BILOXI, Miss. – The Mississippi Coast Coliseum is no intimidating structure by any means. The enclosed beachfront arena only seats about 11,000. It’s bathed in a dirty khaki color, a spherical blemish along the sandy white beaches of my hometown.
But to a six-year old boy, the coliseum was the place to be, one of the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s identifying symbols, right up there with boiled shrimp and fishing boats. Before the gambling barges opened their glamorous theaters in the 1990s, anything big happening, from Bay St. Louis to Pascagoula, happened at the coliseum.
Today, fading into the past, its better days long behind it, the coliseum still remains a symbol of this place. So much so that I often gaze upon it during trips back home. As it turns out, that happened Thursday morning, my gaze meeting the old girl before my eyes found something else—another symbol of this state—flapping in the salty breeze. Positioned prominently at the coliseum’s entrance, the state flag of Mississippi waved from a high pedestal, its red, white and blue stripes soiled by the image in its upper left corner: a miniature version of the Civil War-era Confederate battle flag. “That flag,” I told my father as we cruised past, “won’t be up there much longer.”
Little did I know that 10 hours later, an announcement from the Southeastern Conference—the league plans to ban championship events in the state until the flag changes—would set off a chain of events in Mississippi that may end the 126-year reign of a symbol that, for many, exudes fear, hatred and terror. If anything moves Mississippi’s needle, it’s sports. More specifically, it’s college sports. And even more specifically, it’s SEC sports.
If the SEC’s threat Thursday didn’t spring the Mississippi State Legislature into action, the next one will. Sports Illustrated has learned that the NCAA Board of Governors on Friday plans to consider aligning its postseason policy with that of the SEC: no flag change, no NCAA championship events (later Friday, the NCAA announced the move).
A state with no major professional teams, Mississippi lives and dies off of its three FBS programs: Southern Miss, Mississippi State and Ole Miss. The Golden Eagles, for a while at least, were giant killers, toppling the likes of Alabama, Florida State and Nebraska. As recently as 2015, Ole Miss won the Sugar Bowl, and in 2014, Mississippi State was ranked No. 1 in the nation. But it’s not only football that runs this place—it’s college baseball. A niche in many other areas of the country is a religion here. Ballparks in Oxford and Starkville can draw more than 10,000, and the three schools routinely host college baseball postseason tournaments, NCAA regionals and super regionals.
On Friday, the NCAA board revisited language in a 2001 rule that already bans Mississippi from hosting pre-determined championship events, like NCAA men’s basketball regionals or NCAA golf championship tournaments. The adjustment to the policy broadened the ban to encompass all NCAA postseason championships, pre-determined and post, events such as baseball and softball regionals and first/second round games of the women’s basketball tournament. This unprecedented step comes on a fitting day: Juneteenth, the annual celebration of the end of slavery in America.
Late Thursday evening, several powerful players on Mississippi’s political stage revealed the NCAA’s potential plan to Sports Illustrated under the condition of anonymity. The sheer suggestion of such a move is a boot to the butt of Mississippi state lawmakers, their constituents and themselves having resisted a progressive step forward for years now being forced into it by, of all things, the NCAA.
But it’s not so simple. It never is in politics, especially in a state with a deep, disturbing history of racial divide. In fact, in 2001, Mississippi voters decided in a near two-to-one result to keep the current flag. However, given the nationwide movement for racial equality, lawmakers in the state have restarted the conversation, even authoring a bill to change the flag. A week until the Mississippi Legislative Session comes to a required end, that bill is stuck in committee, with no hope of seeing the state Senate floor.
Only a two-thirds vote in each of the Mississippi House and Senate chambers could save it. That’s a long shot, says Sen. Hob Bryan, a 36-year veteran of the Mississippi Legislature and a Democrat from Amory, Mississippi. He’s a member of the committee in which the flag bill died. Even if it would have advanced to the floor, Bryan did not expect it to garner the majority vote, 51%, to pass. Will the SEC’s announcement change that? “I don’t know if the SEC announcement will, but the NCAA’s might,” says a high-ranking source in the Mississippi political realm. “I think that might move the needle a little bit.”
