is obtaining a medical release, which he apparently hasn’t obtained.

Mills also found Rollins’ equal protection argument without merit. He wrote Rollins argues “Kiffin treated him differently than white and female athletes,” including because Kiffin allegedly allowed white players “to take a break and come back to the team,” but failed to plead Kiffin had discriminatory intent—a required element.

Mills also seemed to doubt the underlying theory, noting that since Rollins “was able to return to the team at any time by submitting a medical release,” he faced the “same treatment” as the white players. The judge also rejected a comparison of Rollins to women athletes at Ole Miss since “Kiffin was not involved” in their sports.

Mills further found the lawsuit problematic since (in his view) it equated Kiffin’s problematic handling of the situation with unlawful conduct. The judge explained that even when intentional, “mere insults, indignities, threats, annoyances, petty oppression, or other trivialities” do not rise to a finding of intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Rollins v. Kiffin comes at a time when the legal relationship between college sports and its athletes face potentially tectonic changes via litigation and NLRB charges. So long as college athletes lack the recognition of employees, their rights to challenge their schools and coaches are very limited.

But in a world where college athletes are employees and unionized, a union representative could advocate for a player in Rollins’ situation. Coaches in that world might treat players differently, too.

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