On Thursday, Southeastern Conference (SEC) Commissioner Greg Sankey warned that if Mississippi does not change its state flag to remove the Confederate flag, the college athletic conference would boycott the state, refusing to hold any championship events in Mississippi.
“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 environments that are inclusive and welcoming to all,” Sankey said in a statement. “In the event there is no change, there will be consideration of precluding Southeastern Conference championship events from being conducted in the State of Mississippi until the state flag is changed.”
Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum and MSU Athletic Director John Cohen have endorsed removing the Confederate battle flag from the state flag in the wake of the George Floyd protests.
Keenum responded to Sankey’s threat by warning about “unintended consequences.”
“I have great respect for Commissioner Greg Sankey, and I understand why he has taken this position regarding Mississippi’s state flag. Clearly, the current national climate is such that this debate may produce unintended consequences for our student athletes here at Mississippi State University and those at the University of Mississippi. In addition, there may be similar unintended consequences for academic pursuits at our all our state’s public universities and negative economic impacts on the state’s communities as well.
Since 2015, our Student Association, Robert Holland Faculty Senate and university administration have been firmly on record in support of changing the state flag. I have reiterated that view to our state’s leaders on multiple occasions, including during face-to-face discussions in recent days and hours. On June 12, I wrote to the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the Mississippi House reaffirming that support. The letter said, in part, that our flag should be unifying, not a symbol that divides us. I emphasized that it is time for a renewed, respectful debate on this issue.”
Cohen also warned that the SEC’s decision to boycott Mississippi would affect student-athletes and coaches who have no control over the state flag.
“We are disappointed that our student-athletes and coaches will potentially be affected by something outside of their control. At the same time, we understand and support Commissioner Greg Sankey’s stance on the flag of the State of Mississippi. Mississippi State University is proud to be among the most diverse universities in the SEC. Alongside our university leadership, we aim to continue our support for changing the state flag, which should unite us, not divide us.”
The NCAA has already banned Mississippi from hosting predetermined NCAA championship events over the state flag.
Mississippi voters voted to keep the current flag in 2001, by a nearly two-to-one margin. While an online petition to change the state flag garnered more than 142,000 signatures as of Thursday night, a Chism Strategies poll found that 46 percent of Mississippians support keeping the flag, while 45 percent favor changing it, leaving nine percent unsure.
Mississippi lawmakers began moving towards changing the state flag last week.
Perhaps the Magnolia State should remove the Confederate flag from its state flag. While many southerners see the flag as a sign of Southern pride, it does date back to a rebellion against the United States — a rebellion focused on expanding the evil of slavery throughout the United States. Yet it seems unfair for athletic conferences to punish students and coaches for the state flag.
The cancel culture that has followed in the wake of the George Floyd protests has targeted many innocent victims, and it seems the Mississippi student-athletes may be next.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.