The Ole Miss Incident: The University is Tested Once Again

Submitted by Charlton Stanley (Otteray Scribe), Guest Blogger

Ole MissThe Laramie Project is a play by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project about the torture-murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student in 1998. Mutilated and almost dead, he was found tied to a barbed wire fence just outside Laramie, Wyoming. That fence was the inspiration for the play’s logo. Matthew Shepard died of his injuries shortly after being taken to a local hospital. The murder was called a hate crime, but in 1998 there were few hate crime laws, and there was none in Wyoming.

Shortly after Matthew Shepard was killed, Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project went to Laramie and interviewed dozens of local people about the murder. The play draws on over 400 hours of interviews with residents of Laramie, as well as company members’ own journal entries and published news reports. The Laramie Project is divided into three acts. Eight actors portray more than sixty characters in a series of short scenes.

The play has been performed all over the US and internationally as well. Venues have included high schools, colleges, and community theaters across the US. As of this writing, The Laramie Project has also been performed at professional playhouses in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. Not surprisingly, Fred Phelps and his merry band of haters have frequently picketed The Laramie Project.

The Laramie Project Playbill Credit: Department of Theatre Arts at the University of Mississippi
The Laramie Project Playbill
Credit: Department of Theatre Arts at the University of Mississippi

This week, The Laramie Project is on the playbill at the University of Mississippi, known to students and Southeast Conference sports fans as Ole Miss. The play has been well received, and presented without incident until last Tuesday evening. About 20 freshman football players are taking a course in the arts and part of the course requirement is for them to attend a certain number of plays. Tuesday night, the players allegedly instigated a disruption and heckling in the audience. I say “allegedly” because the investigation is still ongoing. Among other things, audience members, allegedly egged on by the players, began yelling homophobic slurs at the cast. Catcalls of “faggot,” “fag,” and worse were heard coming from the group. They encouraged other audience members to join in with the heckling, taking pictures, and generally behaving badly. Play director Rory Ledbetter said the audience reaction was “borderline hate speech.” Cast members and the characters they were portraying were heckled for their body types and sexual orientation, among other things. Ironically, only one member of the cast is gay.

“I am the only gay person on the cast,” Garrison Gibbons said. “I played a gay character in the show, and 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.”

As soon as theater faculty figured out the heckling had started in the group of football players, House Director Lyda Phillips, who is a theater major and an athletics ambassador, called a coach, who then called Drew Clinton, the Associate Director of Academic Support, asking him to come to the auditorium. According to the person I talked to on campus, he was furious, ordering the student athletes to apologize for their behavior. After the play, the players went backstage to meet with the cast. One of the players acted as spokesman for the group. Some of the cast members cried at the apology.

Ole Miss Theater Department Chair Rene Pulliam was quoted by the Daily Mississippian, the student newspaper, as saying. “…I’m not sure the players truly understood what they were apologizing for.”

Rory Ledbetter told reporters, ““The football players were certainly not the only audience members that were being offensive last night, 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.”

Thursday morning, head football coach Hugh Freeze sent a Tweet that has been picked up by sports media 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.”

By way of background, for those who may have seen the movie, The Blind Side, Freeze was Michael Oher’s high school football coach. His real name was not used in the movie; instead, he was called “Coach Cotton.” Freeze has a reputation for being a strong leader who does not tolerate nonsense, and demands his players behave themselves at all times, insisting on excellence both on and off the playing field. As my on-campus informant told me yesterday, “Hugh Freeze is no Joe Paterno.”

The University also issued an open letter to the public and students over the signatures of Chancellor Dan Jones and Athletics Director Ross Bjork. The letter condemns the actions of the group, and makes it clear that such behavior will not be tolerated. The entire letter can be seen here.

The William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation is named after former Governor William Winter. The Institute has been active after other controversial incidents on campus, and I just learned the are now involved with this incident. They are making plans to keep more incidents like this one from happening on campus again. There are plans underway for athletes and students to attend some sort of cultural sensitivity training sessions.

