Dozens of current and former college athletes are asking top leaders at the NCAA to keep Mississippi from hosting college baseball regionals and women’s basketball tournament games until lawmakers change the state flag, which features the Confederate battle emblem.
The 31 former college athletes, including Jackson State and NBA great Lindsey Hunter, sent the letter on Thursday to top leaders at the NCAA, which oversees athletics of the nation’s colleges and universities. The athletes called the flag “a symbol that has terrorized generations” and “a known symbol of oppression, division and hate.”
College baseball is immensely popular in Mississippi, and the state’s big three universities — Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Southern Miss — regularly host postseason tournaments. Additionally, Mississippi State has hosted several women’s basketball tournament games in recent years.
“We believe it will finally push Mississippi lawmakers to join civic leaders and the business community in solidarity to take action to de-sanction the current Mississippi state flag,” the athletes wrote.
The NCAA in 2001 passed restrictions for postseason play in Mississippi because of its state flag. But those restrictions do not include postseason bans for several sports.
In their Thursday letter, the athletes argued that the NCAA’s current postseason bans disproportionately affect black college athletes. While the NCAA enforces Mississippi postseason bans for college football and men’s basketball — sports that have high percentages of black players — others sports with very low percentages of black players like baseball, tennis and volleyball have no such Mississippi postseason ban.
In essence, the athletes are asking the NCAA to further tighten their existing postseason restrictions. In the letter, the athletes said that the old policy “must become more restrictive in order to accomplish needed change.”
The letter was sent on the same day that Greg Sankey, commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, said in a statement that the SEC would consider banning championship events in Mississippi until the state changes its state flag.
Lawmakers in both the Senate and House have engaged in conversations about changing the state flag since last week as protests about racial equality have continued across the state and nation. Tens of thousands of protesters in Mississippi have focused their demands around the state flag.
But legislators had signaled this week that the efforts to change the flag were on their last breath. Lawmakers plan to leave Jackson for the year on June 28, and the single living piece of legislation that would change the flag appeared to be dead in Senate committee.
“Time is of the essence,” the athletes wrote in their letter to the NCAA. “Because of this current climate of protest and awareness, Mississippi’s legislature has spent the past two weeks reviewing and debating laws to change the state flag. Despite public support for a flag change being at an all-time high, Mississippi’s leadership looks as if they will table the issue during the final weeks of the 2020 session.”
As news spread of Sankey’s statement on Thursday evening, lawmakers began sharing public feedback.
Former Ole Miss football player Rep. Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia and one of the most powerful lawmakers at the Capitol, tweeted on Thursday night his support of efforts to change the flag.
“A flag’s sole purpose is to unite a people around a common cause,” Lamar tweeted. “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. I will stand up for our student athletes.”
Lamar continued: “It is time to change the flag. It is the right thing to do.”