Ole Miss needs to do right by its players and give them the option to leave restriction-free

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

Since Ole Miss has established its willingness to do the difficult thing (pushing out a successful football coach) to maintain the school’s self-defined ethics (no escorts), the school should extend that to doing what’s right for its own players.

It needs to work with the NCAA to allow any player from the 2016 or 2017 recruiting class (at the very least) to transfer without penalty (the typical one-year sit out) or provision (no restrictions on where they can go).

Yes, let the guys just roll on over to Starkville or Tuscaloosa or Baton Rouge and suit up in September if they so choose.

The school was set to enforce the “moral turpitude” clause in Hugh Freeze’s contract after it was discovered he engaged in “a pattern of personal behavior inconsistent with the standards we expect,” chancellor Jeffrey Vitter said. The coach had placed at least one call to a Tampa-based escort. The school left the rest to the imagination. Freeze resigned on July 20.

The dismissal was sudden and salacious – so sudden and salacious that the far bigger issue with the story has been missed.

The escort phone call(s) was discovered only because of allegations that Freeze and Ole Miss engaged in an organized misinformation campaign designed to fool recruits, their parents and their high school coaches into believing NCAA allegations against the coach and the program weren’t a big deal. At least that’s the heart of a lawsuit filed earlier this month from former coach Houston Nutt.

In January of 2016, the NCAA dropped a notice of allegations on the school. The details weren’t public, though. Fearful that a highly regarded recruiting class would fall apart weeks before National Signing Day, the program claimed it wasn’t a big deal.

That included, the lawsuit alleges, Freeze and Bjork calling college football reporters and analysts and becoming “unnamed sources” in stories that stated the majority of the violations barely involved Freeze but instead dated back to when Nutt was the head coach (2008-11).

Ole Miss officials were ready to claim the moral high ground with Hugh Freeze. Shouldn’t its players have the right to reconsider their decision without penalty? (Getty)

The school isn’t saying much about the lawsuit, but phone records show the obvious pattern, with either Freeze or Bjork calling a reporter/analyst and then said reporter/analyst soon after detailing the pro-Freeze version of events.

It worked. Ole Miss signed the seventh-best recruiting class in the country and third in the SEC, in February 2016, according to rivals.com.

Except, it wasn’t true. The allegations were a big deal, though, and the majority of them did involve Hugh Freeze, not Houston Nutt. Ole Miss knew all this at the time. The school would eventually acknowledge wrongdoing and assess its own preliminary, yet significant, penalties – a bowl ban (and ensuing $8 million in lost revenue), scholarship limitations and at least one staffer fired. The NCAA is almost certain to pile on even more sanctions.

Everyone lies in recruiting but this was particularly organized, an institutionalized effort to deceive recruits and their families having last-minute concerns about where they were about to sign.

Once the details of the allegations came out this spring, Nutt was able to show that the stories were untrue and demanded an apology for what his lawyer dubbed a smear campaign. Freeze and Ole Miss wouldn’t even do that. So Nutt sued, got ahold of Freeze’s phone records and found the initial call to an escort.

One domino. Two dominos. Three dominos. Four.

Ole Miss decided Freeze’s personal life was cause for dismissal. That’s their prerogative. It’s just that allegedly running a well-orchestrated effort to trick recruits into believing a lie is a far more “concerning pattern of behavior” than whatever Hugh Freeze was doing with his escorts.

Any players signed after January 2016 seemingly did so under a false pretense. They and their parents were making very close and difficult decisions. If Ole Miss is opposed to so-called moral turpitude these days, then how about engaging in moral decency and trying to finally start righting some wrongs from the sordid Freeze Era?

How many players would leave if given the chance? Who knows? Ole Miss’ fear is that it would decimate the roster, which is the backwards thinking that got them to this point. In actuality, few would probably leave. Oxford and the University of Mississippi are tremendous places to live, attend school and play football, tricks and lies or no tricks and lies. Those players on campus now are likely even further rooted in the place.

Who stays and who goes isn’t the issue. Every one of them should be given the option. It’s about respect.

One of the myriad problems with college athletics is the lack of concern for the student-athletes, how everything is slanted to the institutions.

In general, if a kid wants to transfer, he needs to sit out a year. Then schools almost always put restrictions on where they can transfer – other teams on the schedule, in conference, even within the region. It’s called amateur athletics when trying to beat the IRS. It’s something different when the institution enforces draconian “contract” clauses.

This isn’t about discouraging players with wandering eyes or stopping programs from poaching. Some of these Ole Miss players are only Ole Miss players because they trusted a false news campaign designed to calm fears and keep them from flipping their commitments.

The players shouldn’t be punished because it worked.

They did nothing to merit sitting out a season. And they did nothing to be restricted due to geography or conference membership. Ole Miss players are almost exclusively from the South. They chose the Rebels over Alabama and Arkansas and Texas A&M and Mississippi State and so on. They should still have the chance to make that choice all over again.

This is about doing right by the players and their families. It’s about being fair and honest and open. It’s about making up for January 2016, when a petrified, short-sighted program was willing to deceive the very people with whom they were trying to build relationships of trust, all in pursuit of victory and contract extensions.

The NCAA relaxed its transfer rules at Penn State after the Jerry Sandusky scandal. This isn’t that. But the players shouldn’t suffer for the actions of a coach or administration at any school. Ole Miss should be willing to work with the NCAA toward a similar agreement if it really does care about its players.

“The Ole Miss family,” is a term Bjork used last week.

Well, if this were your family, how would you like to be treated?