If you’ve not yet heard the story, the basic facts are these. Earlier this week, members of the football team at the University of Mississippi (aka “Ole Miss”) were required to attend a performance of The Laramie Project, the play by Tectonic Theater Project and Moisés Kaufman about the murder of Matthew Shepard 15 years ago and the impact of his killing on the town of Laramie. Some 20 players were among the students who taunted the cast with gay slurs; they may have instigated the incident. In the many news reports about it, it has been noted that the players were required to write a note of apology; one may have done so in person. You can read accounts from the Associated Press and ESPN for more details.
This profoundly upsets me, and I suspect anyone who reads what I write, so my personal condemnation of the incident is insignificant. Given that just last week I explained how I can barely watch fictional stories about sports, and that I previously spoken up on the value of seeing Laramie Project produced in high schools, my deep dismay over this incident is unsurprising.
It remains a sad fact of American life that this kind of bigotry flourishes. For all the advances that have been made since Shepard’s murder, there are clearly swaths of people in this country whose reactionary behavior proves just how far we have to go in accepting that all people are created equal. It is a bit of sick irony that the football players at Ole Miss were required to attend a performance that explores the pain and horror of hate crimes and used it as an opportunity to display their basest beliefs.
I am encouraged, however, to see that the sportswriting community, which I do not know well (as you might surmise), has not shrugged off this incident. I recommend to you three columns in particular. “Apology isn’t enough for what Ole Miss thinks its football players did” is the headline of a piece by Gregg Doyel of CBS, who expresses my shared skepticism that the players will face any meaningful punishment for their actions. Greg Couch of Fox Sports goes further, and calls for the suspension of the players (“Time for Ole Miss to send a message”) as does his colleague Clay Travis (“Ole Miss Must Ban Players — Now”) – and I agree with them completely. I am pleased to see members of the sports media standing against these actions, since they have access to the general public in a way the theatre community itself could never muster, even if every website and blog were to unite over this issue.
But the culture of college sports, especially at schools with teams that compete at the top level in games that land on television, have this pathetic inability to truly address meaningful change in an often corrupt universe. At The New York Times, business writer Joe Nocera has written column after column about the repeated failures of the NCAA to curb abuses within their system, specifically the kind of money made on the backs of so-called student-athletes, with a particular eye to the long-term effects of traumatic brain injuries. We read about crimes, in particular sexual assault, that is systematically hushed up at colleges, by athletes and other students, in the name of protecting the reputation of the school. Disrupting a play doesn’t rise to a comparable level of criminality, but this week’s events are symptomatic of a larger disease, one that is not unique to sports programs, but that is in abundant evidence right now at Ole Miss and should be quashed in no uncertain terms.
We only have to read the accounts of Tuesday’s Laramie performance to see that Ole Miss cares more about their football team than about the student body at large, let alone the drama program in particular. When members of the team began their heckling (too soft a word, just as bullying is insufficient these days as well), it was the football coach who was called – but what about security, the police? They will be held accountable as athletes within a special system, not simply as students, let alone as individual citizens ganging together to espouse hate.
Ole Miss has a football game tomorrow. The school has not yet said whether these offenders will play in it, or whether anything more will be asked of them than the wan apology already proffered. At the same time, I suspect if activists were to interrupt the game by running onto the field and calling the players names, they would be arrested, suspended, and expelled or some combination thereof.
Even if you agree with every word I’ve written even before you read it, I hope you’ll add your voice to the chorus speaking against this incident at Ole Miss and all of those like it, in person, online, using whatever resources you have. Even if, like me, you’re no sports fan, surely you have friends and family who are, and who should hear about what has happened this week in Mississippi, since it’s hardly an isolated case. Worse has been done and sadly will be done, but we can’t allow the empty theatre of college athletic penalties (if they even occur) to trump the sad human drama that led to Matthew Shepard’s killing and which is played out on our national stage day in and day out.
To write directly to members of the University of Mississippi athletic program, here’s a complete list of contacts. Write directly to the Chancellor of the university, Dr. Daniel W. Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org and to the director of Athletics Ross Bjork at email@example.com.
Update – Saturday, October 5, 8 am: The Ole Miss’s “Bias Incident Response Team” released the following statement on Friday evening:
“The task of identifying specific individuals who were purported to have disrupted the performance is difficult because of the dark theatre, and initial reports vary in regard to the frequency, volume and source of the comments or disruption,” the statement read. “Although initial reports indicate that student-athletes led the action, it is important to note that this has not been verified and they were not the only students present. Reports indicate that comments were made by student athletes and students but no report has singled out a specific student or mentioned any names.”
According to a report in the Jackson Clarion Ledger, headlined “Ole Miss delivers punishment in homophobic slur incident,” members of the team at the performance will, however, be required to attend “educational dialogue session led by university faculty and allies.” In other words: we know they were part of this, but not enough to actually punish them, despite what the headline says. Apparently at Ole Miss, the dedication to football outweighs the word of a faculty member. The headline from ESPN, “No evidence against Ole Miss players,” seems to completely absolve them. The ugly game goes on.