SEC commissioner Greg Sankey has taken a stance on the Mississippi flag, one that could keep certain conference events out of the state.
While the legislature considers how to handle growing interest in changing the state flag, which includes the stars and bars Confederate symbol, Sankey says the conference may choose to play championship events that could be played in Mississippi someplace else.
“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,” he said in a prepared statement which was released through email early Thursday evening.
Last week, Senate Democrats filed a resolution that would allow the Senate to bring up legislation regarding the state flag. It’s become a hot political issue since the committee placement by Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann could leave it unaddressed by lawmakers.
Sankey wasn't the only one making news about the state flag Thursday. A group of 31 former college athletes in Mississippi have written the NCAA asking the body to take a more active role against the flag. The letter was sent to Mississippi Today which published it Thursday evening.
The flag reached the ballot box in 2001 and won with 65 percent of the vote.
The NCAA has since said it will not allow championship events – such as March Madness basketball tournament games – in Mississippi.
There have been loopholes there that have allowed NCAA baseball and women's basketball tournament regionals to be hosted in the state because those home sites – unlike men's basketball early-round games -- are earned by players winning during the regular season.
The former players -- representing a combined nine different public and private institutions -- urged the NCAA to take away baseball and women's basketball regionals until the flag is changed.
"Once these events are threatened or precluded, and Mississippi’s leadership is faced with a tangible loss as a result of their inaction, we believe they will relent and consider the impact of the flag is too great in not taking it down," the letter states.
Sankey’s stance would not be noticed in the league’s higher-profile sports like football, basketball and baseball which play their championship events in larger cities.
The decision could be felt by non-revenue producing sports like tennis, track and field and softball, all of which have seen SEC championship events in Mississippi.
“It is past time for change to be made to the flag of the State of Mississippi,” Sankey said. “Our students deserve an opportunity to learn and compete in environments that are inclusive and welcoming to all.”
Response from Ole Miss and Mississippi State – and from at least one state lawmaker – was swift.
MSU president Mark Keenum said his school’s student association, faculty senate and administration have publicly supported a change in the state flag.
“Clearly the national climate is such that this debate may produce unintended consequences for our student-athletes here at Mississippi State University and those at the University of Mississippi,” Keenum said. “There may be similar unintended consequences for academic pursuits at all our state’s public universities and negative economic impacts on the state’s communities as well.”
Ole Miss, likewise, distanced itself from the flag when it stopped flying it on campus five years ago.
“Mississippi needs a flag that represents the qualities about our state that unite us, not those that still divide us. We support the SEC’s position for changing the Mississippi state flag to an image that is more welcoming and inclusive for all people.”
Senatobia Republican legislator Trey Lamar, who played football at Ole Miss in 2002, spoke out on Twitter.
“Reality has proven clear that the Mississippi flag no longer unites but divides us unnecessarily. I will not sit by idly while our college athletes lose their hard-earned right to compete in postseason play before our home-state fans over a banner that no longer accomplishes its sole mission to unify our people,” he wrote.