How a lawsuit filed by Oxford retailer Rebel Rags could impact Ole Miss's NCAA case

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A business in Oxford, Miss., has filed a civil complaint alleging defamation and civil conspiracy that could reverberate through the University of Mississippi’s ongoing NCAA case. Rebel Rags LLC, an Oxford-based clothing company, filed the complaint Friday in Lafayette County Circuit Court.

The suit alleges defamation in the NCAA testimony of two Mississippi State football players, Leo Lewis and Kobe Jones, and also Lindsey Miller, the estranged stepfather of former Rebel star Laremy Tunsil. In Ole Miss’s response to the NCAA’s notice of allegations last week, it attempts to deny the allegations that two recruits and the family member of a recruit—Lewis, Jones and Miller—received a total of $2,800 in gear from Rebel Rags.

Sports Illustrated spoke Sunday evening with Rebel Rags’s attorney, Charles Merkel, who explained that the store “has caught the broadside of lies.”

Miller’s lawyer, Matthew Wilson of Spring Hill, Tenn., released a statement to Sports Illustrated regarding the suit on Sunday night.

“Lindsey Miller has been named in a lawsuit that was filed by a particular retail outlet,” Wilson said in the statement. “The complaint relates to comments Mr. Miller allegedly made to the NCAA. Mr. Miller intends to mount a vigorous defense to the Complaint in a court of law.” A Mississippi State athletic department official declined comment. Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork did not return a message seeking comment.

The lawsuit arrived the same week that Ole Miss delivered a 125-page response to the NCAA in an investigation that threatens the future of its football program. According to the notice, Ole Miss has “concluded that significant violations occurred in connection with its football program over a period of years.”

One of the most serious charges in the NCAA case against Ole Miss—an alleged Level 1 violation—revolves around Rebel Rags. The NCAA contends that Miller, Lewis and Jones were guided by a former Ole Miss coach, Chris Kiffin, and a former football staff official, Barney Farrar, who “arranged approximately $2,800 in impermissible recruiting inducements in the form of free merchandise.”

The store is identified as “Booster 8” in the NCAA case, “a retailer located in Oxford, Mississippi, that specializes in selling merchandise associated with the institution.” (Yahoo Sports also identified Rebel Rags founder and president, Terry Warren, as “Booster 9.”)

The lawsuit reflects the existential risk posed by the NCAA’s notice of allegations for Rebel Rags as a business. The store’s entire business model—selling officially licensed Ole Miss paraphernalia and merchandise—is imperiled by allegations that the store aided Ole Miss in breaking NCAA rules. “People have threatened to boycott the store,” Merkel tells SI. Merkel adds that the store president Warren, “has received hate mail. People are blaming him and the store. He is and was at risk.”

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Merkel also explains that Rebel Rags is cognizant of the fact that “Ole Miss has disassociated with car dealerships and others connected to boosters.” Along those lines, Merkel is concerned that Rebel Rags “could be disassociated from the school at any time,” a move that would likely put Rebel Rags out of business.

In order to prevail in a defamation lawsuit, Rebel Rags will need to prove that the defendants made relatively specific statements about the store that were factual-sounding. Statements asserting that recruits received free merchandise from Rebel Rags on specific dates and for certain values would, if untrue, likely embody defamatory remarks. In contrast, statements that are more accurately viewed as opinions or subjective depictions are less likely to be viewed by a court as defamatory. A description of a booster’s attitude or motivations would, for instance, probably not count as defamatory since it can’t be proven or disproven.

The complaint’s two other claims—commercial disparagement and civil conspiracy—will similarly require persuasive evidence. Rebel Rags contends that the store has become unpopular with customers due to disparaging allegations made by the defendants. Such unpopularity poses commercial consequences: the store losing customers and sales. Rebel Rags also asserts that the store is the victim of the defendants having “conspired to concoct a false narrative of Rebel Rags providing free merchandise to prospective student athletes.” It will be interesting to see how evidence of a so-called conspiracy plays out and whether others connected to the NCAA investigation are implicated.

Lewis has emerged as a divisive figure in the case against Ole Miss. Along with the $400 in gear he allegedly received at Rebel Rags, he also alleges some of the most significant testimony against Ole Miss. Lewis claims he took $10,000 from an Ole Miss booster before National Signing Day in 2015. Ole Miss points out inconsistencies in his story in the response to the NCAA. In one telling, according to the response, Lewis said the booster provided him “a wad of $100 bills.” His story later changed to “a bag full of money” that he alleged he received in a parking lot. Ole Miss also alleges that Lewis changed his story about who initiated contact with the booster.

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Much of Rebel Rags’s lawsuit centers on how the NCAA obtained information from Lewis. More specifically, the lawsuit contends that Lewis embellished and that the NCAA facilitated that embellishment in order to burnish the case against Ole Miss. Along those lines, it is expected that Rebel Rags will argue that neither Ole Miss nor any third party implicated by Lewis’s allegations had a credible opportunity to cross-examine him. Merkel tells SI that Lewis “couldn’t tell a straight story” when implicating Ole Miss and Rebel Rags. By suing Lewis for defamation, Rebel Rags may gain the opportunity to force Lewis to testify under oath, answer hostile questions and turn over evidence and documentation that might undermine Lewis’s narrative.

While the NCAA granted Lewis immunity, such immunity is limited to NCAA punishments. The NCAA, which is a private entity, does not have the legal capacity to immunize a student-athlete from potential civil liability for allegedly breaking a state or federal law. Here, Rebel Rags contends that Lewis and Jones broke three Mississippi laws: defamation, commercial disparagement and civil conspiracy.

One unique aspect of the lawsuit is that Rebel Rags, unlike Ole Miss, can easily commence a lawsuit over an NCAA investigation.

“We’re not a volunteer member,” Merkel notes, “We don’t dance to their tune.” The same, of course, is not true for NCAA affiliated schools. Because of their membership agreements with the NCAA and related contractual obligations, NCAA members are greatly limited in being able to sue the NCAA.

Expect Rebel Rags to gradually expand the lawsuit to include other persons as defendants, according to Merkel. As more facts surface, Rebel Rags will likely expand the lawsuit to include those who may have negotiated with the NCAA for immunity from punishment.

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