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Time for Ole Miss to send a message

The scene was this: a college play, "The Laramie Project," at the University of Mississippi, Tuesday night. It's a play about a town in Wyoming and its reaction to the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard, who was tortured, pistol-whipped, tied to a fence and left to die. This weekend marks the 15th anniversary of his attack.

It's a play meant to open minds about differences. And now picture this: In the audience Tuesday, allegedly from a group of roughly 20 Ole Miss football players, came heckling, laughing, homophobic slurs.

"Someone learned to hate like that," Shepard's mother, Judy, told me Thursday, shortly after hearing what had happened. "We're still teaching it. Classic case of bullying.

"This is exactly the kind of behavior that goes on and encourages other people to act on it."

The kind of behavior that led to your son's murder?

"Absolutely," she said.

Mississippi needs to take action now to send a strong message that this kind of behavior won't be tolerated. The school seems prepared to use this as a teachable moment for these players, but the first way to teach an athlete something is to take him off the field. For once, let's put something ahead of football. Send a message for everyone at that school, everyone in the state, everyone in society: Football comes behind human decency and civility.

On Thursday, Matthew Shepard's mother was forced to relive the worst time of her life, maybe the worst of anyone's life. She was quiet, maybe stunned.

Occasionally, anger would bubble up, but not for long.

"I feel great sadness for them," she said. "The football players. And greater sadness for the folks who were actually doing the play. It breaks my heart they had to go through the diatribe of thoughtless, cruel people.

"They think they are doing a great piece about social justice, and these clowns start harassing and disrespecting their performance."

What causes people to act so callously toward humanity? Maybe it's mob mentality. Hatred is easier when you're in a group.

When Matthew Shepard's mother talks about this behavior coming more from sports than other places, a mentality in sports that gays still aren't accepted, it makes you wonder: Is mob mentality a part of football culture?

The school is investigating the specifics, and football coach Hugh Freeze tweeted, "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."

Come on. Some facts are known by now. Let's not wait till after Saturday's game to send a real message. A report in the school paper, The Daily Mississippian, says an athletic department official showed up after the first act and made the football players apologize following the second.

It's time to act.

Now.

There is something about football, the overimportance placed on it as more than just entertainment, that tells players that they are above social norms. Time to send a different message: The players who were there should be suspended from the team indefinitely as a starting point.

The student paper says the football players attended as part of a freshman course requirement and that they "heckled both cast members and the characters they were portraying for their body types and sexual orientations."

A theater department official told the paper she didn't think the football players knew what they were apologizing for. The Daily Mississippian also reported that while football players were starting and encouraging the bad behavior, they weren't the only ones doing it.

Mississippi chancellor Daniel W. Jones issued a joint-statement with athletic director Ross Bjork saying, "Individuals will be held accountable."

They said as a first step, the university will talk with the freshman athletes at the play about civility.

"Incidents like this remind all educators that our job is to prepare our students to be leaders in life during their years on campus and after they graduate from Ole Miss," the statement said. "This behavior by some students reflects poorly on all of us, and it reinforces our commitment to teaching inclusivity and civility to young people who still have much to learn."

Shepard's mother said she had never heard of anything like this before, but that there have been protests after the play from people who thought it was about promoting a gay lifestyle.

Susan Burk is a Laramie Project Specialist for the Matthew Shepard Foundation. When someone wants to put on the play, or just do research on Shepard's death, she is the one to talk to. She's clearly more emotionally involved in Shepard's story than she would be if this were just a job.

Instead, she's on a mission to change and to open minds.

"What happened in this incident is a stark reminder that these messages are extremely relevant today," she said. "What these football players and people involved did was target these people with hate speech.

"It's not too many steps - what happened in that auditorium - from what happened to Matthew Shepard.

"This is such a stark slap in the face. Where did it come from? It's learned behavior. Someone taught them it's OK to do that. I'm just glad people didn't stand by and let them get away with it."

That's something still unknown, honestly. Did others in the room stand up against the football players and call the athletic department?

Judy Shepard hopes so. If so, she said, then at least the message is getting to someone. That's the value of the play.

Shepard said the world is a much better place than it was 15 years ago, when her son was killed.

"But this just proves there's so much work to be done," she said. "I thought we were making great strides, and then we find this behavior going on. I wonder if someone in the audience did push back. I would hate to think they intimidated the whole audience."

The next step from the university is a big one. Some things matter more than football.