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Sports column: SEC and NCAA send a message on Mississippi’s state flag

Sports and society — specifically the quest for social justice — seem to be colliding on a daily basis nowadays.

On Thursday night, the Southeastern Conference issued a statement in which commissioner Greg Sankey threatened to keep conference championship events out of here unless the Confederate emblem is removed from the state flag.

Then, on Friday, the NCAA went a step further. It announced that it would withhold its championship events from states “where the Confederate flag has a prominent presence.”

If the SEC’s statement was a cannonball fired over the head of the entire state of Mississippi as a warning shot, then the NCAA’s decision is a broadside that connected squarely in the gut.

The SEC’s statement sounded mean and angry, but is largely toothless. The conference’s “big four” championships in football, baseball and men’s and women’s basketball are all entrenched in other states or would never be played here anyway. Smaller sports like tennis, track and field and softball rotate their tournaments to campus sites, and are rarely held at Ole Miss or Mississippi State.

The only SEC championship events scheduled at Ole Miss in the coming years are outdoor track and field and cross country, both in 2022. Mississippi State will host cross country in 2024 and men’s tennis in 2028.

The NCAA’s decision, on the other hand, will have a much bigger effect. The NCAA has had the same ban in place since 2001, but with a big loophole. The original ban only applied to pre-selected sites, such as NCAA basketball tournament regionals and Final Fours in various sports. It still allowed Mississippi’s schools to host postseason events selected through “achievement,” such as baseball regionals and first- and second-round games in the women’s basketball tournament.

Mississippi was never going to be picked to host major postseason events anyway. We don’t have any venues or cities suited for it. Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Southern Miss and Delta State, however, have all earned baseball and basketball regionals based on what they’ve done on the field or court. Those will now be a thing of the past unless the state flag is changed. For a state that loves college baseball and is one of the sport’s major hubs, it’s a big blow.

Progress often comes slow in Mississippi. True to our stubborn rebel roots, we might come to decisions in our own time but dig our heels in when we’re told we have to do something. This issue is no exception.

Nineteen years after we last voted on it, there is a strong, renewed push under way to change the flag. Mississippi’s universities and many of its cities have stopped flying the flag. It seems like it might only be a matter of time before a new design is introduced, and the real argument is whether to do it through a legislative decree or a vote of the people.

Threats like the one the SEC issued on Thursday, however, do not sit well with a lot of Mississippians. We view it as outsiders meddling in family affairs. Even if the outsiders mean well, and the issue at hand makes us the family no one wants to live next to, it’s something we have to figure out for ourselves.

It seemed like we were on the way toward doing that. The actions of the SEC and NCAA were meant to kick us in the butt and speed the process along, but it might end up having the opposite effect by directing anger toward what are perceived as authoritarian outsiders rather than the merits of keeping or dispensing with a divisive symbol.

Either way, the two organizations have sent a clear message about where they stand on the issue of the flag and Confederate symbols. They’re through playing, and are ready to keep us from playing if it comes to that.

Even if it doesn’t serve as the call to action that was intended, it should be a wake-up call that makes us seriously look at how others see us and whether it’s time to make some changes.

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured sports reporters in the paper's 137-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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