The commissioner of the Southeastern Conference announced the league would consider barring its member universities in Mississippi from holding championship events if the state did not remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag. That state of Mississippi is home to two SEC schools—Ole Miss and Mississippi State—and is the last state in the U.S. to include the symbol of the Confederacy on its flag. “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,” Commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement tweeted out by the SEC Thursday night. “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.” Following the SEC’s ultimatum, the NCAA issued a statement of its own Friday saying it was expanding its flag policy, which would effectively prohibit Mississippi from hosting NCAA championship events until the state flag is changed.
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The popularity of SEC sports, in particular the nation’s preeminent football conference, gives the conference great financial and cultural influence in the region that spans the Deep South. The conference waded into a rekindled debate in the state over the state flag as symbols of the Confederacy have been swiftly removed from public spaces across the country after weeks of protests following the killing of George Floyd. Black college athletes, who often have outsized roles on campus, have been particularly vocal in advocating for change, in some cases holding their own coaches to account. In Mississippi, a bipartisan group of lawmakers recently drafted legislation to change the flag, the first serious attempt to remove the Confederate emblem in nearly 20 years. In 2001, voters in the state voted two to one in a referendum to leave the flag untouched. The state’s Republican governor, Tate Reeves, has said he does not support legislative action to change the state flag, and that it should again be put to voters in the state.
In response to the SEC’s call, the president of Mississippi State University said the school was “firmly on record in support of changing the state flag.” The University of Mississippi tweeted a statement from its leadership saying that the school had stopped flying the state flag on campus in 2015. “The University of Mississippi community concluded years ago that the Confederate battle flag did not represent many of our core values, such as civility and respect for others,” the statement said. “Mississippi needs a flag that represents the qualities about our state that unite us, not those that still divide us.”