Dumb rules produce dumber outcomes. Case in point? By which I mean, literal case in point? According to Sports Illustrated, an Oxford, Mississippi, store that sells University of Mississippi–licensed clothes and gear has filed a defamation and civil conspiracy suit against two Mississippi State football players and the stepfather of an Ole Miss player.
Where are America's brave tort reformers when you really need them?
The suit stems from the National Collegiate Athletic Association's ongoing investigation into alleged amateurism violations by the Mississippi football program. One of the supposed violations revolves around the store, Rebel Rags. The NCAA claims that Mississippi State players Kobe Jones and Leo Lewis as well as Lindsey Miller, the stepfather of former player Laremy Tunsil, received $2,800 of free gear from Rebel Rags with the help of two former football staffers.
Under NCAA rules, the alleged giveaway qualifies as an "impermissible recruiting inducement" and a "Level 1" violation—a quasi-legal term that sounds serious, like DEFCON 1, only we're talking about some high-school football player getting a gratis sweatshirt, not Kim Jong Un getting loose with ballistic missiles.
Anyway, here's the crux of the suit. Rebel Rags and its owner, Terry Warren, make money selling Ole Miss gear. According to Warren's lawyer, potential customers are now threatening to "boycott the store" and also sending "hate mail" because they blame Warren and Rebel Rags for getting the football program into potential trouble with the NCAA.
Worst-case scenario? Mississippi disassociates itself with the store, the lawyer says, the same way it has disassociated itself with car dealerships and other businesses connected to boosters. That could put Rebel Rags out of business, because who wants to shop at just plain Rags?
The NCAA's claims largely are based on testimony from Lewis to association investigators. The Rebel Rags suit essentially says Lewis is full of it, can't keep his story straight, and that the store did nothing wrong in the first place. Ultimately, Warren's lawyer may be able to put Lewis and others under oath, compel the release of NCAA documents and emails, and essentially put the association's investigation of the Ole Miss football program under a legal microscope.
That would be fun. Juicy, too. Definite fodder for summertime SEC Country talk radio. But take a step back, and this whole story is totally absurd. Ole Miss fans are supposedly angry at a store—to the point of sending death threats!—that sells Ole Miss gear they presumably enjoy buying and wearing for allegedly giving some of that gear to athletes who ended up playing in the SEC for the benefit of … said fans. Meanwhile, Warren—a man whose entire freaking business is built on enthusiasm and goodwill for Ole Miss sports—is suing the very athletes whose performances make that enthusiasm and goodwill possible, for the alleged and terrible wrong of telling the NCAA that he plied them with complimentary Ole Miss gear, something that Ole Miss and basically every other school does on a regular basis, because that's good branding.
Look, the real problem here isn't what Warren did or didn't give to some football players, or what those football players did or didn't tell the NCAA. The problem is pretending that any of this is a problem in the first place, Level 1 or otherwise. There's nothing morally wrong with a store giving someone a freebie, or a school booster giving a potential student some money, or athletic departments making competitive bids to land and retain talented workers. And none of that becomes wrong when the someone, student, or worker in question happens to play football.
There's a reason that outside of college sports, Americans don't apply amateurism to any other aspect of our lives. It's dumb. And dumb rules produce dumber outcomes, like the NCAA wasting money that could otherwise be devoted to something useful (such as funding scholarships) on getting athletes to snitch on a clothing store, all while fans fret and the store files a court-clogging lawsuit in response. None of this should be fodder for legal action. It shouldn't even be a dispute. Jones and Lewis should be enjoying their allegedly free sweatpants, not Googling "defamation defense attorneys"; Warren should be having a chill summer; the NCAA's enforcement staff should be reading up on COBRA benefits. The only actual winners here are billable hours—always and forever the real MVP—and the cognitive dissonance it requires to believe that this entire saga is not, in fact, a colossal waste of time.
Besides, if anything about Rebel Rags actually merits investigatory scrutiny, it's this:
*An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Jones and Lewis as Ole Miss players