SEC Warns Mississippi Over Confederate Emblem on State Flag

ATLANTA — The Southeastern Conference on Thursday demanded that Mississippi remove the Confederate battle emblem from its state flag, linking one of the region’s greatest passions — college sports — with one of its most intractable debates.

Greg Sankey, the league’s commissioner, said in a statement that it was “past time for change to be made to the flag.”

“Our students deserve an opportunity to learn and compete in environments that are inclusive and welcoming to all,” Sankey said. Without change, the commissioner warned, the conference might not hold future championship events in Mississippi.

Some of the league’s most prominent and lucrative championships — for baseball, football and men’s basketball — are currently played outside of Mississippi, but the state is eligible, at least for now, to host some of the title competitions whose locations rotate.

The conference’s ire is focused on the 126-year-old flag, which includes the Confederate battle emblem in its upper left corner. In a referendum in 2001, Mississippi voters overwhelmingly endorsed keeping the flag, with nearly two-thirds of ballots cast in support of retaining it.

That vote resonates through the State Capitol in Jackson to this day, and Mississippi’s state flag is the last in the country with the battle emblem. In the years since the referendum, there have been persistent calls for another vote, and the SEC’s two member schools in the state, Mississippi and Mississippi State, have lowered the state flags on their campuses.

Glenn Boyce, the Mississippi chancellor, and Keith Carter, the university’s athletic director, said in a statement on Thursday night that they supported the SEC’s ultimatum.

“Mississippi needs a flag that represents the qualities about our state that unite us, not those that still divide us,” they said.

In a separate statement, Mississippi State President Mark Keenum said that he understood the conference’s position and that he had repeatedly told the state’s leading elected officials, including in a letter last Friday, that people on the campus in Starkville wanted to see the flag altered.

“The letter said, in part, that our flag should be unifying, not a symbol that divides us,” Keenum said. “I emphasized that it is time for a renewed, respectful debate on this issue.”

The SEC’s condemnation of the flag came hours after a state board approved the University of Mississippi’s plan to relocate a Confederate monument on its campus in Oxford. The university has struggled through years of arguments over symbols of the Old South, leading to bans of the battle flag and the song “Dixie” and the elimination of the “Colonel Rebel” mascot. But the university’s nickname, “Ole Miss,” remains a subject of criticism, and its athletes are still known as the Rebels.

The SEC’s move also came hours after another school in the conference, the University of Florida, announced it would stop promoting its “Gator Bait” chant at athletic events.

In an open letter, Florida’s president, Kent Fuchs, said that while he did not know of any “evidence of racism associated with” the chant, there was “horrific historic racist imagery associated with the phrase.”

The SEC is a marketing juggernaut that has tried to influence debate in Washington about whether student-athletes should be able to profit off their fame and talents, but it was not immediately clear how much the conference would be able to affect residents’ thinking about the Mississippi flag.

“There’s an understanding that the flag will change, but there’s no certainty about when, and the how is the big part,” said Greg Snowden, a former state legislator who was once the second-ranking Republican in the Mississippi House. “How do we do it in such a way that doesn’t create more division?”

A more powerful move, Snowden said, might be if the N.C.A.A. threatened to ban Mississippi from holding regional baseball tournaments.

The N.C.A.A. has sometimes leveraged its brand and economic power to sway political debate. In 2016, for instance, it relocated some championship events from North Carolina as part of its opposition to a law that curbed the rights of transgender people.

Gov. Tate Reeves of Mississippi, a Republican, said Thursday that he would consider proposals to change the flag, but he stopped short of clearly endorsing any one idea.

“I’m certainly open to having any conversations,” Reeves said before Sankey’s statement. “But I believe very strongly that if we’re going to change the flag, the people of Mississippi should be the ones who make that decision.”


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