Ole Miss football coach Hugh Freeze needs to hold players accountable for insensitive behavior

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OK, Hugh Freeze. Time to lead.

Lead your football players at Mississippi out of ignorance and into understanding. Lead your young men toward accountability. Show that the remarkably, distressingly resilient track record for intolerance at Ole Miss can be changed for the better.

Because if ever a situation cries out for a coach to set the tone of team behavior, and to firmly establish what is acceptable and unacceptable, it's the situation at Ole Miss today. This is no time for soft-peddling it. There is a reputation at stake for a team, a university and a state.

And a coach.

If you're unaware, here is the situation as described in the Daily Mississippian, the student paper at Ole Miss:

"Many members of an audience of mostly Ole Miss students, including an estimated 20 Ole Miss football players, openly disrespected and disrupted the Ole Miss theater department's production of 'The Laramie Project' Tuesday night at the Meek Auditorium.

"Cast members of the play, which is about an openly gay male who was murdered in Laramie County in Wyoming, said members of the audience became so disruptive at times that they struggled completing the play.

"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.' "

How lovely. Neanderthals alive and well and loudly heckling in Oxford.

If you have an Ole Miss degree, understand that this is how your school is being represented to the nation. And don't blame the nation for associating this with the school where fans grudgingly gave up waving the Confederate flag in the stands at home football games, grudgingly gave up the band playing "Dixie," grudgingly changed mascots from the old personification of the plantation days, Colonel Reb.

Here on the 50th anniversary of James Meredith graduating from Ole Miss after integration of the school amid violent protest, there are fresh reminders of how far some places have to go in terms of inclusivity, tolerance and diversity.

Freeze took to Twitter Thursday morning to address the issue, saying, "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."

Later Thursday, the school added some depth and heft to that 140-character response. Ole Miss issued a joint statement from chancellor Dan Jones and athletic director Ross Bjork:

"While we work to determine with certainty who disrupted the Laramie Project play, we want everyone within our university community and beyond to know that we strongly condemn the behavior exhibited Tuesday night. As a member of the Ole Miss family, each of us has a responsibility to be accountable for our actions, and these individuals will be held accountable. Our investigation will determine the degree to which any and all students were involved.

"As a first step to addressing behavior at the performance Tuesday night, we will meet today with the freshman student-athletes [from various sports] who attended the play and have a dialogue about what happened, about our university-wide commitment to inclusivity and civility, and about the important role they play in representing the university. It is clear that some students badly misrepresented the culture of this university. From there, we will work with Student-Affairs and the Bias Incident Response Team to determine the facts and appropriate next steps.

"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. 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. We will be engaging our student-athletes with leaders on the subject of individuality and tolerance, so we can further enforce life lessons and develop them to their fullest potential.

"On behalf of our 22,000 students, our faculty, and our staff, we apologize."

The apology is certainly welcome and needed. But there has to be action behind it. Any student involved in disrupting the play should be disciplined. Any student-athlete involved in disrupting the play should lose playing time. And that absolutely includes any and all football players, even if they're playing an important conference game Saturday.

This is bigger than any on-field impact. Especially at Ole Miss.

Freeze is an outspoken Christian. A man of God. Wears it on his sleeve.

In an August issue of something called Metro Christian Living, Freeze's wife, Jill, describes her husband as a "prayer warrior" and someone who "makes me want to be a better everything – a better wife, a better mom, a better Christian. He really is an amazing man."

Today, he needs to make some of his football players better members of the Ole Miss community. If so much of what Freeze stands for involves character off the football field, well, he's got some work to do. This is bigger than game-planning for Auburn.

Many Christians openly consider homosexuality a sin, even in the face of dramatically changing public opinions in this area. I don't know where Freeze stands on this. But regardless of his beliefs, players who are openly hostile toward the mere subject matter of homosexual persecution are in need of immediate behavior modification.

The charismatic coach pulled in star recruits at an amazing clip last winter, signing one of the best classes in the nation and in Ole Miss history. They followed Freeze's pitch to Oxford, bought into his vision. So they should be willing listeners as he explains why what they did Tuesday night was profoundly wrong and completely counter to a key aspect of the college experience.

And hopefully the involved players will enjoy a view from the bench Saturday at Auburn. Or on TV from back in Oxford.

A football team is both blessed and burdened with being the most visible entity at many American colleges. When things go well, the benefits of that status roll in. And when things go poorly, the backlash can be significant.

Welcome to the backlash. Self inflicted.

Several representatives of Ole Miss have given their school a fresh layer of embarrassment, at a place living with several old layers just beneath the surface. Every campus leader should step up on this one. Including football coach Hugh Freeze. And soon.