Last spring, the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs created the Bias Incident Response Team (BIRT). Its mission is, “…to support the university’s efforts to establish and sustain the university’s expectations around inclusivity and to provide an atmosphere that supports a healthy curricular and co-curricular experience.” BIRT Co-Chair Merrill Magruder said the cast and crew of The Laramie Project have stressed they did not want to see punitive action, but rather make this an educational opportunity for those who were in attendance.

This morning, University officials investigating the incident say they are having difficulty making positive identification of who was involved. For the individuals who have been identified, officials and faculty are not sure about the degree of involvement. Part of the problem is the fact the theater was dark.

Adding to the University administration concern is the fact that October is LGBTQ month at Ole Miss. Last Thursday there was a reception at Bryant Hall. Chancellor Dan Jones, Athletics Director Ross Bjork, and other campus leaders spoke at the reception.  Student cast members and faculty advisers were also at the reception. Next week, during LGBTQ month, the University will host Pride Week.  The last thing the University administration and student body leadership want is another incident.

At any rate, there will not be enough time to determine exactly who did what, and what must be done before the Auburn game today. In the body of this story I have provided links to the Daily Mississippian so the reader can follow events as news develops.

It will probably be sometime next week before decisions are made. What do you think is the most appropriate way for this university, or any other school, to handle this situation or one like it?

127 thoughts on “The Ole Miss Incident: The University is Tested Once Again”

  1. DM: Such creates an inequality.

    No, it does not. It recognizes an inequality, a bias of the perpetrator against a particular group, and an emotional predilection or failure of self control in dealing with people from that group, that puts that group in greater danger from the particular criminal. The inequality exists in the perpetrator’s mind as evidenced by their committing the crime motivated by their perception of inequality.

    1. Tony C wrote: “It recognizes an inequality, a bias of the perpetrator against a particular group…”

      Which means you are now policing thoughts. I do not believe that a bias in someone’s mind should be labeled a crime. The mind should not be policed by government.

      An inequality in someone’s mind is not a crime. Everyone has bias in various ways. Sometimes that bias is good, and sometimes it is bad. If a person has a bias toward working out in the gym, that is a good bias. If a person has a bias toward overeating, that is not such a good bias. The bias itself, the inequality, is not either good or bad.

      Consider the case of a racist black man killing a white man. Let’s assume that this man has always been racist and has expressed racist thoughts. Eventually he gets in an argument with a white man and ends up killing him. Suppose he inscribed the words “Black Power” on the body, and “Kill the Crackers.” You say that his punishment should be greater because the man acted out of hatred toward not just that man, but hatred toward his whiteness. You would say that the fact that the man was white fueled his hatred, so his actions pose a greater threat toward all white people.

      Well, if this is the case, then you are making bias itself a crime. You are claiming that the inequality in his mind is a crime. If bias is a crime, there should be a law against bias, and he should have been arrested for his bias before the murder took place for the crime of bias.

      At what point does his bias become such that you must put him in jail for it or fine him for it? Our history is filled with examples of people being put into prison, being flogged or put in the stocks, for their bias or their beliefs being out of lockstep with others. In the end, it is not good. It is not in the public’s best interest to prosecute cases like this. Efforts to control the mind of others through the use of force is not good.

      I am not excusing racial prejudice. I am simply saying that the morality of the mind is outside the realm of government. Let religion or philosophy deal with the mind through persuasion, and let government use force against actions that cause actual harm. Until someone lets prejudice induced hatred cause them to commit an actual crime, that person should be free to be as racist as he wants to be, and even to try to persuade others to become racist too. Hopefully they will be persuaded to change their mind before they are led to commit actual crimes, but until that happens, the mind should be free to explore all options.

  2. Gene: I am on board with having to prove it, perhaps to the clear and convincing standard. In the case of Shepard I am not sure it is proven to that standard. But it is also not difficult to prove at all in many other crimes where witnesses are present, or the crime was filmed, or slurs are written on the body or some other overt action, or some of the attackers confess their reasons. If the jury believes the motive for the beating or murder was an issue with the victim’s sexual orientation, or it was racial hatred, or religious hatred, or immigrant hatred, or bias against a disability (like autism), then I think we should go with the jury.

    As I said, I think the crime is against more than the individual, it is also a violent threat to a group, and in my mind that warrants a stiffer sentence.

