Officials at the University of Mississippi issued an apology Thursday regarding the behavior of student-athletes during a university theater production of The Laramie Project. Audience members' verbal harassment was described as "borderline hate speech," reports USA Today Sports. Hecklers hurled inappropriate comments at female cast members' body shapes, and used the words "fag" and "faggot."
"We don't always have the best audiences, but this was taking it to a new level to be sure," said Michael Barnett, assistant chair of the theater department at Ole Miss. Football players and athletes from other sports were among those who initiated the verbal harassment. According to an undisclosed source who spoke with USA Today Sports, the audience primarily consisted of first-semester freshman, athletes included.
In the statement, released Thursday by Chancellor Dan Jones and Athletics Director Ross Bjork, the university promised to investigate and take action: "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."
The Laramie Project is a play based on the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student killed because he was gay. After the play, the student-athletes were made to apologize for their behavior, but Garrison Gibbons and other cast members felt the apology was insincere.
Gibbons, a junior and the only gay cast member according to an NFL article, does not, however, want to see the student-athletes suspended from games. He believes they should instead be taught why their behavior is not acceptable. "Even though it was a negative event, it made us positive this is why we need to do this show because we need to open the minds of people on this campus — not just athletes," said Gibbons.
"For the department of theater arts, what we want ultimately is for this to open up a dialogue on campus about the problems we have," said Barnett. The athletic department and university officials are conducting an investigation to decide what further action should be taken.