Some Mississippi football players may be in big trouble — and this has nothing to do with autographs.
An estimated 20 players from the Ole Miss team, along with several other students, reportedly disrupted the university theater department’s performance Tuesday night of "The Laramie Project."
The play covers the aftermath of the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, an openly gay male student from Laramie County, Wyoming. The Daily Mississippian reports that the Ole Miss audience became so unruly during the production that the cast struggled to finish the performance.
The paper also reports that derogatory slurs were shouted at actors — something the play’s director and theater faculty member Rory Lebetter called "borderline hate speech."
Another report in the Clarion Ledger cited a freshman student who was at the play, who claims all he heard was laughter from the audience and that the actors were participating too.
Ole Miss football players were required to attend the "Laramie Project" as a part of a required freshman-level theater course.
Junior theater major Garrison Gibbons expressed his disappointment in the football players’ reactions. "I am the only gay person on the cast," he 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."
Ledbetter stressed that most of the audience was being disrespectful — but several students seemed to initiate most of the taunting. "It seemed like they didn’t know that they were representing the university when they were doing these things," he said.
Lyda Phillips, the play’s house director and an athletics ambassador, reached out to Drew Clinton, an associate director of academic support, following the incident. The football players were asked to apologize, but according to Theater Department Chair Rene Pulliam, the player’s responses seemed insincere. "I’m not sure the players truly understood what they were apologizing for."
The university’s Chancellor, Dan Jones, and Athletics Director Ross Bjork issued this statement:
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.