The University of Mississippi is investigating a student newspaper report that alleges that a handful of Ole Miss football players disrupted a university theater production of "The Laramie Project" by harassing actors with "borderline hate speech" on campus Tuesday night.
The play is based on the 1998 murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard.
The Daily Mississippian reported that approximately 20 Ole Miss football players were among the disruptive audience. Play director and faculty member Rory Ledbetter told the student newspaper that members of the audience were using homosexual slurs and insulted the body types and sexual orientation of cast members.
"The football players were certainly not the only audience members that were being offensive last night," Ledbetter told the student paper, "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."
Ole Miss Dean of Students Thomas J. "Sparky" Reardon told ESPN.com on Thursday that the university has its Bias Incident Response Team meeting "to delve into what happened and to look if there are any possible charges there."
"They'll make any recommendations there to us, to me, at the university, and we'll move from there," Reardon said. "I've been in touch with the theater department and the athletic department, and we're waiting on their report."
Chancellor Dan Jones and athletic director Ross Bjork issued a joint statement Wednesday.
"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," the statement read. "Our investigation will determine the degree to which any and all students were involved. ... On behalf of our 22,000 students, our faculty, and our staff, we apologize."
Dr. Donald Cole, who is the assistant provost and assistant to the chancellor concerning minority affairs, told ESPN.com on Thursday that not all of the 20 alleged football players involved have been identified but that the university "definitely [has] a good idea" who they are and that a punishment will be handed down to the students involved at the appropriate time.
"We haven't entered the punishment stage yet," Cole said. "We are just trying to contain the situation and get everything in order."
Reardon said he had spoken to someone in the athletic department but not head football coach Hugh Freeze, who wrote this tweet 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— Hugh Freeze (@CoachHughFreeze) October 3, 2013
Cole said the university plans to meet with coaches in the immediate future to discuss the situation and possible punishments.
The student newspaper reported that Ledbetter said a member of the athletic department sent him an email apologizing for the incident.
Ole Miss theater department chairwoman Rene Pulliam told the paper that the football players were asked to apologize by the athletic department as well.
"Many of the athletes did apologize afterward," Cole said. "As some of the athletics officials got involved, they made them apologize again.
"Some of the language that was used at this particular play was quite biased and quite offensive and very difficult to understand.
"We're going to have to let them know the seriousness of what they've done, and I think that if they were to realize this, then I think future apologies will be a lot more sincere."
The timing of this incident couldn't have come at a worse time for the university. It occurred two weeks after the university's inaugural UM Creed Week, which celebrates the university's creed that begins "I believe in respect for the dignity of each person" and ends with "I pledge to uphold these values and encourage others to follow my example."
Cole said there was a kickoff event for the school's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender group on campus Thursday afternoon and a previously planned symposium on the semantics and ethics of racial language Thursday morning.
"The truth is that we have lots and lots of teaching to do, and we have to understand that we have a new group to teach every year," Reardon said. "I hope that we can move forward from this point, and working with these students we have, they can learn what's appropriate and what's not appropriate."