Ole Miss, State of Mississippi Face Change Pressure

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Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey has released a statement imploring the State of Mississippi to remove Confederate symbolism from its flag or risk being denied SEC championship events.

"It is past time for change to be made to the flag of the State of Mississippi," Sankey said, as reported by NBC News. "Our students deserve an opportunity to learn and compete in environments that are inclusive and welcoming to all," he said. "In the event there is no change, there will be consideration of precluding Southeastern Conference championship events from being conducted in the State of Mississippi."

According to NBC, the state has been under pressure to change the flag for years, but the demands have ramped up in the wake of the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody and the resulting wide-ranging calls for an end to systemic racism in America.

The latest call for change received support from the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University, both members of the SEC.

In fact, Ole Miss has faced pressure of its own to retire its Rebels nickname.

USA Today columnist Dan Wolken wrote late Thursday, "It’s time for a progressive, forward-thinking university that has desperately tried to strip away all connotations to the Confederacy while leaving the actual nickname intact do the right thing for the Black players who have brought so much acclaim and wealth to its athletic program. It’s time for fans to stop playing footsie with the school’s often terrible past and start thinking about how Black athletes will view that branding of 'Rebels' in 15 years, in 30 years once this country finally and uniformly treats the losers of the Civil War as losers. It’s time for the conference that distributed $45 million to Ole Miss last year to tell the school that its athletic branding is not — in its own words — 'inclusive and welcoming to all.' ” 

One change Ole Miss made nearly a decade ago involved its mascot. In 2010, it ditched the Colonel Reb plantation-owner character for a so-called Rebel Bear. The process involved 33 initial focus groups that identified characteristics vital to a new Rebels mascot. After reviewing more than 1,000 mascot suggestions, the selection committee submitted 11 concepts for public input at the end of June. More than 13,000 people responded to the first poll.

Related: Ole Miss Unveils New Mascot, But Not Without Controversy

In fact, the university has nibbled around the edges of change for far longer, as pointed out by associate history professor Anne Twitty in a recent article in The Atlantic
"Confederate ghosts still haunt the University of Mississippi, where I teach," Twitty opens. "The school's nickname, Ole Miss, is a play on the term enslaved people used to refer to their master’s wife. Its teams, 'the Rebels,' play home games on a campus where the Confederate dead are buried, and several buildings and a Tiffany stained-glass window are dedicated to the 'University Greys,' a Confederate company made up entirely of the school’s students.

"There used to be still more. In the past quarter century, UM has distanced itself from many Confederate symbols, banning fans from waving Confederate flags at football games, ditching 'Colonel Rebel' as its official mascot, prohibiting the band from playing the medley 'From Dixie With Love,' and, after student protests, taking down the Mississippi state flag, which includes the Confederate battle emblem."

Whether the SEC ultimatum works on a statewide level remains to be seen. Wolken notes, "And so Greg Sankey, a true bureaucrat of an SEC commissioner whose tenure has been light on notable accomplishment and heavy on keeping the league’s cash registers ringing, has made his move at this moment of national reckoning. He’s threatened that the league could ban SEC championship events from being held in Mississippi unless its flag is changed, applying the kind of pressure that a college sports-crazed state can’t ignore."

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