Bryan, meanwhile, believes the SEC’s announcement was “helpful,” and he sees a path to a new flag. The problem: he believes it may take time, something the Mississippi Legislature doesn’t have. The session must adjourn, by law, June 28. “You’ve got to change the hearts and minds of people,” Bryan says. “We’re at a moment where there’s a lot of introspection and people thinking seriously. I think that’s important. I think you’ve got to have time for the public mood to shift. You’ve got to have time for people back home to talk quietly to legislators and legislatures to talk amongst themselves.”
There are other options. The state’s governor, Republican Tate Reeves, could call a special session later in the year when a new bill could find its way to the floor. Or lawmakers could take up the topic during their next session in January, though that’d significantly shrink the timeline. Women’s basketball sites are normally announced in March and baseball regionals are revealed in May. That timeframe would also make it too late for fall sports with post-determined events like soccer and volleyball.
There is another option. The legislature could send the issue back to the people for a general vote, something Reeves has suggested. It might be a waste of time. Political experts in the state believe a 2020 vote may produce the same result as the one in 2001. But what if the legislature adopts an alternate flag? Voters could choose between the two—the new vs. the old—instead of just voting yes/no on the old flag. It’s a proposal circulating throughout Mississippi political circles.
In the meantime, Ole Miss and Mississippi State officials continued Thursday their public decry of the state’s flag. Neither school has flown it on campus since at least 2016. Mark Keenum, Mississippi State’s president who chairs one of the most powerful bodies in football, the CFP Board of Managers, sent a letter last week to Mississippi’s governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House reaffirming support to change the flag. “The letter said, in part, that our flag should be unifying, not a symbol that divides us,” Keenum said in a statement Thursday. “I emphasized that it is time for a renewed, respectful debate on this issue.”
The schools have been fighting against the flag for years. In 2015, Dan Mullen, then at Mississippi State, and Hugh Freeze, then at Ole Miss, publicly supported changing Mississippi's state flag by signing their names to a newspaper advertisement that appeared in The Clarion-Ledger. Names also signed to that list were Mississippi natives Jimmy Buffett and Archie Manning.
For all of the buzz, the SEC’s announcement, while stunning, may not impact the schools significantly. Many of the SEC championships are akin to its football and basketball tournaments—played at neutral sites. However, sports like volleyball, track, softball and tennis hold on-campus championships that rotate among the schools. In 2022, for instance, Ole Miss is scheduled to host the outdoor track and field championships.
NCAA on-campus championships are another matter. Just in the last three seasons, Mississippi State and Ole Miss have combined to host eight NCAA championship events, including three baseball regionals, a baseball super regional, three first/second round women’s basketball tournament games and a soccer match. “If the NCAA follows the SEC with a similar announcement, you’ve got a whole ’nother ball game,” says one coach in the state who wished to remain anonymous.
Conference USA, of which Southern Miss is a member, followed the SEC’s statement with a vague one of its own, not mentioning the flag but suggesting that its championship hosting site policies could change. C-USA has held its last three conference baseball tournaments in Biloxi at a minor league baseball park that—wouldn’t you know it—sits a five-mile ride down the beach from the 43-year-old Mississippi Coast Coliseum.
On Thursday morning, staring up at that old girl, I had an enlightening moment. In my youth, I spent years attending functions within its bowels—music concerts, Mardi Gras balls, monster truck events—but I’d never noticed the flag flapping overhead. Had it always been there? Why hadn’t I seen it? What’s wrong with me? I felt a moment of guilt. The flag has never meant much to me. My family never really embraced it. The image was scant inside their homes. While the flag means nothing to me, it generates feelings for others: fear, hatred and terror, a reminder of men who fought for the wrong reasons, and that includes my own great great great grandfather, a private in Louisiana’s 18th Regiment Volunteer Infantry. In my disregard for the flag as nothing more than assorted colors on thin fabric, I failed to realize the significance it holds for my minority neighbors. And maybe that’s rooted in this place I call home.
Across the street from the coliseum, for instance, there sits a picturesque beachside property, where, in his final days, the former president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis, completed his memoirs, “Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government.” The property’s small hills roll with lush green grass, mossy oak trees, restored white wooden buildings and acres of hundreds of tombstones. Next to each gravemarker, a symbol flaps in the salty breeze, meaningless maybe to me, but so hurtful for so many others.