• An Oxford apparel store has pulled more Mississippi State targets into its lawsuit against those who implicated it in the NCAA's case against Ole Miss. Will Rebel Rags get the last word?
By Michael McCann
February 21, 2018

Rebel Rags may be a mere apparel store located in Oxford, Miss., but it is attempting to play an influential role in an ongoing controversy between the NCAA and one of its members, the University of Mississippi. Rebel Rags’ entire business is based on selling officially licensed Ole Miss clothing and merchandise. Last year the store took the unusual step of suing two active college football players over claims made by those players to NCAA investigators. More specifically, the store contends that two Mississippi State football players—Leo Lewis and Kobe Jones—along with Lindsey Miller, the estranged father of former Ole Miss tackle Laremy Tunsil, defamed the store by asserting that Rebel Rags provided free gear to Lewis and Jones during their recruitment. Those claims serve as part of the basis of the NCAA’s notice of allegations against Ole Miss.

On Tuesday, Rebel Rags expanded the litigation by suing Florida head coach Dan Mullen and athletic director Scott Stricklin, who previously held the same positions at Mississippi State and were involved in the recruitment of Lewis and Jones. Rebel Rags has also sued NCAA investigator Mike Sheridan—who has been charged with investigating Ole Miss—and the NCAA itself.

Breaking down the latest Rebel Rags complaint

In a complaint authored by attorneys Charles Merkel Jr. and Charles Merkel III, Rebel Rags contends that Lewis and Jones not only knowingly lied to the NCAA but were encouraged to do so by Mullen and Stricklin. For that reason, Rebel Rags depicts Mullen and Stricklin as unlawful conspirators in a plot to both defame the store and wrongly accuse it of attempting to influence recruits.

Rebel Rags asserts that Mullen, Stricklin, Sheridan and a group of unnamed defendants (including boosters and others sympathetic to Mississippi State football) arranged for meetings between Sheridan and the two players. During these meetings, the players allegedly offered inaccurate accounts to Sheridan about receiving free items in contravention of NCAA rules. Rebel Rags—a store obviously sympathetic to and dependent on Ole Miss—contends that it has been unlawfully cast as facilitator of the school’s recruiting efforts.

As Rebel Rags depicts the facts, the arrangement of meetings between Sheridan and the players entailed far more than mere scheduling. The store contends that all of the defendants “unlawfully agreed and conspired to aid and abet the creation of a false narrative.” This is a damning accusation, painting Mullen and Stricklin as not only liars, but also as manipulators of young college students in a nefarious plot to harm a rival institution.

Rebel Rags saves its harshest criticisms for Sheridan, the NCAA investigator. It claims that Sheridan “surreptitiously conducted interviews of Jones and Lewis” without letting these teenagers know why they were being interviewed. Sheridan and others, Rebel Rags insists, also “systematically excluded exculpatory evidence” from the NCAA’s investigative file. Further, they allegedly redacted remarks by Lewis that would have raised questions about the accuracy and credibility of his accusations against Rebel Rags.

Could litigation potentially influence the NCAA’s handling of Ole Miss?

Rebel Rags portrays NCAA investigator Sheridan as partaking in a plot to knowingly receive false information about the school he is investigating. If this accusation could be proven true—obviously a big “if”—it would enable Ole Miss to petition for a restraining order to block the NCAA from imposing any sanction against the school. Ole Miss would contend that, although courts generally give private associations such as the NCAA high deference in their decisions, those decisions must not be arbitrary or capricious. In this context, a private association’s decision to punish a school based on a report authored by an investigator who partook in a scheme to slander the school would be a capricious one.

The very nature of NCAA investigations could also come under fire as part of this litigation. When a witness speaks with an NCAA investigator, the interview is done in a closed session. For that reason, no one from Rebel Rags—including the store’s attorneys—had any opportunity to cross-examine Lewis, Jones or other witnesses who may have made claims against the store’s interests. In some ways an NCAA interview is akin to a grand jury hearing, where the prosecutor directs the process. The target of the grand jury is ordinarily given minimal notice and may not even have an opportunity to be heard. Similarly, Rebel Rags could not review any evidence offered by the players or demand that additional, potentially exonerating evidence be shared. By suing, the store hopes to create more transparency in how NCAA allegations are reviewed.

Rebel Rags’ business model depends on a positive relationship with Ole Miss and its fans. Merkel has previously told SI that “people have threatened to boycott the store” because it is implicated in the rules violations that led to Ole Miss’s two-year bowl ban. Thursday’s complaint underscores this concern, noting that Ole Miss “was compelled to disassociate [Rebel Rags] from the University and bar it from advertising its merchandise through its media outlets and at sporting events.” Put more bluntly, if Ole Miss fans view Rebel Rags as deserving blame for Ole Miss’s problems with the NCAA, they will be much less likely to buy from the store.

A complaint alone does not prove anything

It remains to be seen if Rebel Rags can support any of its accusations or theories. As in any lawsuit, accusations made in a complaint can attract headlines and stir suspicions. Whether those accusations are true or provable can prove to be entirely different stories. Evidence and testimony will play key roles on that front.

“Simply put, the claims against Mr. Stricklin are wholly devoid of merit, and there is simply no good faith basis in either law or fact for Mr. Stricklin to have been made a party to such a case,” Charles Winfield, an attorney for Stricklin, told SI’s Andy Staples. Last year, Miller’s attorney, Matthew Wilson, offered a similar rebuke of the claims and stressed that his client would mount “a vigorous defense.”

Bruce Feldman and Andy Staples contributed to this report.

Michael McCann, SI's legal analyst, provides legal and business analysis for The Crossover. He is also the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of New Hampshire School of Law and co-author with Ed O'Bannon of the new book Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA.

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