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NCAA moves forward with championship at Ole Miss despite Confederate flag concerns

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Mississippi State Flag Under Scrutiny Amid Calls For South Carolina To Take Down Confederate Flag Outside Its Capitol Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

For the past week as Ole Miss’ softball team prepares to host an NCAA regional on campus, there’s been an ongoing conversation about Confederate flags.

Mississippi’s branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has openly opposed the university hosting the NCAA event. Because the NCAA has demonstrated opposition to states that fly the flag since 2001, they’ve consistently kept championship venues out of these areas (i.e. South Carolina until 2015 and Mississippi).

The NAACP wants the NCAA to keep its word and relocate the tournament slated for Friday. The NCAA, however, doesn’t see how this championship event, which was not pre-determined, conflicts with their discriminatory doctrine.

“Championships where student-athletes earn the opportunity to play a championship on their own campus are not covered in the Confederate flag policy,” Gail Dent, the associate director of the NCAA’s external affairs said this week. “This distinction is consistent with the NCAA’s commitment to student-athletes.”

The NAACP and many others across the state don’t agree with the organization’s classification of the event. Derrick Johnson, the president of Mississippi’s chapter of the NAACP, told SB Nation this week that the NCAA has a longstanding policy of opposing racism. He didn’t understand why they’d decide to balk now.

“A ban on ‘NCAA postseason events that are not pre-selected’ is not enough,” Johnson said through a statement. “It is not enough to oppose symbols of racism for baseball or softball regionals then conspicuously ignore that same racism for basketball and golf.”

Johnson argued that the NCAA has to remain consistent if they are going to push this accord.

“If the NCAA truly oppose states where the confederate flag is flown prominently then they must oppose it in all instances were symbols of racism are prevalent,” he said.

Following the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) — a nonpartisan, non-profit aimed at defending American citizens’ rights guaranteed under the constitution — told SB Nation that it’s their hope that the NCAA will hold true to its core values of fostering inclusivity through its athletics.

Jennifer Riley Collins, the Executive Director of the non-profit’s Mississippi branch, said they will ensure that individuals are provided their right to free speech.

“While individuals have a right to express themselves individually and on their private property, government speech does not have that same right,” Collins said. “Confederate emblems, which are not reflective of our diversity, are not appropriate for today’s government, and signify a defiance against equality and a refusal to fairly administer justice.”

Mississippi State v Mississippi Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

At the university level, Ole Miss hasn’t fully been in agreement. A spokesperson for the athletics department told SB Nation this week that they were working internally to decide if they’d address the NAACP’s stance.

Hours later, a different spokesperson deferred comment to the university’s 2015 statement when the state flag was removed from campus and the university preached inclusiveness. Additionally, the spokesperson said “the flag has not flown in our athletics facilities since 2014.”

Ron Rychlak, an Ole Miss law professor and the university’s Faculty Athletics Representative, said the NCAA is using its strength to try and affect state policy. The problem, he said, is “harming” teams like Ole Miss and their ability to have home-field advantage.

“When the university does not fly the flag, I hope that we can get past the point where you are going to be unable to celebrate the accomplishments of these young women because you are worried about this other matter,” Rychlak said. “Their accomplishments are significant, and I’d hate to take their accomplishments, and what this team did, to do something or achieve something that’s unrelated to college athletes and softball.”

He understands the flag is controversial in the state, “that’s why the university doesn’t fly it.” But he doesn’t want this policy to affect the university’s athletes.

“These young ladies have achieved a tremendous goal in turning this program around in a short amount of time and I hope they get a chance to celebrate their accomplishments and this doesn’t get dragged into a political dispute,” he said.

Rychlak’s sentiments aren’t unique. His comments were a common refrain this week around the state when looking at the NAACP’s request and the success of Ole Miss’ softball program this year. Hugh Kellenberger, a sports editor and columnist for The Clarion-Ledger, wrote Tuesday that the flag should be changed, but that moving the venue for softball doesn’t do anything but punish the athletes.

Yes, the NAACP is right: the flag should have been removed years ago. But athletics is not the venue in which to fight this out. They’re unwilling bystanders who have made their statement on the matter already, and it wouldn’t change much of anything anyways.

The issue there is separating athletics, race, and politics into different arenas, and assuming the power of athletics when pushing for racial progress has historically been frail. David Leonard, a Washington State professor who studies the intersection of race, sports, and gender, pointed out that in states like Mississippi, all these separate avenues do intersect.

“The symbols of white supremacy matter,” he said. “Those who say that the NCAA should stay out of politics and that placing championships while the flag flies is political: giving sanction and normalization is political.

The university had to remove the flag from athletic areas on campus and the university eventually removed it as well by 2015. In 2016, 12 different bills died in the Mississippi legislature to either re-design or dismantle the 123-year old flag. The same year, lawmakers pushed to amend current state policy forcing the flag onto the campuses of public universities if they received state funding.

Leonard argues that the time is as ripe as ever to oppose symbols of white supremacy, but that this wasn’t shocking from the NCAA because the organization has “no moral compass.”

“Saying to African Americans, ‘we support you if you are hitting home runs, scoring touchdowns, and making buckets but not when you are demanding equality, justice and to be seen as humanity’ is not only political but the ultimate expression of privilege,” he said. “The NAACP is merely asking the NCAA to continue to stand against the symbols of racism, to live by own its words in opposition to the persistently high tides of racism.”