The University of Mississippi's theater department put on a theatrical production of "The Laramie Project" on Tuesday in the school's auditorium.
For those who don't know what "The Laramie Project" is, it is a play about a town in Wyoming and its (the town's) reaction to the murder of a gay college student, Matthew Shepard. Shepard was tortured, pistol-whipped, and tied to a fence where he was left to die. This weekend is the 15th anniversary of this horrific attack. The play itself is meant to open our minds to accept each other's differences as no two people are alike.
University of Mississippi assistant theatre chair, Michael Barnett, said that several students in the play informed him that audience members were disruptive and used "derogatory terms" for homosexuals and heckled cast members as well as the characters portayed in the play for their body types and sexual orientations. One faculty member described what the audience was doing as "borderline hate speech."
It was alleged that a group of roughly 20 Ole Miss football players were in that audience, an allegation that was later confirmed by Ole Miss Head Coach, Huge Freeze. The football players attended the play because they are enrolled in a freshman-level theater course that requires the students to attend a specific number of plays throughout the semester.
Judy Shepard, the mother of Matthew Shepard, the one who "The Laramie Project" is all about, learned of what took place Tuesday and became forced to relive the worst time of her life.
"This is exactly the kind of behavior that goes on and encourages other people to act on it," said Shepard, "This is the exact kind of behavior that led to my son's murder."
The play’s House Director and athletics ambassador, Lyda Phillips, became aware of the reactions of the football players and contacted several coaches, who then called department of athletics Associate Director of Academic Support, Drew Clinton to come investigate the situation in the auditorium.
Shortly after the second act of the play, Clinton told cast members backstage that the football players wished to apologize to the cast after the play for their actions, which included “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,” according to a university performance report.
Faculty members mentioned that the football players were certainly not the only audience members that were being offensive, but they were the ones who seemed to initiate others in the audience to say and do things, too.
“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, made two of the play's cast members cry. Ole Miss Theatre Department Chair Rene Pulliam said, "The football players were asked by the athletics department to apologize to the cast. However, I'm not sure the players truly understood what they were apologizing for."
One cast member who supports the football team shared their discontent saying "I have been acting for seven or eight years, and a lot of that has been in front of young children. That was by far the worst audience I’ve ever performed in front of. It wasn’t all football players, but they (the football players) 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 University of Mississippi needs to take action now.
The school seems to want to use this as a teachable moment for these players, but we all know, the first way to teach an athlete something is to take them off the field. It's time we put something ahead of football. There's a message that needs to be sent to everyone at that school, everyone in the state, and even everyone in society: Human decency and civility come before football.
The overimportance placed on football as more than just entertainment, tells players at every level of the game that they are above social norms. Now is the time to send a different message, the players who were there in the audience should be suspended from the team indefinitely as a starting point and if the team won't do it, then the SEC or NCAA should.
Whatever it decides to do, the next step that The University of Mississippi takes will surely be a big one.