The Southeastern Conference (SEC) said it would consider pulling out popular sports events from Mississippi, unless the state makes changes to its flag, which is inspired by the Confederate battle flag.
“It is past time for change to be made to the flag of the State of Mississippi,” the college athletic league said in a statement. “Our students deserve an opportunity to learn and compete in environments that are inclusive and welcoming to all.”
Two of the 14 member institutions of the SEC—University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University—are based in Mississippi, the only state in the country to include the emblem of the Confederate Army on its flag. Neither school has flown the flag on campus grounds since 2016.
“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 flag is changed,” read the SEC ultimatum.
In response, Mississippi State University released a statement saying that while the administrators agree that the state should have a “renewed, respectful debate” on the issue, they worry that such a debate may produce “unintended consequences” for student athletes.
“There may be similar unintended consequences for academic pursuits at our all our state’s public universities and negative economic impacts on the state’s communities as well,” wrote Mississippi State president Mark Keenum.
John Cohen, athletic director at Mississippi State, expressed the same concern that student athletes and coaches will “potentially be affected by something outside of their control.”
The debate over whether to erase the Confederate symbol from Mississippi’s state flag was recently renewed, as monuments of the Confederacy continue to be vandalized and toppled from public spaces across the nation in the wake of protests following the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis police custody in May. Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of Mississippi lawmakers drafted a bill to change the state flag, which has slim chance of passing the state’s Senate Constitution Committee.
Meanwhile, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, maintains that any decision regarding the flag should be made by the state’s voters, rather than legislators. In 2001, voters in the state chose to leave the flag as is in a 2-1 referendum.
“It should be the people who make that decision, not some backroom deal by a bunch of politicians in Jackson,” Reeves said earlier this month. “If and when Mississippians decide that they want to change the flag, and I think at some point they will, and then it ought to be the people of Mississippi.”