Mississippi State women’s basketball coach, Nikki McCray-Penson, joins other athletic staffs from the state’s public universities calling for a change in the Mississippi state flag, during a joint news conference at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, June 25,2020.

Sports have never been only a game in Mississippi. No, sports are woven deeply into our cultural fabric, a major part of who we are and what we are about. Always have been.

We take our games seriously. The games our athletes play matter greatly to us. Indeed, the argument has been made, time and again, that the games often matter too much.

But today – especially today – we can save that argument for another time and place. Because weirdly, in this time when the pandemic has placed our sports world on pause, sports have led the way to dramatic change in Mississippi.

Rick Cleveland

Lawmakers Sunday voted to remove the Mississippi state flag more than 126 years after it was adopted. No longer will the state flag feature the Confederate battle emblem. If you have followed the flag controversy, you know this: This change would not have happened – not now – had it not been for sports.

Twelve days ago, all efforts to change the flag seemed to have failed. In effect, the movement was dead in the water. And then SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey announced the league would consider banning championship events in Mississippi until the state changed its flag. And then a group of former Mississippi athletes wrote to the NCAA, asking for similar action from the nation’s governing body of college athletics. And then, just a day later, the NCAA moved, banning regional baseball and basketball championships from the state as long as the state flag contained the Confederate symbol.

Conference USA followed suit. All the while, Mississippi college administrators, sports and otherwise, voiced their support.

Then, six days ago, Mississippi State football star Kylin Hill, reacting to a statement on Twitter from Gov. Tate Reeves, tweeted that he would not play his senior season if the flag wasn’t changed. “…I’m tired.” Hill wrote. His teammates, coaches and school administrators backed him. So did athletes from other schools.

By then, the push for flag change once again had legs – strong, swift legs – and many lawmakers began to hedge and change their stances.

The NAACP, the Legislative Black Caucus, and many left-leaning Mississippi leaders have long favored flag change. But others were climbing on the rapidly crowding wagon. Some of the state’s top business CEOs spoke out in favor of change. The Baptists joined the movement. Walmart. The Republican Party. Many, many more.

Then, the sports world chimed in again. In a dramatic show of unity and purpose, coaches and athletic directors from all the state universities gathered at the Capitol last Thursday to deliver a clear message: Change the flag. Now.

“I know first-hand what it feels like to see the Confederate flag and pretend it doesn’t have a racist, violent or oppressive overtone. It screams hate,” Nikki McCray-Penson, Mississippi State’s new women’s basketball coach, said. “There’s no place in our society for a symbol of discrimination, hatred and oppression.”

Kermit Davis, the men’s basketball coach at Ole Miss, spoke eloquently as well. “We are here to create change,” he said. “We need a flag that represents all Mississippians.”

Sunday, they got it.

And Mississippi eventually will have a new flag. Most importantly, the old one is gone – to museums, where it belongs.

As I wrote last week, sports has often showed Mississippians the way on integration and race relations. This is not new.

Surely, the sports world was not solely responsible. Just as surely, sports led the way. Sports sparked the change. I’d like to think Medgar Evers, a former Alcorn State halfback, would approve. And I know 97-year-old William Winter, a former college sports writer and editor and lifelong fan of Mississippi sports, does.

One hundred and 26 years after Mississippi adopted a flag for all the wrong reasons, that flag has been banished. Finally, in ultimate sports terminology, Mississippi won.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.