The University of Mississippi has begun an investigation after a report from the student newspaper that a group of Ole Miss football players disrupted a university theater production.
The theater group was performing "The Laramie Project," which is based on the 1998 murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard.
The Daily Mississippian reported that a group of about 20 Ole Miss football players attending the play harassed actors with "borderline hate speech" on campus Tuesday. Some students in attendance said they did not hear any slurs used during the production.
"Ole Miss' office of student affairs, not the football staff, is handling the investigation," said Neal McCready, reporter for RebelGrove.
"The football staff will support findings and respond accordingly. Media expecting a football staff to conduct an investigation are being unreasonable at best.
"By the way, there are some pretty strong sources saying Ole Miss players "involved" did nothing more than laugh during the incident. No one's condoning said laughter, but if that's all that happened, it's not exactly the capital offense some in the media are accusing."
Play director and faculty member Rory Ledbetter said that members of the audience used 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.
“The unfortunate part of all of this is that I don’t think that the audience members that caused these problems really understood what they were doing,” Ledbetter said. “Further education on all of this needs to be brought to light.”
Nevertheless, Chancellor Dan Jones and athletics director Ross Bjork released an open letter Thursday that condemned the offensive behavior of the students amid the investigation.
"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 letter 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."
Not all of the players have been identified, but the university has a "good idea" who they are, said Donald Cole, assistant provost. Players enrolled in a freshman-level theater course were required to attend a specific number of productions throughout the semester.
"We haven't entered the punishment stage yet," Cole said. "We are just trying to contain the situation and get everything in order."
Coach Hugh Freeze tweeted about the incident 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
The University has long-established programs for racial and anti-bias education stemming from a tumultuous history regarding race relations.