  3. Tony,

    In all fairness, the difference between motives in first degree murder and all other forms of homicide is one of the rare cases where motive is a key element in the crime. It can be argued that “hate crime” is simply an attempt to be the Thought Police and can result in attributing motive falsely simply based upon circumstance. If you want stiffer penalties for a given crime, make stiffer penalties, but to make that contingent upon a not necessarily provable mens rea (unlike premeditation which can be proven by empirical evidence) doesn’t seem either just or wise. I would have less problems with hate crime legislation and laws if they were generally more stringent about proving motive through better evidence.

  4. DM: You are just wrong, we already punish motives; as I said, there is a difference between pre-meditated murder and accidental homicide. In both cases a person may be killed by a bullet to the head, we punish differently if the death was an intentional, planned murder or the result of an accidental discharge of a weapon that the shooter thought was not even loaded.

    What is in a person’s mind counts, and that is just common sense, anybody can see that the two hypotheticals I present above (based on actual cases I have seen) are different situations demanding different punishments.

    The same goes for hate crimes: An intent is to persecute a group is fundamentally different than the intent to persecute an individual; because the former is intended to harm (or kill) one as a threat that coerces or chills the rights of many, not just the one.

    1. Tony C wrote: “there is a difference between pre-meditated murder and accidental homicide.”

      I agree, and we also distinguish between murder that is premeditated and murder done in a fit of rage. However, this is as far as we need to go into determining what is in the mind of a person or why they do what they do. Most of this is based on the likelihood the person will commit the crime again. Many laws also allow for temporary insanity and such, but I do not agree that those are good laws. You get into very difficult and flaky defenses.

      When a person commits premeditated murder, it really doesn’t matter if the motive is hate or if the person wanted to rob him of his money. The situation gets even more convoluted when you create classes of discrimination. Someone kills someone who is gay, and if the murderer is gay, there is less chance he will be prosecuted for a hate crime than if he was straight. Such creates an inequality. Also, if someone is murdered who does not belong to one of these protected classes of people, the punishment will be different, which is another form of inequality and injustice.

  5. Hubert: No, when we designate a “hate crime” we are distinguishing one type of crime from another. Just as we say “rape” is not the same as simple “assault,” just as we say “pre-meditated murder” is not the same as “manslaughter” or “negligent homicide.”

    A “hate crime” is special because unlike a simple assault it targets a specific group of people, typically with the goal of striking fear into that group to keep them from engaging in political or public activity. We are not elevating those victims, we are recognizing that unlike a bar fight or murder in robbery, the assailants intend to harm more than one victim, they have the intent of their attack terrorizing the entire group into subordination, subjugation, or silence and hiding and obedience under the threat of violent retaliation. Hate crimes are special because there is not just the one victim, they have the intent of “setting an example” to chill free speech, free association, free movement, voting rights and other rights for an entire group of people.

  6. The fact that we have such idiocy as a “hate crime” is a sad and disgusting blemish on our justice system. Think about it carefully. What happens when something is labeled a “hate crime” is the victim is given a higher status than anyone else. In other worse, special privileges above everyone else. Their crime will have a stiffer penalty than someone else. Justice is blind? Yeah, right. Everyone is treated equally? Pffft. No, now we are granting special rights and privileges if someone is a victim of a “hate crime”.

    The story about Matthew Shephard is perhaps one of the most exploited and exploded stories in the past. Contrast this with Jesse Dirkhising. I even am confident that many of the readers of this blog have no idea who Jesse Dirkhising is. (Quick, do a Google search now).

    1. Hubert Cumberdale wrote: “The fact that we have such idiocy as a “hate crime” is a sad and disgusting blemish on our justice system. Think about it carefully. What happens when something is labeled a “hate crime” is the victim is given a higher status than anyone else. In other worse, special privileges above everyone else.”

      Hubert, you are absolutely right. Hate crime laws target thoughts and motivations, something criminal laws were never suppose to address. Laws should censure actions only.

      Consider the egregious injustice that happened against Ravi Dharun at Rutgers University last year. Because the jury convicted him of hate crimes, he was sentenced to 10 years! Certainly the webcam spying for a few seconds on his roommate having a sexual tryst with an older man was inappropriate, but 10 years? I do not believe this was a hate crime at all.

