When Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves signed a bill on June 30 to retire his state’s flag, it signified a moment of social change: The last remaining state flag to contain the Confederate battle emblem was no more.
Mississippi’s stunning reversal, of course, wouldn’t have occurred without increased awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement and, in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, nationwide calls for racial justice.
But there was also a not-insignificant push coming from the sports world—specifically from college athletes and one civic-minded attorney—that may have altered the calculus for Mississippi state politicians.
On June 19, the NCAA’s Board of Governors expanded its policy banning Confederate flag imagery from all postseason games, effectively warning Mississippi it would be barred from hosting NCAA championship games, including beloved baseball regionals, until the state flag was changed.
For nearly 20 years, the NCAA’s Confederate flag policy hinged on whether a venue for the championship event was determined in advance. The NCAA denied (and still denies) pre-determined, postseason venue opportunities to states whose flags featured Confederate imagery.
South Carolina, which excised the distinct white stars across the blue X from its flag in 2015, and Mississippi were the last two states affected by this policy. And it meant that colleges in those states couldn’t host highly-valuable Division I men’s basketball tournament games, Division I women’s basketball regional semifinal and final games, or college football playoffs and bowl games. The host of those competitions are determined well in advance.
Yet the flag policy didn’t—until June 19—extend to postseason games whose venues were based on “earned” seeding or ranking. These “non-predetermined, on-campus playoff events” are used in Division I college baseball regionals and in the first and second rounds of Division I women’s basketball. Essentially, under earned seeding, teams that excel in the regular season get to host postseason games.
This exception proved of considerable value in Mississippi.
On a national level, attention for college baseball pales in comparison to football and basketball. College baseball is a “non-revenue sport” in that it typically loses more money than it generates.
But college baseball in Mississippi is an altogether different story.
According to The Clarion Ledger, nine of the 10 largest on-campus crowds in NCAA baseball history have been held at Mississippi State’s Dudy Noble Field. The highest attendance ever occurred in 2014, when nearly 16,000 fans watched Ole Miss play Mississippi State. Both teams, along with Southern Mississippi, are consistently ranked among the top, and all have produced numerous MLB players.
Attendance at baseball regionals in Mississippi can generate significant financial benefit to the host college and its surrounding town. When one of the Mississippi schools hosts a regional, upwards of 60,000 visitors will spend one weekend (two weekends if the school hosts a super regional) in town.
It’s been estimated that baseball regionals provide “millions of dollars of economic impact” for Mississippi. The smaller annual Conference USA college baseball championship, held at Biloxi’s MGM Park generates, about $5 million in stimulus to the local economy.
For Mississippi State in particular, the ability to host the first and second round women’s basketball games has also proved valuable. The Bulldogs are consistently among the Top 10 women’s basketball programs in the country and have hosted postseason games that bring upwards of 12,000 visitors to Starkville.
The NCAA’s expansion of its flag policy came at the urging of more than 30 current and former athletes from Mississippi colleges. On June 18, they wrote to NCAA president Mark Emmert requesting the NCAA’s flag policy include all postseason games. They explained that, as college athletes, they “compete or competed under the public display of a symbol that has terrorized generations.” They added that, “those of us who have children in public schools still walk our kids underneath that flag and into school every morning.”
The athletes went on to question the efficacy the NCAA’s existing flag policy, asserting that it didn’t motivate Mississippi leaders to act. They warned Emmert that “Mississippi’s political leaders have resigned themselves to the fact that Mississippi will not be chosen to host pre-determined NCAA events of any economic magnitude.” At the same time, they maintained the NCAA’s policy allowed Mississippi’s largest colleges to host non-predetermined, on-campus playoff events “they cherish.”
The athletes’ message was heard by the NCAA. Gail Dent, a spokesperson for the NCAA, confirms to Sportico that “the letter by the student-athletes was very influential.”
Diandra Hosey, an attorney in Jackson, Mississippi who played basketball at Mississippi College in the early 2000s, was among the athletes who wrote to Emmert. She tells Sportico that the letter “essentially put faces on how the NCAA policy disproportionately affected sports with a majority of black participants,” adding that she believed the NCAA’s expansion of the flag policy and the potential loss in revenue “played a major role” in the state’s decision to retire the flag.
“Mississippi,” Hosey explains, “already lacks funding in many areas, particularly in K-12 education and healthcare. The COVID-19 pandemic is negatively affecting our economy in a significant way. I think that the legislature understood that our state simply could not afford to lose revenue anywhere. Now is not the time for self-inflicted wounds….
“I hope that [political leaders’] decision was based on more than revenue,” she said. “I hope that their decision signifies a change in their hearts.”
John Lassiter, an attorney in Jackson who helped to organize the athletes and who first initiated contact with the NCAA on the flag issue back in January, believes the NCAA’s Juneteenth rule change played a decisive role in the state’s decision. “There were a number of material events [that contributed], but there is no way the flag changes without the NCAA taking its action,” he said. “It was politically dead at the time.”
As Lassiter details, the NCAA’s rule change—and its implications for collegiate athletics in Mississippi—clearly caught the attention of athletic departments across the state. On June 25, less than a week after the NCAA’s announcement, more than 50 coaches and administrators participated in a press conference at the state legislature in which they advocated the state flag be changed. Ole Miss football coach Lane Kiffin and Mississippi State football coach Mike Leach were among them.
Meanwhile, Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill tweeted on June 22 that he wouldn’t continue to play unless the flag was changed.
Lassiter surmises the pending loss gave otherwise reluctant politicians “tangible loss that they could point to—it gave them cover. All the sudden, not changing hurts Mississippians.”
He also stresses that “the credit should go to Amy Wilson,” the NCAA’s managing director of inclusion. Wilson, Lassiter maintains, played an integral, behind-the-scenes role in the NCAA agreeing to expand the flag policy. “She heard me out on the policy and took a leap of faith.”
It was a leap of faith and a step forward for positive social change.