Written by Kai McClelland
In early 2023, athlete Desanto Rollins was cut from the Ole Miss Football team after not having been to practice in 2 weeks. Rollins claimed that he was taking a mental health break. In September, he sued both Coach Lane Kiffin and the university for failure to provide equal protection, racial and sexual discrimination, and multiple other allegations.
Yesterday, attorneys for Ole Miss and Coach Lane Kiffin filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that they "are immune" from some of Rollins' claims and that "his remaining allegations fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Since then, a recording of the last meeting between Rollins and Kiffin–the meeting in which Rollins was cut–has gone viral. In the audio, Coach Lane Kiffin says to Rollins, “Go read your f***ing rights about mental health, we can kick you off the team.”
On social media, most people have defended Coach Kiffin against the allegations, arguing that although mental health is important, Rollins had no excuse to skip practice, much less ignore repeated attempts from coaches to get in touch during the two-week period. Supporters of Kiffin have stated that the situation is like a job: if you don’t show up, you get fired.
While these statements are true, they don’t take into account the student-athlete experience, which, as of recent, has been plagued by a heavy presence of abusive coaching. Having been a college athlete myself, I’m inclined to raise further questions about the situation. Here’s two things that need to be said:
Number one: it is a truth universally acknowledged that a college athlete who is recording a tense conversation with their coach must be in a bad situation. It actually isn’t, but it should be. For athletes that live in one-party states, recording conversations with coaches can be a first line of defense in an otherwise defenseless situation. In my experience with sports advocacy, I’ve heard several recorded conversations between athletes and coaches, from which I have concluded that athletes won’t record a conversation unless three things are true:
The coach has created a hostile environment to the point where the athlete anticipates that they will say or do something bad.
The athlete believes that the “bad thing” will be so bad that it will warrant a lawsuit, or it will stand as evidence for ongoing abuse that will also warrant a lawsuit.
The athlete knows that when they come forward about their experience, nobody will believe them, so they have to get evidence while they still have a chance.
All of the above communicate that there is something much bigger going on between Desanto Rollins and his coaching staff. And, although I do not know all of the details behind this situation, I’d be inclined to conclude that Rollins didn’t record this conversation on a whim. Rollins had experienced abuse from these coaches before. He knew that this might be his last conversation with the staff, so he decided to collect evidence of the problem while he still could.
Number two: we don’t know why Rollins didn’t want to contact the coaching staff during his mental health break. The opinion of Kiffin, which has also swayed public opinion, appears to be that Rollins was upset that the coaches changed his playing position, so he threw a tantrum in the form of a “mental health break”, didn’t go to meetings or practice, and then came back expecting to keep his spot on the team. If this version of events is true, then I would be inclined to argue that Rollins did not handle the situation professionally and didn’t deserve a spot on a Division 1 team.
However, given the fact that Rollins is recording the conversation in the first place, I’d implore the audience to dig a little deeper. To start, we have no idea why Rollins refused to talk to the coaches during his mental health break. Say that Rollins was experiencing suicidal ideation, and talking to the coaches could have sent him into a spiral to the point where he could have taken action. That situation is just as likely as the aforementioned, given that we know nothing. Rollins’ lack of contact with the coaches could have been a life-saving action.
At the end of the day, one thing has been proved true in the public’s handling of the allegations: we don’t believe athletes when they come forward. We’re questioning Rollins without really asking him for answers. We’re being judgmental, not curious. So instead of trying to prove the athlete guilty and the coach innocent, why don’t we ask Rollins why he came forward in the first place?