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Ole Miss Probes Student-Athletes' Gay Slurs at Theater Performance

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USA TODAY
October 4, 2013 Friday
FINAL EDITION
SPORTS; Pg. 3C
763 words
Ole Miss probes athletes' gay slurs
Dan Wolken, @DanWolken, USA TODAY Sports

University of Mississippi officials apologized Thursday for the behavior of a group of freshman athletes who were among an audience that verbally harassed student actors during a university theater production of The Laramie Project.

Michael Barnett, assistant chair of theater arts at the school and also chair of the faculty senate, said by phone Thursday that athletes from football and other sports were in attendance and that the athletics department was "treating the matter with utmost seriousness."

"We don't always have the best audiences, but this was taking it to a new level to be sure," Barnett said. "There were a lot of athletes there that night, so we're trying to identify who specifically was using hate speech."

The play is based on the murder of Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who was killed in 1998 because of his sexual orientation. The incident was first reported by The Daily Mississippian, an Ole Miss student paper.

The university's chancellor, Dan Jones, and athletics director Ross Bjork issued this statement Thursday afternoon: "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 universitywide 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."

Barnett said the offenders were identified as athletes by the theater's house manager, who was familiar with them because she works with the athletic department. At that point, athletic department officials were contacted.

"From what I understand, there were others who followed suit, who followed the lead of the students who were heckling some of our female cast members based on their body size," Barnett said.

"And then there were several incidents from what I understand of using the term 'fag' or 'faggot.' That's when our house manager went to contact athletics."

Garrison Gibbons, a 20-year-old acting major at Ole Miss who was in the play, said by phone Thursday the atmosphere at Tuesday's performance was "radically different" from other performances and that actors had heard gay slurs from the audience and laughter at moments in the play that weren't intended to be funny, including a funeral scene.

"They were laughing at lines that spoke in negative ways about gay people," Gibbons said.

Gibbons added he felt "an incredible amount of judgment and laughter" while delivering a monologue in the play in which his character comes out as gay, including audience members taking pictures of him with their iPhones, which he said "appalled" him.

"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," Gibbons said.

"I don't want to see them being punished; that's not doing anything positive. I want to see everyone get involved in showing their support for LGBT and equality. We have all these pride events going on, but we need support behind them."

Ole Miss football coach Hugh Freeze tweeted Thursday morning, "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."

October 4, 2013

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