JACKSON • Forty-six coaches and athletic directors from across the state traveled to Jackson on Thursday to lobby the Mississippi Legislature to change the state’s flag.
All eight of Mississippi’s public universities were represented at a press conference.
That includes Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Southern Miss, Delta State, Alcorn State, Jackson State, Mississippi Valley State and the Mississippi University for Women. The reason for the press conference was to urge state government to remove the Confederate battle symbol from the state flag.
This followed the NCAA, SEC and C-USA’s rulings last week which barred conference championships and postseason events from Mississippi until the state flag is changed.
That policy would exclude the state’s baseball and softball programs – Ole Miss, MSU and USM – from hosting NCAA regional or super regional games. It would also keep first- and second-round NCAA women’s basketball playoff games from being played in the state.
Mississippi State starting running back Kylin Hill also stated earlier in the week that he would not represent the state until the flag is changed, and former Ole Miss basketball player Blake Hinson, who recently transferred, said he was glad to not represent the flag anymore and not to be associated with anything representing the Confederacy.
While 13 representatives from Ole Miss and Mississippi State traveled to the Capitol, Ole Miss men’s basketball coach Kermit Davis and Mississippi State women’s basketball coach Nikki McCray-Penson each gave statements and answered questions.
Davis spoke first and said the coaches were there to create change for the flag. He said his basketball players are hurt, and they want change. He said he believes that everyone would agree that everyone wants a state with great pride and a state that flourishes in economy, business and education, and that starts with changing the flag.
“Mississippi needs to have a flag that is great for all the citizens in our state,” Davis said. “Mississippi needs to have a flag that is right for all of our students in-state and all of our out-of-state students and student athletes that come on our campus.”
McCray-Penson followed Davis with a statement of her own, saying she knows first-hand what it feels like to see a Confederate flag and pretend that it does not have racist, violent, or oppressive overtones.
She said the flag screams hate and hurts her to her core and that students don’t just commit to competing and representing the university, they commit to compete and represent for the entire state.
“Mississippi State University’s mission of diversity, inclusion and equal opportunity is hampered by this symbol of hatred,” McCray-Penson said.
House Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, followed and said the entire state, including athletic leaders, religious leaders, and citizens are all “screaming for change” and that the actions by the NCAA and SEC have brought a quantifiable hurt to the state.
He said that ruling is hurting the state financially while it hurts the university from recruiting not only student-athletes, but students in general.
“This is an issue that needs to be resolved and resolved quickly,” Gunn said. “The longer it goes, the more it festers and the harder it is going to be later on. The image of our state is at stake here, ladies and gentleman. The nation is watching. They want to know what we as a state stand for.”
“This is bigger than just athletics,” Gunn continued. “This is about the image of the state of Mississippi and what are we going to stand for. How are we going to be viewed by the people across this world? And now is the time. We have an opportunity here to make history.”
The athletic leaders’ actions at the Capitol come at a time when multiple economic and university leaders in Oxford and Starkville believe that both college towns stand to lose a substantial amount of money if the colleges are not allowed to host postseason tournaments.
“It will very definitely be painful for our economy and something our local businesses will not want to see happen,” John Maynard, president and CEO of the Oxford-Lafayette Chamber of Commerce told the Daily Journal. “And we would hate for this to be compounded on the losses we’ve already seen.”
Maynard said that it would be difficult to link how much money the city typically makes from hosting a championship sporting event because the college town has more to its economy than just athletics. However, he stressed that the decision by the NCAA and the SEC would have a “negative effect” on the economy.
The most recent championship games hosted by Ole Miss was the NCAA Baseball Regional tournaments in 2018 and 2019.
Kyle Campbell, the associate athletics director for communications at the University of Mississippi, told the Daily Journal that the university generated approximately $210,000 in net revenue for each game hosted.
Kinney Ferris, the executive director of Visit Oxford, told the Daily Journal that during the time period of the 2019 tournament, all of the hotels in the area generated sales of around $500,000. The city has a 2% tax on sales generated from hotels, food and beverage.
Ferris estimates that in May of 2019, the city collected around $10,000 from hotel sales and $66,000 for the entire month. Ferris said that there were likely other events happening during this time period, but the regional game in 2019 “was the biggest event happening during that time period.”
The city would also collect sales tax off of goods purchased during this time. City officials were not able to give an estimate on how much money the city collected in sales tax revenue.
Officials in Starkville also believe the college town would lose significant funds if the town could not host a regional game. Starkville also imposes a 2% tax on food, beverage and hotel sales.
Mike Tagert, the executive director of the Greater Starkville Development Partnership, told the Daily Journal that when he compared the taxes collected from hotel sales from May 2018, when the town did not host a regional baseball tournament to May 2019, when the town did host a regional baseball tournament, Starkville saw a 40% increase in the number of hotel sales tax dollars collected.
Tagert believes this jump would serve as a microcosm for the rest of the industries in the area.
Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill told the Daily Journal that city leaders could not put a dollar figure on how much money the city would lose in terms of sales tax revenue if Mississippi State would be ineligible to host a regional game, but “it does not take an intellectual genius to know that you’re going to have another 2 or 3 or 4,000 people in town” during a regional game.
“As we have grown in our ability to attract regionals in both women’s basketball and the baseball teams, our sales tax numbers, our food and beverage numbers have grown anywhere between 2.5 to 5% over the years and that has been, as we geared more toward tourism, associated with those sporting goods over the years, those numbers have continued to rise,” Spruill said
To change the state flag, the Mississippi Legislature would have to pass a resolution to suspend a legislative rule to take up legislation to change the flag. This would require a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the Legislature. As of Thursday evening, neither chamber had taken up a resolution to suspend the rules.