Ole Miss’s Autumn of DiscontentBy Sandra Knispel | Published 03 Oct 2011 08:19am |
The University of Mississippi’s football team won this weekend. But as MPB’s Sandra Knispel reports, the uproar over the university’s athletics leadership continues.
With finally a win again, the Ole Miss football team returns from its first trip to California, having beaten Fesno State 38 to 28 this weekend. But that’s not enough to appease a fan base in turmoil. Lee Habeeb is the spokesman for Forward Rebels, a fan group that has been taking out weekly ads of discontent.
"The ads aren't aggressive, actually. It just depends on your point of view. Actually they are asking questions," Habeeb says. "Only a chancellor as queasy as this would fear actual, solid questions. That by the way are being asked every day in sports talk. And the entire SEC now thinks we're a joke. Recruits aren't coming here because we keep losing. Two straight years.”
Forward Rebels is a now a for-profit organization that is raising money to keep up the pressure on the Ole Miss administration. It’s goal is simple: get the athletics director fired.
“This is not inciteful. This is Pete Boone. We think he should go. That’s it. That’s all we said," says Habeeb.
Not used to such confrontational tactics, the university went onto the defensive late last week in an e-mail to faculty, students and alumni. In it, Chancellor Dan Jones called on those involved in the campaign to stop, and “on every person who loves Ole Miss to denounce it in every way possible.” An e-mail that struck some as a gag order. Again Habeeb.
“We’re not dangerous. Since when was speech, free speech dangerous on a campus atmosphere? And if you want to talk about what hurts a reputation of a school it’s the suppression of speech!"
“We’re not going to engage in a public debate with an anonymous organization that claims to love Ole Miss but is attacking it," says Thompson.
Michael Thompson is the spokesman for the university’s athletics department: "We can’t engage in a debate especially in a public forum with an anonymous group that continues to use those coercive tactics.”
Even former Mississippi Governor William Winter has come to the embattled university’s defense: “I think it is so unfortunate that an accusatory, negative advertisement like that, unsigned, should appear in state newspapers, by people who purport to be friends of this university and of higher education in Mississippi.”
Forward Rebels was originally a group of fans that met regularly over the summer with Thompson and athletics director Boone for friendly discussions. Then the group’s tactics changed, and many of its original members dropped out. Now Habeeb says others are afraid to speak up publicly. The Chancellor meanwhile says he has received threats that promise if Boone is not removed, things "will get ugly," whilst threatening to expand the attacks to other athletics employees. Habeeb, who claims his group has some 3,000 private members and over 5,000 on facebook, says they’re innocent:
Reporter: “Just to be very clear, your group has no link and as far as you know it’s not somebody who belongs to your group who has been making these anonymous threats? Habeeb: “I know every single member of the group. The reason I’m the spokesperson is they don’t speak. And by the way, the chancellor never implicated Forward Rebels. He simply said there was a threat. He knows that Forward Rebels didn’t do it or say it but he was glad to intimate that we did.”
The problem has now turned into a classic catch 22 with no face-saving back door. Even if Pete Boone had quietly mulled over stepping down himself after a second year of poor performances, or the university had considered sacking him, both actions are now a lot less likely as they would be read as caving in to an ad campaign, succumbing to well-financed fan pressure. A point that Habeeb is unwilling to concede.
“Look, in the end, life is about pressure. And if you don’t put pressure on people they don’t change," Habeeb says. "Pete Boon has been there forever!"
Reporter: “Are you a sports fan?” Student: “Yes, of the Rebels. But I would be more of a sports fan if they actually won something.”
Heather Welsh, a freshman from Georgia, is currently in the process of pledging a sorority.
“Yes, I’m sick and tired of losing but I mean the school is still fun, so who cares, I guess [Welsh laughs].”
For one, Habeeb does. He says the group’s war chest is plenty full and vows the full-page ads will keep coming until the athletics director is gone.
Sandra Knispel, MPB News, Oxford.
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