      It wasn’t that long ago that a sexual tryst by a dorm roommate would have required disciplinary action. Now we convict a roommate who looked at his webcam setup in his room for bias intimidation.

      We need a Constitutional Amendment to make all hate crime laws and bias intimidation laws in all states illegal. The policing of thoughts and motivations is not the proper role of government. Leave the mind and motivations of the heart to religion and let government punish actions instead of thoughts.

  7. David,

    Did you get dropped on your head, were you born this way or did something bad happen to you that makes you react this way about other folks personal lives…… which is none of your dang business anyways….

  8. Oro Lee: I don’t consider this off-topic, the topic is not exclusively the play but the disruption of the play by football players, due in part, I think, to a false sense of entitlement and celebrity elitism because of their status bestowed upon them by their school funding a non-academic fame engine.

    I fail to understand why such sports require schools for sponsorship; little league baseball is not sponsored by schools, but by a non-profit. I see no reason to conflate education with organized sporting competitions. As I said, I have no problem with physical education and game playing or teaching of sports games in public schools, more than anybody for their health children need such exercise. But I think if the schools did not have teams, plenty of parents would be interested in forming extra-curricular leagues, games and tournaments. I am not even opposed to the schools charging a minor at-cost clean-up and repair fee for the use of their fields and facilities for such games, as a public service.

    But I see no reason for the school itself to be involved in what is essentially the for-profit entertainment business.

    1. Tony C wrote: “I do not mistake their accomplishments for my own, and that is precisely what is encouraged in schools promoting “team spirit” and identification of self-worth with school sports teams as somehow representatives the quality of the school and the students in it.” … “But I think if the schools did not have teams, plenty of parents would be interested in forming extra-curricular leagues, games and tournaments.”

      You make some really good points. I attended the University of South Florida in the 1980’s when there was no football team there. The university started in 1957. The founding President, John S. Allen, expressed ideas similar to yours. Here’s a link to a 1968 news article about it:,6540890&dq=john-stuart-allen&hl=en

      Allen died in 1982, and just 15 years later, the university got its first football team. I was disappointed to see that happen. Seems like there is no stopping it, even when the foundation of the school puts a low priority on intercollegiate sports.

  9. Matthew Shepard’s murder was the subject of the sermon at the Washington National Cathedral this morning. The service was attended by Matthew’s mother, Judy. Also in attendance was Jane Clementi, whose son Tyler jumped off a bridge after his roommate at Rutgers posted a video online of him having a sexual encounter with another male.

    The Dean of Washington National Cathedral described homophobia as a sin Sunday, in remarks marking 15 years since the anti-gay killing of Matthew Shepard….


    …On Sunday, in comments marking the 15th anniversary of Shepard’s death, the National Cathedral’s Very Reverend Gary Hall said the church should have the courage to call homophobia and heterosexism a sin.

    “Shaming people for whom they love is a sin,” he added.

  10. I’m not in favor of fandom, not even of Superbowl commericals — in my old age I try desperately not to be a fan. If I watch a game, which is rarely ever, I just hope to see something brilliant.

    But I do support school sponsored athletics, including team sports. I think there is value there worth saving as opposed to a (never going to happen) ban.

    My daughters played High School soccer. The season started in December and went to March. The games were at night. All through the dead of winter — through bitter cold, a little snow and sleet, and out here a lot of dust storms. More often not, there were more players on the field than people in the stands. There was no fan worship here — just some parental encouragement. And their love of the game and competition.

    My girls are were better for it, maybe not better students, but better people which is also part of one’s education.

    Both had knee surgeries because of it. They overcame it. Each dropped the sport when it conflicted with an IB class. Both excelled in college academics — and we are talking prestigious small liberal arts colleges — but a lot of their drive and sense of being able to handle adversity and overcome challenges was forged in no small part through athletics, school sponsored competitive team sports.

    I’m not ready to say that the problem is so bad that the whole thing has to be scrapped although I have though about some other models. I just want other kids to be able to enjoy and learn the things my kids did — without the surgeries.

