At What Price Victory?

As a teenager, DeSanto Rollins dreamed of playing SEC football and parlaying his experience into a career in the NFL. Then injuries piled up, his in-game speed slowed down, and he found himself on the scout team at Ole Miss. Worse still, between his grandmother’s death and dealing with his injuries, he sank into a depression that made it hard for him to leave his bedroom. In fact, he essentially disappeared from the team for two weeks. From March 7 to March 21–peak time for spring practices–he neither participated in strength and conditioning nor responded to messages from coaches.

When Kiffin and Rollins finally met to discuss his absence from the team, their tete-a-tete produced a decapitation. Here’s an excerpt of that meeting provided by ESPN:

“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.”

This conversation, which took place March 21, became the basis for a $40 million lawsuit against the university, coaches, and the athletic staff.

My experience with college football coaches suggests that this exchange is the tip of the ice berg. The only form of accountability most of them understand lies in getting their teams to win. Win, and anything can be forgiven–verbal abuse, bullying, a lack of regard for academic priorities. Excuses will be made. Deals will be cut. Lose, and find a new line of work. The mental health of athletes is unimportant in that universe. It can’t be measured. Scholarship amounts, NIL deals, and wins can be.

I do not know the depths of the issues Rollins experienced, or the effectiveness with which he communicated those issues to the coaches. I do not know of “real world” working environments where a person can simply go AWOL for two weeks without expecting a tongue-lashing or a dismissal. Nor do I know if Rollins was simply a malcontent who loved excuses more than results. I can say that despite Kiffin’s horrible language, he did not remove Rollins from the team, which means, technically, that he still has a scholarship and all the amenities of being a student athlete at Ole Miss. It also means that he will have a harder time showing compensable damages.

However, this episode makes me wonder, broadly, about the expectations we have for those who coach sports. When does a tirade become abuse? At what point is a coach responsible for a player’s mental health? And when should either of those concerns be set aside in the name of pushing a team to victory?

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10 Responses to At What Price Victory?

  1. Carter Scaggs says:

    First of all, I think this relation between teacher and student is not only applicable to football. The same can apply to band directors, karate instructors, organizational leaders, professors, etc.

    I do not believe it is a coach’s responsibility to maintain his players’ mental health off the field. Their job is to push their players to the best of their ability in any way they can. For many this includes verbal and physical punishments that could be categorized as abuse. I believe it is the player’s responsibility to maintain their own mental health in their personal lives. If something happens that is out of their control, such as injuries or the loss of a loved one, they should inform the coach. This way it is the coach’s responsibility to act accordingly. If the coach decides to ignore the player’s situation, then it is the coach’s fault if the player performs poorly. If the coach acts to help the player, then the player will likely improve. If the player does not improve after action has been taken, then it could not entirely be the coach’s fault. However, if the player simply chooses not to take care of their own mental health or fails to communicate it to the coach, then the player should be held accountable.

    In the case of Rollins, I do not believe it is entirely one person’s fault. Primarily, when Kiffin requested to see Rollins, I believe it was Rollins’ responsibility to show up. I believe Kiffin was not entirely justified in yelling at Rollins, but I think he is justified in being angry with him.

  2. Colt Sorey says:

    As a former football athlete, myself, I feel that people hold coaches to such a high standard that they have very little room to mess up, especially when their athletes are included.

    In the recent years there have been players been forced to play through injuries. This is when it turns to abuse instead of tirade. Like in 2021 when Antonio Brown, former NFL wideout, claims coach Bruce Arians forced him to play a game with an injured ankle.

    Personally, I feel that the coach always needs to be aware of the players mental health. Especially, in this day and age when young people already have mental health issues, add in the repeated brain trauma you get from football, and it makes it significantly worse.

    It does not matter the circumstance, you should never, and I mean never, force an athlete to play through an injury, or a mental health issue, just for the sake of the sport.

  3. Samar Rahimi says:

    Though I have little to no experience in football, I believe the coach’s response to DeSanto Rollins was inappropriate and I am disappointed to see how common treatment from coaches like these is. I understand that the player was unresponsive to the coach and the team for around two weeks, and I believe the coach had every right to be upset. However, the coach did not need to verbally abuse the player, even if he was appalled by said players behavior.

    Unfortunately, verbal abuse from sports coaches is widely accepted, since most believe that it is what a coach needs to do to get through to their players. But mentally abusing their players should not be the solution for getting them ready to win. Treating their players like this is inhumane and could seriously affect their mental health. Because most sport players, especially in football, are seen as tough men, people often overlook their mental problems and do not allow them to be emotionally vulnerable. Players are expected to drop everything – their personal issues, academic life, and family matters – to play for their team, and I believe that encourages poor mental health.

  4. Darshi says:

    I have never had these issues with my coaches in the past, and this behavior was not acceptable. It is sad to see what some athletes have to go through even while they are having a hard time with other things.
    When player are unresponsive, it is very irritating to coaches, but coaches have to understand that players have a life outside of their sport. Sometimes players go to hard times and they do not show what is going on. Coaches should be mindful of this too.
    While the player might think that they are not at fault, sometimes they have to communicate even when it is hard. In this instance, DeSanto Rollins could have texted or emailed this coach that he going through a hard time and possibly the coach would have understood. How can coaches know where the athlete is if they do not communicate or even respond to texts and email.
    Verbal abuse also has to come to an end. The conversation could be way better if the coached communicate calmly. Coaches need to understand that players have a personal life, and they can not just focus on the sport. They have to get out and do other things.

