Ole Miss football players heckled theater performers with homosexual slurs during a show put on by Ole Miss' theater department on Tuesday night, the school's student newspaper, The Daily Mississippian, reports.
The play, entitled "The Laramie Project," was based on the story of Matthew Shepard, an openly gay male student at the University of Wyoming who was murdered in Laramie County, Wyo., in 1999. The players in attendance reportedly became so disruptive that the performers had trouble finishing the play.
According to the play’s director and theater faculty member Rory Ledbetter, some audience members used derogatory slurs like “fag” and heckled both cast members and the characters they were portraying for their body types and sexual orientations. Ledbetter said the audience’s reactions included “borderline hate speech.”
“I am the only gay person on the cast,” junior theater major Garrison Gibbons said. “I played a gay character in the show, and to be ridiculed like that was something that really made me realize that some people at Ole Miss and in Mississippi still can’t accept me for who I am.”
According to The Daily Mississippian, many of the players were in attendance as a requirement for a freshman-level theater course. Reports indicated that players were "taking pictures of cast members while making fun of them, talking on their cell phones, hollering at the females in the cast and talking to other audience members during the acts.”
After the Ole Miss athletic department was informed of the players' behavior, the team members in attendance were asked to apologize to the cast after the show. One undisclosed player offered an apology for the entire group.
“I have been acting for seven or eight years, and a lot of that has been in front of young children,” sophomore theater major Rachel Staton said. “That was by far the worst audience I’ve ever performed in front of. It wasn’t all football players, but they seemed to be the leaders. If I can go support and respect the football team in their stadium, I feel like they should be able to support and respect me and my fellow cast members when we are doing a show.”
The Ole Miss athletic department offered no comment to The Daily Mississippian, but an athletic department official did issue an apology via email to the theater department.
On Thursday, Rebels coach Hugh Freeze issued a statement regarding the allegations on Twitter.
Ole Miss chancellor Dan Jones and athletic director Ross Bjork also issued a statement Thursday afternoon (via USA Today):
While we work to determine with certainty who disrupted the Laramie Project play, we want everyone within our university community and beyond to know that we strongly condemn the behavior exhibited Tuesday night. As a member of the Ole Miss family, each of us has a responsibility to be accountable for our actions, and these individuals will be held accountable. Our investigation will determine the degree to which any and all students were involved.
As a first step to addressing behavior at the performance Tuesday night, we will meet today with the freshman student-athletes (from various sports) who attended the play and have a dialogue about what happened, about our university-wide commitment to inclusivity and civility, and about the important role they play in representing the university. It is clear that some students badly misrepresented the culture of this university. From there, we will work with Student-Affairs and the Bias Incident Response Team to determine the facts and appropriate next steps.
Incidents like this remind all educators that our job is to prepare our students to be leaders in life during their years on campus and after they graduate from Ole Miss. This behavior by some students reflects poorly on all of us, and it reinforces our commitment to teaching inclusivity and civility to young people who still have much to learn. We will be engaging our student-athletes with leaders on the subject of individuality and tolerance, so we can further enforce life lessons and develop them to their fullest potential. On behalf of our 22,000 students, our faculty, and our staff, we apologize.