When Ole Miss football brothers Denzel and Robert Nkemdiche were named in a $2 million civil lawsuit in February, athletics director Ross Bjork and Rebels coach Hugh Freeze were quick to support them.
The suit was filed on Feb. 14 by Matthew Baird in response to injuries he says he sustained because of a fight outside a fraternity house roughly one year prior.
Other unnamed football players were included in Baird’s claim.
Bjork says he was able to quickly support the Nkemdiches because of the results of an investigation by the University Police Department.
“We were involved in this matter a year ago when it came up. We heard about it through a report from our campus police, and they wanted to talk to athletes who were there, so we made those athletes available. We cooperated with the entire investigation. They came down and said, ‘We can’t find anything.’ The reason we were so confident in 2014 is that we’d dealt with it in 2013. We had read reports, talked to our players directly about what had happened. Obviously it’s a police investigation. They’re responsible for handling that. They give us the information about next steps. That’s why we were so confident in what happened. Now it’s a personal matter for Denzel and Robert. We’ve all seen how they’ve responded. Everyone’s confident in the case. Now it just has to kind of go through the process.”
The lawsuit was just one incident in what has become a turbulent off-season for Denzel Nkemdiche, the older brother, that has also included an arrest for disturbing the peace and disorderly conduct and more recently a spring break video of Nkemdiche’s profanity-laced tirade at what is believed to be a group of fans of an opposing team.
Football players Serderius Bryant, Channing Ward and Bobby Hill were also arrested prior to spring drills.
Hill, whose charge was sexual battery, is no longer on the team.
The off-season has also included a mission trip to Haiti in which 10 players – Bryant among them – and other support staff participated.
Bjork says he’s concerned about the image projected by the football program in recent events but also confident in its direction.
“You’re always concerned about how you run the program and what you stand for from a public perception standpoint. I’m always concerned, because it’s our job to run it the right way, but I’m also very confident in how we’ve dealt with it. I think that’s a sign of integrity and responsibility to do things the right way in athletics. You’re going to have adversity. It happens everyday, but how do you handle it, how do you follow up, what do you stand for, what do you act on? I think we have a very good plan in place for the athletes that are still here. I think we’ve dealt with the situation where athletes are not here any more in the right way.”
Bjork continued: “We live in an educational environment. It’s our job to help athletes. You look at what Serderius Bryant has gone through. He had a rough summer last year. He sits out the first game, but look at what he did during the season. Then he has a bump in the road in the off-season, but look what he’s done the last couple of weeks. I think we always have to be mindful that we’re helping young people. Yeah, there’s a concern, and there should be. We can’t just say everything’s great. Everyday we’ve got to make sure we’re doing the right thing, but I’m very confident in what our coaches stand for specifically football. Those are the high-profile ones that have bubbled up. I’m very very confident in what our coaches are doing, and we’ll continue to stay on this path of doing things right, talking about the right things, and if something happens, we’ll deal with it.”