Mississippi State players respond to lawsuit from Ole Miss booster

Leo Lewis was Mississippi State’s second-leading tackler in 2016. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

The drama never stops at Ole Miss.

On the same day the school was sued for defamation by a former head coach, two players from its rival, Mississippi State, filed responses to a lawsuit filed by one of the school’s boosters.

Got all that? Let me explain.

Last month, Rebel Rags, an Oxford-based apparel store identified as one of the Ole Miss football boosters in the school’s NCAA Notice of Allegations, sued MSU players Leo Lewis and Kobe Jones for the statements they made during the NCAA’s investigation into the Rebels football program.

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The store is alleged to have provided approximately $2,800 worth of free merchandise to the players — both were heavily recruited by Ole Miss — in an exchange arranged by two former Ole Miss staff members: defensive line coach Chris Kiffin and assistant athletic director for junior college and high school relations Barney Farrar.

In the lawsuit, Rebel Rags (whose founder, Terry Warren, was identified by Yahoo Sports as “Booster 9” in the Notice of Allegations) claims the players made false statements that were published in the notice of allegations. The suit is for “defamation, slander, conspiracy and commercial disparagement.”

According to the Starkville Daily News, attorneys for the two players filed separate responses on Wednesday. Lewis’ attorney spoke to the SDN and denied the claims, while the attorney representing Rebel Rags confirmed that he received a response from Jones’ attorney as well.

From the Starkville Daily News:

John Wheeler, the lawyer for Lewis, told the SDN that he argues in his response that Rebel Rags’ suit is “fatally flawed” as the retail outlet is the only party in the case that has published any potentially damaging comments.

“On the merits, it is not permissible for an individual or entity to attempt to recover damages in civil court for defamation when the only publication of the alleged defamatory comment was made by the plaintiff that is the entity that seeks damages,” Wheeler said. “I think it is really important to remember, from Leo Lewis’ standpoint, that any participation he had, if any, in an NCAA investigative process, because he is a scholar athlete at a participating institution, would be by NCAA rules, confidential.

“It would also be compulsory. He has no choice. He has to participate in those interviews. So whatever he did was compulsory. It was confidential. He hasn’t mentioned anything to anyone outside of that investigative process. For Rebel Rags to claim they’ve been defamed by Leo Lewis, when the only publication that has ever been made about this issue was made by Rebel Rags, I find disingenuous.”

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Ole Miss agreed with many of the violations issued by the NCAA, but the violation involving Rebel Rags was vehemently denied in the university’s response. In its response, Ole Miss said there is “no proof that corroborates the claims” that the players “received free merchandise.” The school also said the players each “tell a substantially different story about what allegedly happened, and each story suffers from obvious and substantiated factual inconsistencies and errors.”

Additionally, Ole Miss said it possesses purchase reports from the store that disprove the claims made by Lewis and Jones.

Lindsey Miller, the estranged stepfather of former Ole Miss star Laremy Tunsil, is also named in the Rebel Rags lawsuit. According to The Clarion-Ledger, Miller’s attorney filed a motion to dismiss the suit last week.

Lewis, referred to as “Student-Athlete 39” in the NOA, also claims to have received a $10,000 payment from an Ole Miss booster. The school denies that claim, too, and says two of the most serious violations it faces — lack of institutional control and head coach responsibility — “rely almost exclusively” on Lewis’ NCAA testimony. In its response, Ole Miss said the testimony from Lewis was “at best incomplete and inconsistent.”

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Meanwhile, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said Tuesday at SEC Media Days that he “absolutely” anticipates both Lewis, a linebacker, and Jones, a defensive lineman, to be eligible for every game in the upcoming season.

Lewis was second on the team with 79 tackles as a redshirt freshman in 2016. Jones took a redshirt and will be a redshirt freshman in 2017.

For more Ole Miss news, visit RebelGrove.com.

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Sam Cooper is a writer for the Yahoo Sports blogs. Have a tip? Email him or follow him on Twitter!