College coaches from across Mississippi, including Ole Miss' Lane Kiffin and Mississippi State's Mike Leach, appeared at the Mississippi legislature on Thursday to lobby for the removal of the Confederate emblem from the state flag. The appearance from the wide coalition of academic and athletic leaders in the state came as the NCAA, SEC and Conference USA have either banned or threatened to ban postseason events in the state until the flag is changed.
"It's the right thing to do," Ole Miss basketball coach Kermit Davis, a Mississippi native, said in a press conference as he stood backed by representatives of colleges across the state. "Mississippi needs to have a flag that is great for all the citizens in our state."
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey announced last week that the league will reconsider hosting any conference championship events in the state unless the flag is changed, saying that it is "past time" for a change to the Mississippi flag. Conference USA took a similar stance Monday when its Board of Directors approved a ban of all conference championships in Mississippi until the Confederate emblem is removed from the state flag.
The measures taken by the SEC and Conference USA came as the NCAA Board of Governors voted to ban Mississippi from hosting any championship events until the flag is changed. The measure would prevent events like baseball and softball regionals as well as the first and second rounds of the women's basketball championships from taking place in the state.
State speaker of the house Philip Gunn (R-Clinton) appeared with the state's athletic coalition Thursday and said he hopes the legislature will change the flag this week. Still, there is no guarantee the legislature will vote in favor of a change to the flag. The Clarion-Ledger reported that a change will require a two-thirds vote from the legislature, which is in session until Friday.
"The actions of the NCAA and SEC last week have now brought a quantifiable hurt," Gunn said. "Now we can point to the fact that if we're not able to host postseason events in Mississippi, it is costing us financially, it is hurting the ability to recruit student-athletes. It is hurting the ability to recruit students. These people behind me are going to struggle in performing their jobs if we don't help them."
Mississippi residents voted to keep the flag in 2001, but public sentiment around it appears to be changing. The Mississippi Economic Council released the results of a poll Wednesday showing that 55% of residents now support changing the flag. Another poll conducted in June by Chism Strategies found that voters are "statistically tied" on whether to replace the flag.
Mississippi State women's basketball could be particularly affected by the NCAA's decision. The program has hosted first and second round NCAA Women's Tournament games in each of the past four seasons. It would not be able to do so anymore unless the flag is changed. The program's first-year head coach Nikki McCray-Penson said she knows firsthand "what it feels like to see a Confederate flag and pretend it doesn't have a racist, violent or oppressive overtone" and added the flag "screams hate and it hurts me to my core."
"The rulings by the SEC and NCAA affect us greatly, and we can't be an elite program without hosting events," McCray-Penson said. "Our entire student body could potentially be adversely affected by this symbol of hatred. Mississippi State University's mission of diversity, inclusion and equal opportunity is hampered by this symbol of hatred."
Mississippi State star running back Kylin Hill wrote on Twitter this week that he "won't be representing this State anymore" unless the flag is changed. On Thursday, he retweeted a photo collage of Leach and other Mississippi State athletic leaders arriving at the legislature and said it put a smile on his face. Hill also retweeted a post from the Mississippi State football account quoting Leach as saying, "A flag should unify its people ... This one doesn't, so change it."