  11. Oro Lee: But the reason they teach music in 5th grade …

    You can stop the straw man there. I did not argue against learning sports, I argue against school sponsored teams and promoting fandom of sports and watching sports. I would be happy for the majority of schooling to be taught outside with physical activity; incorporating various kinds of physical activity. IMO, children aren’t built to sit in a classroom.

    My opposition is to promoting the viewing of sports as paid entertainment, which I claim is empty of meaning.

    To use your words: There is no “practice,” no development of “discipline,” no building or development of “character,” no “following through on a commitment made to team members,” no accomplishment or striving to reach a “long term goal,” no “developing discipline in exercise and health habits,” no “learning what extreme physical exertion feels like and just how much you can stand, can accomplish,” and no “obtaining the confidence that comes with achievement.”

    There is no “mental, physical, and character development achieved along the way.”

    There is a waste of time, a false sense of accomplishment, a passive degeneration of muscle, a fake sense of exertion and a fake sense of victory.

    I admit, I have admired the prowess of Olympians and other sports stars that have dedicated their life to practice and accomplished truly astounding feats of athleticism. I could say the same for musicians, singers, and actors and writers. But I do not mistake their accomplishments for my own, and that is precisely what is encouraged in schools promoting “team spirit” and identification of self-worth with school sports teams as somehow representatives the quality of the school and the students in it.

    I do not object to sports or physical games; and if I were tasked with redesigning the curricula of grades 1-9 I would certainly aim to spend a helluva lot more time outside than inside. My objection is to passive sports viewing, my objection is to taking 0.1% of the student body and encouraging the other 99.9% watch them, admire them, and identify with their accomplishments as more important than their own, my objection is to teaching children their role is to “support” somebody better than them, to literally sit on the sidelines and cheer on somebody else that clearly plays better than they can play, instead of being active players themselves.

    I think fandom is the wrong thing to teach children, passivity and elitism are the wrong things to teach children, an institutionalized elevated celebration of a very particular kind of non-intellectual excellence, while virtually ignoring all other forms of excellence as subordinated to the “heroic” efforts of a sports team (which you know is what happens), that is the wrong thing to teach children.

    If we can teach them English Grammar as part of a run-and-jump game, let’s do that. I’m in. I taught my twelve year old niece competition mathematics on a trampoline, in the swimming pool, on a gymnastics mat and hanging upside down from a tree. It was intentionally exhausting, and she was the math champion of her school three years in a row; and eventually graduated Summa Cum Laude with a degree in mathematics.

    I am convinced that is not something she would have accomplished if I had tried to tutor her while watching football, or sitting three hours at a desk.

  12. Thanks for the poem, Bron. God must really love you to have put a Golden in your life.

  13. ORO LEE:

    Golden Retrievers are great people. I have one now, an oldster, almost 15. He is the best dog I have ever had and I have been dreading his passing for the past year.

    He isnt a hunter, he is a lover. I took him to the skeet range with my son once and left him in the car, when we got back he was gone, or so I thought. He had crawled under the back seat of the van and he is a big boy, almost 100 lbs.

    Kipling says it best:

    There is sorrow enough in the natural way
    From men and women to fill our day;
    And when we are certain of sorrow in store,
    Why do we always arrange for more?
    Brothers and Sisters, I bid you beware
    Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.

    Buy a pup and your money will buy
    Love unflinching that cannot lie —
    Perfect passion and worship fed
    By a kick in the ribs or a pat on the head.
    Nevertheless it is hardly fair
    To risk your heart for a dog to tear.

    When the fourteen years which Nature permits
    Are closing in asthma, or tumour, or fits,
    And the vet’s unspoken prescription runs
    To lethal chambers or loaded guns,
    Then you will find — it’s your own affair —
    But . . . you’ve given your heart to a dog to tear.

    When the body that lived at your single will,
    With its whimper of welcome, is stilled (how still!)
    When the spirit hat answered your every mood
    Is gone — wherever it goes — for good,
    You will discover how much you care,
    And will give your heart to a dog to tear.

    We’ve sorrow enough in the natural way,
    When it comes to burying Christian clay.
    Our loves are not given, but only lent,
    At compound interest of cent per cent.
    Though it is not always the case, I believe,
    That the longer we’ve kept’em, the more do we grieve;

    For, when debts are payable, right or wrong,
    A short-time loan is as bad as a long —
    So why in — Heaven (before we are there)
    Should we give our hearts to a dog to tear?

