Heather Dinich, ESPN Senior WriterSep 14, 2023, 09:05 PM ET
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Joined ESPN.com in 2007
Graduate of Indiana University
Ole Miss defensive tackle DeSanto Rollins, who said he was recently kicked off the team for missing practices and meetings during a “mental health crisis,” is suing the university and coach Lane Kiffin for failure to provide equal protection, racial and sexual discrimination, and multiple other allegations, according to the lawsuit filed Thursday.
Rollins, a backup lineman whose career has been marred by injuries, is demanding $10 million in compensatory damages and $30 million in punitive damages. The lawsuit alleges that Kiffin intentionally took adverse action against Rollins “on account of race for requesting and taking a mental health break, but not taking adverse action against white student-athletes” for the same request. It alleges sexual discrimination on the basis that Ole Miss has not taken “adverse action against female student-athletes for requesting and taking a mental health break.”
“We have not received a lawsuit,” Ole Miss wrote in a statement issued through a school spokesman Thursday night. “DeSanto was never removed from the football team and remains on scholarship. In addition, he continues to have the opportunity to receive all of the resources and advantages that are afforded a student-athlete at the university.”
Kiffin declined to comment, deferring to the university’s statement.
The lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi Oxford Division and obtained by ESPN, alleges that at the time of the incident, Ole Miss “did not have written institutional procedures for routine mental health referrals.” It also states that Kiffin, the rest of the coaching staff and the football athletic trainers weren’t provided with “role-appropriate training about the signs and symptoms of mental health disorders and the behaviors of student-athletes to monitor that may reflect psychological concerns.”
According to the lawsuit, Rollins suffered multiple injuries during his career with the Rebels, including a concussion in the spring of 2022 and an injury to his right Achilles tendon that July. The lawsuit claims Rollins “suffered severe depression, anxiety, frustration, embarrassment, humiliation, a loss of sleep and loss of appetite” from the injury to his Achilles.
The lawsuit further states that nobody within the athletic department or football staff provided Rollins with materials about mental health or a mental health referral after the injury. He was reinstated to practice the following month, and in August, he aggravated a previous injury to the LCL in his left knee. In addition to the physical pain he suffered, the lawsuit states that Rollins suffered from “severe depression.”
On Nov. 28, 2022, Rollins met with defensive line coach Randall Joyner for an exit meeting, and Rollins said Joyner tried to persuade him to enter the transfer portal. Rollins declined to transfer. On Jan. 6, 2023, Rollins’ grandmother died, and he “continued to suffer severe depression,” according to the lawsuit.
On Feb. 27, 2023, Rollins met with Kiffin, who informed Rollins he was moving from defensive tackle to the scout team’s offensive line because he wouldn’t transfer. According to the lawsuit, Rollins asked Kiffin if this was “a choice or a command.” Rollins alleged that Kiffin told him “if he didn’t like it then he should quit.”
At that point, Rollins told Kiffin he was going to take “a mental break,” according to the lawsuit. Rollins went to his car and immediately called strength and conditioning coach Nick Savage and reiterated his need for a mental break.
His mother, Connie Hollins, said she called the school’s athletic trainer, Pat Jernigan, and told him Rollins was “suffering a mental health crisis.” She requested Jernigan get a counselor to speak with her son and monitor him.
According to the lawsuit, Jernigan scheduled a meeting for Rollins with Josie Nicholson, the school’s assistant athletic director for sport psychology. She encouraged him to take a step back and scheduled a follow-up session for March 7. When he returned for his next session, Nicholson told him Kiffin wanted to meet with him again, but Rollins said he wasn’t ready to see the head coach yet.
Rollins didn’t meet with Kiffin again until March 21, despite repeated requests from the football staff. During the meeting Rollins legally recorded Kiffin without his knowledge, and a copy of the transcript was included in the lawsuit. ESPN has heard the audio recording but was not able to independently verify it.
“Ok, you have a f—ing head coach, this is a job, guess what, if I have mental issues and I’m not diminishing them, I can’t not see my f—ing boss,” Kiffin said, according to the lawsuit and the audio recording. “When you were told again and again the head coach needs to see you, wasn’t to make you practice, wasn’t to play a position you don’t f—ing want to, ok? It was to talk to you and explain to you in the real world, ok? So I don’t give a f— what your mom say, ok, or what you think in the real f—ing world, you show up to work, and then you say, ‘Hey, I have mental issues, I can’t do anything for two weeks, but if you change my position I won’t have mental issues.’
“I guarantee if we f—ing called you in and said you’re playing defense, would you have mental issues?”
“I definitely would,” Rollins said.
During the audio exchange, Rollins is heard saying, “I mean, you’re acting like my issues aren’t real.”
“I didn’t say they’re not real,” Kiffin responded. “You show up when your head — when your boss wants to meet with you. It wouldn’t have been like this. If you would’ve come here when you kept getting messages the head coach wants to talk to you, you say ‘I’m not ready to talk to him.'”
“I wasn’t,” Rollins said.
“What f—ing world do you live in?” Kiffin asked.
“I don’t see why you have to be disrespectful, honestly,” Rollins said.
“Get out of here,” Kiffin said. “Go, you’re off the team. You’re done. See ya. Go. And guess what? We can kick you off the team. So go read your f—ing rights about mental health. We can kick you off the team for not showing up. When the head coach asks to meet with you and you don’t show up for weeks, we can remove you from the team.
“It’s called being a p—y,” Kiffin said. “It’s called hiding behind s— and not showing up to work.”
The lawsuit alleges that “as a proximate result of the actions and inactions of the defendants … Rollins has suffered physical pain and emotional distress and anguish.” It also cites the Americans with Disabilities Act, alleging that Rollins was kicked off the football team because of his disability, which it states was a “mental impairment.” In addition to the allegations of gross negligence and negligence, the lawsuit alleges intentional infliction of emotional distress, stating that “Kiffin acted willfully, maliciously, recklessly, and wantonly in words and deeds toward Rollins.”
“No person should be subjected to this type of abuse when they’re suffering a mental health crisis,” Hollins said. “He just wanted some time to get through his grandmother’s death. It wasn’t even spring ball yet, but I don’t care, it could’ve been the regular season. Sometimes, everybody needs a break.”
Rollins and his attorney filed a tort claims demand letter May 3, but said in the lawsuit the defendants have not responded to it.
Rollins, an honor roll student expecting to graduate in December with a business degree, had played in only three games as a reserve defensive lineman heading into this season. He redshirted in 2020 and played in one game as a sophomore in 2021 as a backup defensive tackle against Austin Peay.
Rollins declined to comment, other than telling ESPN, “I love Ole Miss, but they do not love me.”