"I'm not sure the players truly understood what they were apologizing for." That is Ole Miss Theatre Department Chair Rene Pulliam speaking about a hateful and utter lack of understanding that occurred Tuesday night.
The mental imagery and quotes emerging from a University of Mississippi theater production are not so much shocking as they are sad commentary on the culture surrounding the stage. According to accounts from the school newspaper, The Daily Mississippian, about 20 Ole Miss Rebels attended "The Laramie Project" to help fulfill a freshman-level theater course requirement.
The players indeed attended, but spoke obnoxiously through the entirety of the show, stirred the other audience members into frenzy and continuously launched anti-gay slurs and chauvinistic remarks at cast members.
"I have been acting for seven or eight years, and a lot of that has been in front of young children," cast member Rachel Statton explained, before continuing "That was by far the worst audience I’ve ever performed in front of."
The irony of the players' actions is that the play itself is about a University of Wyoming student who was murdered in Laramie, WY for being openly gay. The very issue to which the play calls the psyche and the understanding is what the football players could not grasp and what they seemingly felt empowered to bash.
It is more embarrassing since we, unfortunately, could easily comprehend the masculinity and "macho" mentality of football culture uncomfortably clashing with the other end of the spectrum in theater culture. But in underlining their hate with homophobia in a play that is about homophobia is senseless—and again, so pitifully and ironically stupid.
Rory Ledbetter, the play's director, told the school newspaper that "fag" could be heard repeatedly from the audience who taunted the cast members for their sexual orientation and body types in a way that could be described as "borderline hate speech."
The director admitted that the football players were not the only disruptive attendees, but explained that "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."
According to the same report, the players snapped "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."
Punishment seems to fit the bill for the players and discipline by example might be an even better stance by the administration and athletic department. The most glaring deficiency in Tuesday night's events, however, is perhaps not in respect, goodwill or tolerance, but in education on homosexuality.
"The unfortunate part of all of this," laments Ledbetter, "is that I don’t think that the audience members that caused these problems really understood what they were doing. Further education on all of this needs to be brought to light."
Whether the NCAA should step in is up to debate, though we might question the type of cultural and social example that would be set should no action take place to reprimand the players.
There are two instances of suspensions from this season which we can agree violated NCAA rules but that seem innocuous in light of the news from Ole Miss. The NCAA suspended a player for a half of a game for involvement in an autograph scandal. The NCAA banned another player for lending his brother some of his scholarship money in order to buy books.
There are other countless examples of players in violation of undisclosed "team rules" who miss a half or a few games—presumably, we think it is for alcohol or substance consumption. This is not to say that any one is worse than the others or to compare morality.
But if Ole Miss and the NCAA do not penalize the involved Ole Miss players in any fashion, there might be an obvious problem of priorities and an ugly example could be manifested.
We might consider why financial infractions and substance abuse prevents a player from competing, but acting hatefully toward other human beings can be seen as merely cultural.
Maybe the real issue is cloaked in a simple social dichotomy of sports and theater—that is, some might view the situation as banal difference between "jock" and "theater" social norms. This notion is understood from a remark from the cast member Rachel Statton: "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."
If the real issue is understanding homosexuality, however, then education is obviously paramount.
But really, what better education is there than attending one's own school play about the murder of a university student for his being gay?
The saddest statement comes from a junior theater major, Garrison Gibbons, who is openly gay and played a gay character in the show. He told the newspaper that "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."
The athletic department, which is still looking into the facts of the events, responded immediately by first emailing Ledbetter an apology and then sending some players to apologize in person to cast members.
Should Ole Miss players be penalized in any way?
Only, the description of that second apology seems more fit for elementary school children than grown university men. According to the report, just one player offered the apology "on behalf of the entire group," causing two cast members to cry.
The toughest part may be in acknowledging that we are just too far from simple acceptance in parts of our country. It is one thing for the players to understand their bigotry and feel no remorse. It is another thing for the athletic department and NCAA to make a judgement call and avoid penalty. But maybe we are just not ready for any of this at the moment.
As Ledbetter concluded, "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."