Mississippi

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SEC, NCAA Rebel Against Presence of Confederate Flag in Mississippi

19 Jun, 2020

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
With Increased Attention on Racial Injustice, State Symbol is a Presence Non Grata at Events

When NASCAR served notice that the Confederate Flag would no longer be welcome at any aspects of its events, including the tailgate and campground area, it sent a shockwave through the sport’s fans.

Now, the SEC is telling Mississippi that it will not host championships in that state, since the Confederate Flag features prominently on its state flag. And the NCAA seconds that motion, banning all postseason play from the state as well.

If there was ever a time for the conference and the NCAA to deliver their ultimatums, it is now. The #BlackLivesMatter movement has gained tremendous force and power, and it’s quite clear that racial intolerance has become, well, intolerable. And sports might just be the impetus for change in Mississippi.

“If anything moves Mississippi’s needle, it’s sports,” noted an article in Sports Illustrated. “More specifically, it’s college sports. And even more specifically, it’s SEC sports.”

If the SEC’s threat, made last Thursday, didn’t spring the Mississippi State Legislature into action, the next one may well do so. The NCAA Board of Governors aligned its postseason policy with that of the SEC: no flag change, no NCAA championship events.

To be clear, the state was already banned by NCAA from hosting pre-determined championship events, like NCAA men’s basketball regionals or NCAA golf championship tournaments. However, if a college or university team earned the right to host a championship game based on its tournament seeding or ranking – considered a nonpredetermined award – the team could host on its college campus or in its home territory. Because of this, Mississippi was previously able to play championships where a team had earned the ability to host. That will no longer be the case. And that ruling came down on June 19 -- Juneteenth, the national celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the United States in 1865.

SI called the move from both the SEC and NCAA “a boot to the butt of Mississippi lawmakers.”

NCAA has previously drawn a hard line when it comes to the Confederate Flag. Back in 2015, the flag, which flew at the South Carolina capitol building, was removed (amid much debate on both sides), ending the NCAA’s longstanding policy (adopted in 2001) against holding postseason events in that state.

Sports as a rule has had a contentious relationship with the Confederate Flag. South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier spoke out against the flag’s presence in his state back in 2007.

“My opinion is we don’t need the Confederate flag at our capitol,” Spurrier said, according to The Associated Press. “I don’t really know anybody that wants it there, but I guess there are a lot of South Carolinians that do want it there.”

Spurrier had made the comments in response to a fan waving a Confederate Flag during a 2006 game against Tennessee. The game was spoiled, Spurrier said, by "some clown waving that dang, damn Confederate flag behind the TV set. And it was embarrassing to me and I know embarrassing to our state.”

The less tangible, but still apparent, area of impact is in recruiting. Many Southern schools already face hesitation from prospects when recruiting outside of their geographic areas. Symbols like the Confederate flag can at times make it difficult to recruit African American athletes from other states. Whether it's true or not, recruiters say, opposing schools can use the Confederate flag as an example of apparent racism in the South. 

Former Ole Miss coach Tommy Tuberville, now at Cincinnati, told Ole Miss chancellor Robert Khayat in 1996, "We can't recruit against the Confederate flag."

And as increasing attention is being paid to the upswell in protests against racial inequality, colleges and conferences have discontinued their association with symbols seen as emblems of prejudice and oppression. The Confederate Flag, in fact, has long been used by various hate groups, including the Ku Klux Klan (which also use flags recreating the Nazi swastika), something schools can no longer afford to overlook.

Mississippi Today notes, “One by one, other Southern states have distanced themselves from the Confederate flag. Mississippi’s eight state-supported universities – and many Mississippi cities and counties – refuse to fly it.”

NASCAR’s move several weeks ago to ban the Confederate Flag is actually an extension of the policy it adopted in 2012 when it disallowed professional golfer Bubba Watson from driving the iconic (but Confederate flag-emblazoned) Dukes of Hazzard car, known to TV fans as the General Lee, in the parade lap at any of its events. Watson, who had purchased the car at auction, simply shrugged it off and drove the car to that year’s Phoenix Open. He did attend the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race in Phoenix -- just not in the General Lee.

But up until now, all NASCAR was banning was the physical presence of the flag at races themselves. The Confederate flags flown in the infield from fans' vehicles were a common sight at many NASCAR events (despite the fact that both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Sr. opposed their presence). It was also common to see fans wearing T-shirts, caps and other apparel emblazoned with the flag. NASCAR is now tasked with banning the flag in its entirety – something that might be a bit easier to do presently, given the fact that many tracks are limiting attendance to prevent the spread of COVID-19. And there are indications that NASCAR still has a long way to go; the Department of Justics is currently conducting an investigation into the fact that a noose was found in driver Bubba Wallace's garage. Wallace is the only African American driver in NASCAR.

On the college competition circuit, the fact that NCAA has added its considerable weight to the SEC’s decision is an enormous strike against the presence of the Confederate Flag (including in a state flag) at sports events.

“It is past time for change to be made to the flag of the State of Mississippi. Our students deserve an opportunity to learn and compete in environment that is inclusive and welcoming to all," Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement to CNN.

“There is no place in college athletics or the world for symbols or acts of discrimination and oppression,” said Michael V. Drake, chair of the board and president of the Ohio State University. “We must continually evaluate ways to protect and enhance the championship experience for college athletes. Expanding the Confederate flag policy to all championships is an important step by the NCAA to further provide a quality experience for all participants and fans."

According to The New York Times, a survey of state legislators in Mississippi found that 63 wanted to change the state flag, and that it was the only one in the U.S. to still feature the Confederate battle flag. Only seven legislators wanted to keep it, and 51 wanted voters to decide.

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