No evidence against Ole Miss players

Updated: October 5, 2013, 1:10 AM ET
By Edward Aschoff | ESPN.com

After the University of Mississippi investigated allegations that an estimated 20 football players disrupted a university theater production of "The Laramie Project" with "borderline hate speech" on Tuesday night, the university found no evidence that any players used any anti-gay slurs.

Because of what the university's Bias Incident Response Team deemed "conflicting reports" surrounding the incident, all the students and student-athletes in attendance of the show Oct. 1 will be required to attend an educational dialogue session, the response team said in a statement released 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."

The play is based on the 1998 murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard.

The Daily Mississippian, the university's student newspaper, first reported that the 20 Ole Miss football players were among the disruptive audience Tuesday. Play director and faculty member Rory Ledbetter told the student newspaper that members of the audience were using homosexual slurs and insulting the body types and sexual orientation of cast members.

The student newspaper also reported that Ledbetter said a member of the athletic department sent him an email apologizing for the incident.

Ole Miss theater department chairwoman Rene Pulliam told the paper that the football players were asked to apologize by the athletic department as well.

Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork told ESPN.com on Friday evening that the response team and the athletic department are still gathering information but that he doesn't anticipate any punishment going forward for the student-athletes involved, unless new evidence arises.

"As of six o'clock on Friday night, there are no facts that back up any cause for us to do any further discipline as of now," Bjork said. "If we do get any new information, we will follow up and act accordingly.

"No one finds what happened acceptable. Those acts of that language and that response has no place on our campus. We take that very serious. Regardless of who said what, it's wrong what happened."

Bjork said he and Ole Miss' senior associate athletic director for academic support Derek Cowherd sat down with the players involved for 45 minutes Thursday night to talk about what happened Tuesday. Bjork said he told each player present to divulge any information they had about the incident and what was allegedly said during the performance.

"We encouraged them and we told them that if there's any information that they need to share to share that with the incident response team and make sure that all the facts were on the table," Bjork said.

"We believe that they are good young men, and we need to support them as well in this matter and make sure we understand the truth."

Bjork said there are plans for Ole Miss' student-athletes to engage in multiple programs in the future to help "foster a culture of diversity" on campus.

"We've engaged our athletes and our athletic program in these types of things along the way," Bjork said. "Not only what we've already done and what we have in place for next week, but we 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. Those programs are being developed.

"We want to send a strong message [to student-athletes] that we have to have respect for all people."

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