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?