The University of Mississippi will not carry out significant punishments against football players and other athletes who reportedly yelled gay slurs at actors during a campus play after its investigation revealed “conflicting reports” about what happened and no concrete evidence that athletes were behind the incident.
Instead, the university will require all athletes and students present at the play to go through educational dialogue programs aimed at fostering diversity and understanding on campus, ESPN reported.
The alleged slurs happened at a campus performance of The Laramie Project, a play about the 1998 murder of openly gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. One of the play’s lead actors said he heard the slurs, and faculty made it seem as if football players and other athletes were the primary instigators. The athletic department forced the group of 20 football players present at the play to sign an apology letter and deliver it to the cast.
It’s unfortunate that Ole Miss and its Bias Incident Response Team couldn’t find enough evidence to punish the offenders, whether they were athletes or not, because disciplining the offenders could have sent a message that such behavior wasn’t acceptable. At the same time, it’s positive that Bjork, the university, and the athletic department seem to be taking the incident seriously. The emphasis Ole Miss and other schools put on football and other sports would have made it easy to use the lack of specific evidence as an excuse to do nothing and pretend it never happened. And it’s positive that Bjork said that the educational dialogue involving athletes and LGBT issues will be ongoing and not isolated to this incident: “[W[e will engage in new opportunities for our student athletes moving ahead that shows responsibility and accountability that we have to have respect for all people,” Bjork told ESPN. ‘Those programs are being developed.”
With sports becoming a major focal point in the fight for LGBT rights and equality, there’s no reason not to develop educational programs for athletes that promote equality and acceptance. And given that college and university campuses aren’t always easy and open places for LGBT students, there’s no reason Ole Miss shouldn’t have more educational dialogue going on anyway. Ole Miss, in fact, isn’t among the universities that fund LGBT resource professionals, nor does it have a Safe Zone program that promotes inclusiveness and safety for LGBT students. In effect, it has outsourced its LGBT outreach and tolerance programs to student-run organizations.
Even had Ole Miss found out which athletes or students were responsible for the slurs and disciplined them with suspensions from games or school, it wouldn’t have meant as much without the development of programs and resources that make the entire Ole Miss campus a more tolerant place. For a school that has had its share of embarrassing moments of intolerance in recent years, this ought to be a drive to action to avoid more in the future by making its campus a safer and more inclusive place for everyone. Not having enough evidence to discipline specific students or athletes isn’t a reason to avoid making progress both in the athletic department and on the campus as a whole.