Six former Ole Miss football players who transferred to other schools after the Rebels were hit with additional NCAA penalties plan to build their appeals for immediate eligibility around text messages they say were sent to recruits to downplay the severity of the NCAA investigation into the program.
The players -- quarterback Shea Patterson (Michigan), safety Deontay Anderson (Houston), linebacker Jarrion Street (UAB), offensive tackle Jack DeFoor (Georgia Tech) and receivers Tre Nixon (Central Florida) and Van Jefferson (Florida) -- have appealed to the NCAA for immediate eligibility at their new schools. Without waivers, they'll have to sit out the upcoming season under NCAA rules.
According to screenshots of text messages exchanged by recruits who signed with the Rebels in 2016, the players were told that the NCAA violations involving the Ole Miss football program occurred before Hugh Freeze was hired as head coach in 2012.
"The grounds for the waiver applications are based on an NCAA rule that allows transferring players to become immediately eligible if they transferred because of 'egregious behavior' by a staff member at their former school," said attorney Thomas Mars, who is assisting the players in their appeals to the NCAA. "That term isn't defined, and there's never been a case like this, so the NCAA will be writing on a clean slate in deciding whether the conduct of certain Ole Miss officials constitutes 'egregious behavior.'"
The NCAA announced on Dec. 1 that it had banned Ole Miss from playing in a bowl game for a second straight season in 2018. The Rebels, who were accused of 15 Level I violations, were also put on three years' probation until Nov. 30, 2020.
In the NCAA's ruling, the Rebels were admonished for lacking institutional control and fostering "an unconstrained culture of booster involvement in football recruiting."
According to the NCAA, six football staff members and 12 boosters were involved in the violations, which included the provision of approximately $37,000 to prospects through cash payments, the use of automobiles, lodging, transportation, meals and apparel. Two staff members also helped arrange fraudulent standardized test scores for three recruits.
Freeze, who resigned as the Rebels' coach in July for off-the-field issues, received a two-game suspension from the NCAA for failure to monitor his staff. The suspension applies only for a head-coaching position; there would be no restrictions if he takes a job as a coordinator or assistant coach.
Under NCAA rules, rising seniors at Ole Miss were allowed to transfer to other FBS schools without penalty because the Rebels will miss bowl games in consecutive seasons. Underclassmen have to obtain waivers from the NCAA for immediate eligibility.
The six players who have appealed to the NCAA claim they were misled about the severity of the NCAA investigation and potential sanctions.
In a text-message exchange between Patterson and Nixon on Jan. 29, 2016, which was shared with ESPN, Patterson told Nixon: "don't listen to any of that crap. It happened before [Freeze] was even there. The worst thing that can happen will be lose one or two scholarships for next year. Nothing serious. It's all good over here homie."
Nixon replied: "That's good to hear man I just want to be able to compete for a natty with ya'll."
"Hell yeah bro!" Patterson wrote. "We gonna get multiple of those! Don't let nobody tell you different we all good over here."
CBS Sports first reported the contents of the text messages Thursday.
In a separate document obtained by ESPN, the players argue in their appeal to the NCAA that Freeze deliberately misled a journalist about the details of the NCAA investigation. Once the sportswriter's story was published, Freeze instructed his staff members to share a link to the story with recruits. Freeze inadvertently sent the text message to Nixon.
"Coach Freeze delivered the misleading 'false narrative' to [the journalist], waited until [his] story went online, and then drafted a DM [direct message] to one of his assistants (commenting 'Good PR response' on the false information that he himself had given to the [journalist]), and directed the assistant to send the link to [his] story to all the recruits," the document says.
"The schools submitting the waiver requests to the NCAA on behalf of these players will assert that the student athletes were all the victims of 'egregious behavior' by certain senior officials in the Ole Miss athletics department," Mars said. "More specifically, they will argue that these student athletes were recruited under deliberately false pretenses through a sophisticated misinformation campaign organized and carried out for one purpose: to mislead the 2016 recruits and their parents about the official allegations the NCAA had made just 10 days before national signing day."
Mars represented former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt in his civil suit against the university, which was settled in October. As part of the agreement, the university apologized for its employees making disparaging comments about Nutt to reporters.