SEC Coaches Unite Over Removal of Confederate Flag

Women's Basketball Coaches at Ole Miss and MSU Join Fight for Change

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Nikki McCray-Penson. (photo courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics)

Nikki McCray-Penson came to Mississippi State University hoping to be successful — and invoke change.

On Thursday she stood inside Mississippi’s Capitol Hill, along with University of  Mississippi Head Women’s Basketball Coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin, and more than 40 other university and college athletic directors and coaches from around the state standing for that change; a change from the Mississippi  state flag and its Confederate battle emblem. 

“One of the reasons I came to Mississippi State is because I think we can be successful. Change is important for the success of our athletics programs, our university, and our entire state,” McCray-Penson, who was named MSU’s coach in April, told the assembled gathering.

“There is no place in our society for a symbol of hatred, discrimination, or oppression. As a Black woman coaching at one of the most diverse universities in the country, I look forward to seeing change that unites us and accurately represents our community,” she continued. “Changing the flag is an important step toward inclusivity and ending racial injustice. This is a moment in our society for us to reassess our values and remove this symbol of hatred.”

McCray-Penson also sees the removal of the flag as a way to support student-athletes who choose to come to Mississippi institutions of higher education.

“I know firsthand what it is like to see a confederate flag and pretend that it doesn’t have a racist, violent, or oppressive overtone. It screams hate. It hurts me to my core. Our student-athletes do not just commit and compete for Mississippi State. They commit, compete and represent the entire state of Mississippi."

“It’s time to seek positive change and have that symbol of hatred removed. We will continue to support our student-athletes in all areas of their education, community engagement, and career/personal development,” she said. 

“We will continue to also support our student-athletes, as they use their platform and voice to take a stand on different issues and advocate for positive change. Our students are frustrated just like many people around the country and inside this state. We are in full support of them in their desire to see this symbol of hatred removed.”

McPhee-McCuin, head women’s basketball coach at Ole Miss since 2018 and one of six Black women head coaches in the SEC, echoed her colleagues’ sentiments. 

“For all of us this has just been a painful time, so we wanted to come in solidarity, get together and support this and let  everyone know our thoughts and make a stance  together,” she told The Next.

“Just to have myself and Nikki there that was just powerful, because there is a big rivalry between Ole Miss and Mississippi State. And today we stand united and we are hopeful there can be a change, because it’s time.”

Bringing Mississippi Together

Mississippi is the only state in the South that has yet to remove the Confederate flag from being prominently displayed on their state flag. The flag of Mississippi consists of three horizontal tribands of blue, white and red with a red square in the canton (referred to specifically as the “union”) bearing the  Confederate battle flag.

Although there have been calls for years to change the flag — all to no avail — the push has renewed and picked up more support after the murders over the past two months of Black citizens George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and more, and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests and ongoing racial unrest in this country. Several Confederate memorials, monuments and statues around the United States have been taken down as a result.

The most recent call for changing the Mississippi flag gained national attention on Juneteenth — a holiday celebrating the emancipation of those who had been enslaved in the United States — when the Southeastern Conference (SEC) sent out a statement that Mississippi must change their flag or championship events may no longer be held in the state.

That was followed hours later by a statement from the NCAA, whose Board of Governors voted to amend its postseason policies, banning NCAA championship events and other NCAA postseason events from occurring in the state of Mississippi until there is a change in the state's flag. 

“There is no place in college athletics or the world for symbols or acts of discrimination and oppression,” said Michael V. Drake, chair of the board and president of the Ohio State University. “We must continually evaluate ways to protect and enhance the championship experience for college athletes. Expanding the Confederate flag policy to all championships is an important step by the NCAA to further provide a quality experience for all participants and fans.” 

McPhee-McCuin said they are in full support of the Commissioner of the SEC and his stance. 

“We see it as a strong stance for change,” she said. “We are hopeful. We are trying to do our part. Obviously, the Legislature has that power right now and I think they vote tomorrow (Friday)  so hopefully we can get it to a point where we can make this happen.  It’s not  something that our university - we’re never going to stop until we get  a change because  we want  our university to be  inclusive for everybody. When we  see that flag, that does not show inclusiveness.

“For many it’s a sign of hatred and so although to some that is their heritage, for others, it’s hate,” she continued. “So what are we trying to do? We’re trying to bring the whole state, all of Mississippi together and make it ours so we all can be proud. 

And that is essentially why we went down there. I’m proud to be in a group and be  in Mississippi and be a part of this.” 

McCray-Penson agreed.

“The rulings by the SEC and NCAA affect us greatly. We can’t be an elite program without hosting postseason events. Our entire student body could potentially be adversely affected by this symbol of hatred. Mississippi State’s mission of diversity, inclusion, and equal opportunity is hampered by this symbol of hatred,” she said.

“We strive in all ways daily to bring the Bulldog Family to our state together through competing in sports, excelling in the classroom, and making a positive impact in the community. Yet, this symbol of hatred is so much bigger than athletics. In this country, and especially at Mississippi State, we value everyone’s right to voice their opinions and views. University campuses are places of learning, and thus, they are places where difference of opinions or varying perspectives are recognized.”

According to reports, it was not clear when or if the flag change would clear both the House and Senate. Votes are still being counted during the current state’s Legislative session which was scheduled to end today ahead of the approaching July 4th holiday.