  14. Oro Lee, Bravo. I learned much from sports that transferred to life. It made me a better investigator, businessman, father, and coach for over 3 decades.

  15. Tony C: “A sports team does not make you a better engineer or lawyer,”

    Correct, nor does music which one learned to play in 5th grade. But the reason they teach music in 5th grade is to train the mind to focus, to rapidly handle the flow of abstract ideas — that certain markings on a piece of paper translate into certain sounds and cadence if you appropriately manipulate an instrument with your hands and/or feet and/or breath. It’s a brain game, PE for the mind. The practicing that goes with it does the same in addition to developing discipline, a character trait.

    Competitive sports can enhance character development — following through on a commitment made to team mates to accomplish a given, long-term goal, developing discipline in exercise and health habits, learning what extreme physical exertion feels like and just how much you can stand, can accomplish, obtaining the confidence that comes with achievement.

    Neither proficiency at music or sports guarantees any success later in life, but the mental, physical, and character development achieved along the way make it more likely.

    But all things in moderation and balance. Except maybe chocolate. And good books.

  16. Bron:

    Thank you for your post, and please thank the hunters for me — I would be a much better person if I had some of the traits of my old friend Oro Lee

    Oro means gold and Lee, my name, is for a clearing.

    There was this one day — a clearing ringed by mountain outcrops — pale grass in the breeze — setting sun — and quail, so many and so fat — his exasperated look when I missed an easy shot — a long slow ride home, just savoring everything.

    We were young, so young and didn’t know it.

    Oro’s gone, been gone awhile and I still miss him.

    Lord how I remember that day, and Lord how I pray that I will remember it til the day I die. Everything golden.

    The hunters are right.

  17. David,
    Information? Give me a break. You have yet to share any credible information in this thread. As usual, you come in here spouting your homophobic bigotry. Your appeal to authority fallacy is flawed because your “authority” has feet of clay. You have one book written by an alleged gay guy. Even if he is telling the truth about his gayness, LGBT people can be careless researchers and unethical reporters too. For all I know, he saw a niche market in people like you and wrote the book for that reason, knowing there is a market for CT among those who are grasping for anything to support their sick belief system.

    I could do the same thing, I suppose, but I can’t hold my nose that long.

    Give it up. The University of Mississippi, the same Ole Miss that had tanks and armored personnel carriers in the Grove 50 years ago, now has two memorial statues of now deceased black students on campus that were paid for by students and volunteers. The same Ole Miss Lyceum building whose columns are pictured in the logo at the top of this story was commandeered as a field hospital during the civil war. The same Ole Miss that has acres of graves behind the coliseum, filled with the bodies of troops who died in the Lyceum.

    The new civil war is one over gay rights. That is a battle still being fought, but the LGBT side is winning, as the haters and bigots lose. Their bodies, figurative this time, will be buried in the unmarked mass grave of history.

  18. Oro Lee: I think there is some merit in competitive sports including team sports, especially in High School – but it should end with district play and no play-offs.

    I just don’t think schools competing against each other is a good idea. Sports as exercise can be a fun way to exercise; I prefer my coach’s method in high school: For every game you draw a chip, show it to the coach and then you are on the red team or on the blue team. For volleyball, soccer, baseball and football. The teams are never the same, and you work with the players you get.

    As for the “recruitment” angle, I think any student that would attend a school because they are a fan of the football team is making such an immature choice that many, many other immature choices would work equally as well. As I said before, these are meaningless contests. Meaningless victories, and provide a meaningless and a false sense of pride and superiority.

    A sports team does not make you a better engineer or lawyer, their trophies and victories do not make your resume stand out. If anything, an applicant obsessed with sports makes me wonder about their commitment to their actual work, which as a student is developing expertise in their chosen profession, not developing expertise in watching people play a game that has nothing to do with anything.

  19. Tough love. Young men need it and older men w/ good hearts need to enact it. TonyC and I agree. A positive Sunday as the Packers win, Lions and Bears lose.

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