N.C.A.A. Pressures Mississippi on Confederate Emblem on State Flag

ATLANTA — The National Collegiate Athletic Association effectively warned Mississippi on Friday that it would not hold major competitions there unless the Confederate battle emblem was stripped from the state flag.

Under an expanded policy that the association announced Friday, states will not be allowed to host championship events if the battle flag is a prominent, sanctioned symbol. Mississippi is the only state that currently stands to be penalized under the rule, which the association changed during a national outcry over racial injustice.

The move by the association, one day after the Southeastern Conference issued its own ultimatum, is certain to place new pressure on state lawmakers and fuel public debate around the 126-year-old flag, the last in the United States with the battle emblem.

“There is no place in college athletics or the world for symbols or acts of discrimination and oppression,” Michael V. Drake, the chairman of the N.C.A.A.’s Board of Governors and the president of Ohio State, said in a statement. “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 N.C.A.A. to further provide a quality experience for all participants and fans.”

The association’s shift is a potential landmark in the emotional debate that Mississippi has had for decades, including a referendum in 2001 that showed nearly two-thirds of voters supported keeping the flag that the state adopted in 1894.

Although the referendum more or less settled the matter for many elected officials over the years, the revived national scrutiny — and with it, the threat of economic consequences — is prompting the state’s leaders to reassess their views. That the college sports industry is wielding the hammer is proving particularly influential in a state that cherishes baseball and football.

“A flag’s sole purpose is to unite a people around a common cause. Reality has proven clear that the Mississippi flag no longer unites, but divides us unnecessarily,” Representative Trey Lamar, who played football at Mississippi and became one of the most influential Republican lawmakers in the state, said in a series of tweets on Thursday night.

Vowing to defend student-athletes and their opportunities for postseason play in Mississippi, he added, “It is time to change the flag. It is the right thing to do.”

The most influential universities in the state — Mississippi, Mississippi State and Southern Mississippi — have distanced themselves from the flag for years, lowering it on their campuses and pressing officials in public and in private to change it.

Mississippi and Mississippi State, which are members of the SEC, said they supported Commissioner Greg Sankey when he said it was “past time for change to be made to the flag.” Without a new flag, he said, the conference might avoid holding championship events in Mississippi.

Sankey’s announcement on Thursday represented an important public relations victory for the flag’s critics, who welcomed the statement from one of the South’s most prominent institutions. But Friday’s change from the N.C.A.A. threatened greater economic peril, in part because Mississippi has benefited from hosting postseason events whose locations are not chosen years in advance. (Some championship event locations are linked to seedings or rankings, not bids by potential host cities.)

Just last year, Oxford and Starkville hosted games in the Division I baseball tournament. Starkville was also the site of some games in the Division I women’s basketball tournament.

“It’s been said — kind of tongue in cheek, but maybe not so much — in years past that if they ever said Mississippi State or Ole Miss couldn’t hold a regional baseball tournament, you might get some action,” Greg Snowden, a former legislator who was the second-ranking Republican in the Mississippi House, said in an interview this week. “There would be teeth if the N.C.A.A. did something.”

The N.C.A.A. has penalized states for their use of the battle flag for close to two decades, keeping major events with preselected locations away from places, like Mississippi, where the emblem was officially recognized. Only on Friday did a crucial carve-out vanish — that states could host championship competitions if their teams’ performances earned them a sufficiently high seeding or ranking.

“We must do all we can to ensure that N.C.A.A. actions reflect our commitment to inclusion and support all our student-athletes,” Mark Emmert, the association’s president, said in a statement. “There can be no place within college sports where any student-athlete is demeaned or unwelcome.”

The association has periodically entered other debates in statehouses around the country. In 2016, it forcefully opposed a North Carolina law that curbed the rights of transgender people and relocated some events from the state. This month, the association said that an Idaho law was detrimental to transgender people and in conflict with the N.C.A.A.’s “core values of inclusivity, respect and the equitable treatment of all individuals.”

The Mississippi Legislature is poised to adjourn next week, but state officials could try to move a bill through the Capitol in short order. The Mississippi Constitution also gives Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican who has signaled an openness to changing the flag, the power to convene a special session if he believes “the public interest requires it.”

State officials could also choose to wait until next year to consider the flag’s fate.




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