About 20 Ole Miss football players were included in a large group of audience members who harassed and openly disrespected student actors during a University of Mississippi theater performance Tuesday evening, according to the school's student newspaper. The football players later apologized, reportedly at the request of the Ole Miss athletic department.
The UM theater department was showing a production of "The Laramie Project," which is based on the 1999 murder of Matthew Shepard, an openly gay University of Wyoming student who was killed due to his sexual orientation. From The Daily Mississippian:
According to the play's director and theater faculty member Rory Ledbetter, some audience members used derogatory slurs like "fag" and heckled both cast members and the characters they were portraying for their body types and sexual orientations. Ledbetter said the audience's reactions included "borderline hate speech."
The football players were apparently attending the play because of a freshman-level theater course requirement. The athletic department was made aware of their actions during the play, and one player delivered to the cast a note of apology on behalf of the group following the second act, according to the report. Although, theater department chair Rene Pulliam said she wasn't "sure the players truly understood what they were apologizing for."
A university "bias intervention response team" is reportedly among the authorities looking into the incident.
Update: An actor tells USA Today's Dan Wolken the audience was behaving disrespectfully even during the play's funeral scene. Hugh Kellenberger reports one student disputes the account of the event, with "The people on stage were constantly giggling ... I never heard the word fag used" among freshman Rob McAuley's comments.
Ledbetter said the players weren't the only ones in the audience harassing actors, but they appeared to be leading the disruption.
"The football players were certainly not the only audience members that were being offensive last night," Ledbetter said. "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."
In addition to allegedly hurling homophobic slurs at cast members, the performance report stated that some in the audience were "taking 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."
A search of Ole Miss players' Twitter accounts did not yield any discussion or photos of the incidents.