Brian Adams was one of the most sought after high school basketball players in the country in 1996. A McComb native and a top 20 recruit, he was approached by schools across the nation but knew he wanted to play ball in his home state.
Once the recruiting process started, he became more aware of the Mississippi state flag, which contains the Confederate battle emblem, and how fans flew it proudly in some arenas during games. At the University of Mississippi, players wore jerseys with the phrase “Rebels” adorned across their chests. Those things shaped his decision on where to play basketball.
“A lot guys really wanted to stay and put on for the state of Mississippi,” said Adams, who ultimately chose to attend Alcorn State University. “I think that flag is a reason why a lot of guys left the state of Mississippi to go play elsewhere.”
Adams and 30 other current and former student athletes at Mississippi colleges and universities sent a letter on Thursday to NCAA leadership requesting the organization ban colleges in the state from hosting all postseason games until lawmakers change the state flag.
A day later, the NCAA, which oversees college athletics for the nation, announced it would ban all postseason college athletics events from being hosted in Mississippi until the flag changes.
The NCAA had already passed restrictions in 2001 for postseason play in “states where the Confederate battle flag continues to have a prominent presence.” But those restrictions didn’t include postseason bans for several sports. In the letter, the athletes argued that the NCAA’s postseason ban disproportionately affected Black college athletes.
While the NCAA enforces Mississippi postseason bans for college football and men’s basketball, which 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.
“I don’t think the NCAA intended the rule to be enacted in that way, but it was a perfect example of the systemic racism that is embedded in the country,” said Trey Johnson, a Jackson State University basketball player who graduated in 2007. “To me, it’s another system in place that’s punishing one group of people more so than the other.”
Johnson continued: “There should be no celebration of any type of sport in this state postseason from an NCAA standpoint if you want to keep the flag. Like anything else, you make a decision then you live with the consequences, good or bad.”
Mississippi State basketball player Lincoln Smith, who played for the Bulldogs from 1999-2003, pointed to South Carolina’s decision to take down its Confederate flag in 2015. Just two years later, the NCAA allowed the state to host the opening round of the NCAA tournament, which made him question if Mississippi was holding itself back by choosing to keep its flag.
“I hate (the ban) for the kids because I don’t want them to think what has been done is to affect them,” Smith said. “What we asked the NCAA to do is to really look at the Confederate flag policy that they established in 2001. The way it was applied was (discriminatory) towards some sports. And unfortunately those sports are sports that are predominantly Black sports.”
On a personal level, Smith wants to change the flag because it limits “the ability of people to grow in a place where they’re supposed to be able to feel safe and be able to flourish. I have a problem with the stigma that comes from our flag.”
The Mississippi Legislature is currently mulling the idea of changing the flag, whether that means adopting a two-flag system, letting voters decide the fate of the current flag or choosing a new symbol entirely. Lawmakers plan to adjourn for the year on Friday.
“I hope the elected officials take it upon themselves to not cower down and try to put it to a vote,” said Lindsey Hunter, a former Jackson State University and NBA athlete who is now head coach at Mississippi Valley State University. “I think anybody with a good heart would understand the ramifications of having something like that hanging over the heads of so many African American people and you would want to do the right thing.”
Until the flag changes, Adams said Mississippi sports will continue to see repercussions. It’s a “tough sell” to entice out-of-state talent to commit when Confederate iconography is still what represents the state, Adams said.
“If we want to really, really get over the hump and be more (attractive) with in-state players, out-of-state players, that flag got to go,” he said.
For the current and future student athletes in Mississippi, Hunter said he hopes they take notice of what’s going on and get involved.
“This is one thing that should have been changed but if it hasn’t we have to do it now, and let it be known that we’re not happy with and we’ll never be happy with this,” Hunter said.
NCAA letter from athletes (PDF)