  5. Myia Williams says:

    The athlete was wrong for not communicating with the coaches. He could have reached out to let everyone know what was going on. However, the coach didn’t have to verbally abuse him. The coach was being beyond disrespectful, and he honestly didn’t have to kick him off the team. It’s sad what some athletes have to go through. When their mental health is not right, the coaches are still hard on them instead of lifting them up. I feel that coaches have a responsibility to prioritize the overall well-being for their players, including their mental health. While pushing a team to a victory is important, it should never come at the expense of a player’s mental health. Coaches should strike a balance between pushing players to perform their best and providing support and understanding when mental health concerns arise.

  6. Zuxia Li says:

    Personally, I have never had a coach who treated me or anyone on my team like Kiffin to Rollins. Kiffin was being a little bit insincere towards the hardships that Rollins was facing, but it was not verbal abuse. Kiffin had no knowledge of how bad Rollins’s mental health was because Rollins never communicated. Their conversation would not have gone like this if Rollins simply just told him what he was going through. Like any coach, Kiffin would have appreciated this. However, Kiffin should not have used vulgar language towards his own players even if Rollins wasn’t going through hard times. This is him being inconsiderate of others.

    Tirade becomes verbal abuse when it is directed specifically at one person and especially if it is continuous after they have expressed their disapproval of being talked to like that. Coaches are only responsible for a players mental health if they keep pushing those who are obviously struggling and express no concerns whatsoever. All coaches want to push their players to their best potential, but they always pull the ones they are especially hard on to the side after practice and give them words of encouragement. If players can’t acknowledge that their coach only wants to push those who can be pushed then that spurs the negative emotions felt by the players. They will begin to hate the sport they once love and begin to think down of themselves, solely because their coach don’t know how to reassure his/her players. Coaches are not responsible for a player’s mental health revolving around life issues, but their words and influence can either play a positive or negative impact on his/her player’s mental health.

    All of the pushing towards victory can be set aside when the game/match starts. Any words of reassurance or encourage are to be said before the game starts. When the players zone into the game, all they think about is how they are going to play, and anything said on the sidelines can be zone out really fast. At that point, coaches can only watch and pray that the players kept their words in their head.

  7. Ramon Munoz-Montiel says:

    The primary objective of a sports coach is to help the growth and development of their players or teams in terms of skill and performance. Achieving this objective often requires pushing athletes to their limits. Thus, many coaches employ aggressive language to motivate their players.

    People react to this approach in diverse ways. Some athletes find motivation in the intensity and are not hurt by the harsh language used by their coaches. Others, however, are more sensitive and may be deeply affected by such comments. This shows the role of an athlete’s character in determining the effectiveness of a coach’s style.

    While the effectiveness of this practice may be questioned, it’s important to distinguish between stern coaching and outright abuse. A tirade becomes abusive when a coach uses a player’s deeply personal issues to insult them. Coaches, however, should not be expected to be responsible for the mental health of their athletes. Instead, their mental health is completely at their fault, as they always have the choice to leave the team if they do not like the coaching style.

    Being in a team is a privilege rather than a right, which often necessitates making sacrifices. If an athlete is not happy with their coaches and the amount of work they have to do, they have two options: they can either choose to resign from the team or make the decision to persevere and endure the challenging coaching methods. Ultimately, the responsibility for one’s experience within the team lies in their own hands.

  8. Isabel Henderson says:

    I feel like it depends solely on the person. Some people prefer a more aggressive approach, because it gives good results. Others feel aggression is not in the best interest of their mental health. I feel like the real question is “Why do they stay?”. Is the outcome really worth the physical and mental strain of the sport? I do not feel like the crudeness of the coach is a bad thing, because the team needs players that can handle that physical and mental strain. If a coach were to be too nice, there would not be any improvement. The people that stay want to play that sport so badly, that they endure all of it, because they know the outcome will be worth it. In this situation, his mental health could not handle undergoing such a rigorous sport. Even though he should have worded it very differently, the coach did what he was supposed to, when he let the player go. The player could not handle the sport, so he should not play it on such a high level.

  9. Kelvin says:

    Firstly, as someone who doesn’t really care for sports I may be in the minority, but I don’t think mental health should ever be set aside for the victory of a game. I do, however, believe in tough love on certain occasions. Tirades go a bit too far when the insults come off stronger than the support. While this may sound a bit selfish, I don’t think anyone is responsible for player’s mental health except for the player, coaches should try not to add more stress to the equation but it’s not their job. Their job is to train players and get them to win games. In this instance the coach definitely went too far.

  10. Gracyn Young says:

    This is something I understand too well, at my previous high school, I was a student-athlete, often begging my parents to let me skip “just this one practice.” I’d say I needed to work on schoolwork, or pick up an extra shift, in reality, most of the time, I just didn’t want to go. I wouldn’t say, at that point, I was in any mental health crisis, but I often did feel overwhelmed and forced into a routine I didn’t particularly like. For the record, my parents didn’t let me skip, and I believe a lot of this prompt, suggesting that he is a college athlete, may have more to do with accountability than anything else. Despite this, the way the coach speaks to the athlete is unacceptable, and like you said, only the tip of the iceberg. I do feel as if coaches need to be more understanding of mental health and other problems student-athletes may face. Though I can see situations like the NFL may need to be more strict, the term student-athletes in itself shows that they are students first, implying that should be the priority, and I feel as if a lot of high school and college coaches may not accept/respect that.

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