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The NCAA wants Mississippi State’s Leo Lewis at its hearing against Ole Miss

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What one rival linebacker says, or doesn’t say, is the investigation’s biggest X factor.

Auburn v Mississippi State Photo by Butch Dill/Getty Images

The fate of the University of Mississippi’s football program could hinge on live comments from current Mississippi State linebacker Leo Lewis to the NCAA when the Committee on Infractions hears the case against Ole Miss this September.

In a letter obtained by SB Nation dated May 17, 2017, Xavier athletic director Greg Christopher, Chief Hearing Officer of the NCAA Division 1 Committee on Infractions, instructs counsel for five former Ole Miss football staffers and one current assistant coach, as well as NCAA Vice President of Enforcement Jon Duncan and Ole Miss Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter:

The panel will request student-athlete Leo Lewis attend the infractions hearing. Mr. Lewis’ grant of immunity related to this case is predicated on his full cooperation in the infractions process. In addition, Bylaw 19.2.3 establishes a responsibility to cooperate. Part of that duty to cooperate is ‘to make full and complete disclosure of any relevant information, including any information requested by the ... relevant committees.’ More specifically, Bylaw 19.7.7.5.1 authorizes the panel to request specific individuals to attend the infractions hearing, including enrolled student athletes.

Mr. Lewis’s participation at the hearing is consistent with the expectation of cooperation on which his grant of immunity was predicated. ... Mr. Lewis will receive an appearance letter.

The letter also states that the panel can ask questions of Lewis at the hearing “that it believes necessary to decide this case.”

The date for the COI hearing for Ole Miss has not yet been determined, but multiple sources have confirmed to SB Nation that a date in mid-September or mid-October is likely. In addition, the hearing likely won’t occur at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis, but instead at an undisclosed location closer to the University of Mississippi’s campus in Oxford.

That is, if Lewis shows up. And if he does, it’s possible he could confirm, clarify, or modify statements from one of his three previous interviews with the NCAA. Parties currently suing Lewis allege those contain gross inconsistencies of his recollection of receiving recruiting inducements.

Lewis — along with Mississippi State teammate Kobe Jones and Lindsey Miller, the former stepfather of Miami Dolphins and former Ole Miss tackle Laremy Tunsil — are defendants in a lawsuit filed by Rebel Rags, an Ole Miss apparel shop in Oxford. Rebel Rags is claiming that statements made by Lewis, Jones, and Miller to the NCAA regarding the store are false.

When contacted by SB Nation, Lewis’ attorney John Wheeler declined to acknowledge if his client would appear at the committee and provided the following statement:

Anytime the NCAA conducts any investigation into an athletic program, when a student athlete is requested to participate in investigation, per NCAA rules and regulations and per confidentiality agreements executed by the student athlete, that participation is confidential. I’m not in a position to comment one way or the other on any past, or future participation by Mr. Lewis in any NCAA investigation because it is confidential.”

Through a spokesman, Mississippi State also declined to comment.

WHO IS LEO LEWIS, AND HOW DOES HE FACTOR INTO THE NCAA VS. OLE MISS?

When the NCAA released its amended notice of allegations against Ole Miss in February 2017, Lewis became the focal point of the investigation into the Rebels. Five of the nine new allegations involved Lewis, who was recruited by Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and LSU in the winter of 2015 and ultimately signed with MSU.

Of the five allegations Lewis shows up in, four are Level 1 violations. The subject matter includes Lewis allegedly receiving cash payments from Ole Miss boosters, allegedly receiving free merchandise from Rebel Rags, and receiving free food, drinks and cash payments from a booster who owned a restaurant in Oxford.

Lewis is also famous for his social media, having tweeted out particular GIFs after the announcement of his involvement in the amended NOA in February and after Hugh Freeze resigned as head coach of Ole Miss last week.

WHAT DOES IMMUNITY MEAN FOR LEWIS AND MISSISSIPPI STATE?

Lewis was granted limited immunity by the NCAA in exchange for his testimony. SB Nation has confirmed that Lewis spoke to the NCAA under immunity on three occasions between August and December of 2016.

Limited immunity protects an individual ("prospective student-athlete, current or former student-athlete or current or former institutional employee") from certain consequences for violating NCAA legislation. Limited immunity is an investigative tool that allows information to be elicited from an individual concerning his or her potential involvement in or knowledge of NCAA violations, with the understanding that the NCAA will not put the individual at-risk in the infractions process by bringing identified allegations against him or her.

Basically, with limited immunity, Lewis can speak freely to the NCAA without his statements impacting his eligibility at MSU.

Immunity does not apply to Mississippi State as an institution or its football program. Only student-athletes can receive immunity. Lewis is believed to be the only student-athlete to have received immunity in this investigation. Per multiple sources, his teammate Jones does not have immunity.

WHY DOES THE NCAA WANT LEWIS TO APPEAR?

Some NCAA employees might not want him there. To be clear, in investigative matters, the term “NCAA” is broad. When a case is investigated, the NCAA’s enforcement department works it the way a police department would, albeit without subpoena power. It gathers interviews and evidence, and then takes its “case” to the Committee on Infractions, a completely separate body made up of college sports professionals. The COI listens to the case each side presents and then deliberates to determine the punishments the enforcement team suggests.

In the case of Lewis, the COI is requesting his presence, ostensibly to ask him more about statements he made during the course of the investigation.

Lewis’ inclusion at the COI is potentially massive. Multiple legal teams involved in representing individuals named in the NCAA’s investigation, as well as the Rebel Rags civil suit, have cited inconsistencies and contradictions in Lewis’ comments to the NCAA.

Among his previous statements to NCAA enforcement officials, Lewis told investigators that he received cash payments during recruiting from another SEC football program in addition to the Rebels, as referenced from official NCAA transcripts in a response filed by a lawyer representing former Ole Miss staffer Barney Farrar.

WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN TO LEWIS?

Lewis could appear at the COI, answer a few questions, and be on his way, eligibility intact. And lawyers involved in the case expect that Lewis will field questions only from members of the committee and not from lawyers representing Ole Miss coaches or the University of Mississippi. In other words, don’t expect a Law & Order third act.

Technically, Lewis doesn’t have to go to the COI. The NCAA isn’t a court of law. He could just as easily elect not to appear and avoid adding to an already substantial record of statements, one that has already elicited a civil lawsuit against him.

However, if Lewis doesn’t show, he could void his limited immunity, jeopardizing his eligibility and professional football prospects. Per the NCAA:

The term limited immunity refers to protections afforded to an individual who may have committed violations of NCAA legislation. Limited immunity protects the individual from consequences resulting from violations of NCAA legislation; however, it does not protect the individual from action(s) that could be taken by the individual's institution or any other entity. Additionally, limited immunity does not apply to an individual's involvement in violations not reported to the NCAA enforcement staff or to future violations of NCAA legislation committed by the individual. Finally, limited immunity does not apply to the institution's responsibility for the violations that occurred. Hence the term limited immunity.