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Mississippi football players accused of heckling student actors performing Matthew Shepard play

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Coach Hugh Freeze leads Ole Miss players out of the tunnel
Coach Hugh Freeze leads Ole Miss players out of the tunnel
Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

Members of the University of Mississippi football team were the instigators of a group of people who shouted "fag" and other slurs while disrupting a campus performance of a play about Matthew Shepard, the play's director said. One player later apologized to the cast, but this was characterized as "too little, too late," according to the report in the student newspaper The Daily Mississippian.

"The football players were certainly not the only audience members that were being offensive last night," the play's director and faculty member Rory Ledbetter said. "But they were definitely the ones who seemed to initiate others in the audience to say things, too. It seemed like they didn’t know that they were representing the university when they were doing these things."

About 20 players were in attendance for a performance of "The Laramie Project," which details the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming, as part of a freshman-level course requirement. They were among those who "heckled both cast members and the characters they were portraying for their body types and sexual orientations." The theater department released a report on the performance and said audience members 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."

"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."

Ledbetter called the actions "borderline hate speech," although I am not sure why he qualified it with "borderline." After an athletic department official arrived, an attempt was made to apologize:

"The football players were asked by the athletics department to apologize to the cast," Ole Miss Theatre Department Chair Rene Pulliam said. "However, I'm not sure the players truly understood what they were apologizing for." The football players' apology, which was given by one undisclosed football player on behalf of the entire group, caused two cast members to cry.

This morning, the school's football coach Hugh Freeze, tweeted: "We certainly do not condone any actions that offend or hurt people in any way. We are working with all departments involved to find the facts."

The incident has also been referred to the university's Bias Incident Response Team, the Winter Institute of Racial Reconciliation and the LGBTQ Chancellor Advisory Committee, USA TODAY reports. Once all the facts are in, Freeze needs to act and suspend any player who took part in this incident. This shows we still have a long way to go.

I'll leave the final word to Ledbetter, the director:

"It's ironic in a way. In ("The Laramie Project') we address these topics of hate against homosexuals. What happened in the audience (Tuesday night) was the very thing we were trying to portray in the show. (The incident) suggests we have a long way to go."