Brand new Ole Miss basketball coach Kermit Davis wants people to know his players will be standing at attention for The Star-Spangled Banner at each and every Rebel game. In fact, he wants people to know so badly he brought it up fewer than 10 minutes into his introductory press conference in Oxford.
Davis made “respect[ing] the flag” one of the key tenets of his team’s identity Tuesday, right after establishing a fast break offense and positive body language. It was his first official statement at the University of Mississippi after being hired away from Middle Tennessee State last week.
What is Ole Miss Basketball going to look like? It’s going to be relentless, athletic, explosive, a team that’s going to have to play on and on and on to beat. It’s going to be a team that’s going to be unselfish. We’re going to play fast and smart in transition. We’re going to try to get easy baskets. We’re going to try to play with great body language. We’re going to be a respectful team that respects the flag and the national anthem. All those things from culture is what we’re about. It’s who we’re going to be.
Despite the lead-in, Davis’ quote wasn’t prompted by a question from the media. That was a built-in segment of the new coach’s opening statement. It’s also not as though this had been a problem at Mississippi in the past; none of the players on Andy Kennedy’s Rebel teams over the past nine seasons had ever taken a knee in protest during the anthem. Instead, Davis decided to address a problem his team didn’t have head on.
The American flag may not be the only one Davis has to worry about in the Magnolia State. Mississippi’s state banner features the stars and bars of the Confederate battle flag, which has sparked debate over its place in America. In 2017, the Mississippi branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) protested the NCAA’s decision to make Oxford a regional hosting site for its Division I college softball tournament. The NCAA has avoided hosting championships in states with Confederate imagery in their flags since 2001.
Ole Miss hired Davis away from Middle Tennessee after the veteran coach developed the Blue Raiders into a mid-major powerhouse. Davis had gone 81-23 in his last three seasons, winning four Conference-USA titles (two regular season, two conference tournament) and going 2-2 in the NCAA tournament in that span. He’ll take over a Rebel team that went 12-20 this winter and finished dead last in the SEC.
Davis built MTSU into a winner using a recruiting pipeline that stretched through the south, so it’s clear he knows his audience. He may have ingratiated himself to some of the university’s most loyal fans with his opening remarks, but there’s a chance he alienated some recruits and current players as well. This kind of statement recently backfired in the professional ranks when Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said his players would stand for the anthem, then quickly backtracked after his comments came under scrutiny.
While college basketball doesn’t have the recent history of anthem protests, the NFL does and has more institutional control over its players. It’s possible Davis’ comments get put under the same microscope.