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On the Confederate Flag and SEC Football Coaches

SEC football coaches, especially in Mississippi, have the power to make an impact in the Confederate flag debate.

The Flag of the State of Mississippi
The Flag of the State of Mississippi
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Let's get this out of the way first: SEC Media Days is kinda dumb. Coaches and players from all of the SEC's 14 member institutions cram into the ballroom of the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Alabama to be greeted by throngs of fans and field the same media questions we've been hearing for decades now. Aside from a few snide Steve Spurrier comments and clever player quips, nothing new comes of it, and much is subtracted from the sum of human knowledge.

Okay, that's a bit dramatic, because while SEC Media Days is largely the same song-and-dance year-in and year-out, there are the occasional moments where coaches and players are asked important, timely questions, their responses to which could have a significant impact elsewhere.

Take, for example, a question that was asked of Mississippi State head football coach Dan Mullen during his Tuesday press conference.

Mississippi remains the only state on the NCAA's postseason ban because of the confederate flag waving in Jackson, Mississippi, on the state flag. It's been a debate raging within the state. What's your opinion on the current state flag that has the confederate flag within it?

This question isn't directly related to Mississippi State Bulldogs football, but it's not entirely irrelevant, either. The Confederate flag and it's place as an icon of the South has been recently called into question after Dylann Roof, a Confederate flag-toting white supremacist, murdered nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina. As a response, the state of South Carolina recently removed the Confederate flag from their state capitol grounds, to which the NCAA responded by lifting the state's ban on hosting NCAA postseason events (aside from those awarded by merit, such as NCAA baseball regionals). Being that the state flag of Mississippi contains the confederate flag, this leaves Mississippi as the only state ineligible to host NCAA postseason events, per this standard. Often defended as a symbol of Southern "heritage" and not white supremacy, the confederate flag was allowed to remain on the flag of the state of Mississippi after a 2001 referendum. Now, the issue of whether or not Mississippi should change its flag is being re-visited in the wake of the Charleston murders.

Again, that doesn't so directly impact Mississippi State or Ole Miss football, but it does have an impact on the school's athletics and academic programs at large.

This issue (and issues involving race relations and the state's legacy thereof in general) has had an impact on both Ole Miss and Mississippi State's ability to recruit not only athletes, but other students, faculty, and staff. And with both schools being, by far, the most visible public institutions of the Magnolia State - I wager that more people in the United States would recognize Dak Prescott before they'd recognize our Governor, Phil Bryant - the thoughts and opinions of people like Dan Mullen can have a pretty significant impact.

So while SEC Media Days may not be the most appropriate venue or format to ask such a question, the question isn't entirely irrelevant to Dan Mullen or Mississippi State. They surely have a stance on this issue, no? Let's see how Coach Mullen answered the question:

That's a lot for people in Jackson and for the people in Mississippi. I know -- I don't see it very often. We don't have it on our campus up. I do know we're the most diverse campus in the Southeastern Conference. I know the university embraces that diversity as a whole. I certainly embrace that diversity. We're so diverse, they have a Yankee as the head football coach in the Southeastern Conference. I think it's something that on a national level is getting an awful lot of attention right now, that people are really looking into how we can make things better in the state of Mississippi. And I hope as a university we're out on the forefront trying to help make things better with the type of school that we have and the diversity we have in our school.

Oh, so he didn't answer the question. At all. He did indeed address that the flag of Mississippi is an issue that folks are talking about, before brushing the issue aside as something that's not Mississippi State University's to deal with ("we don't have it on our campus"). Questions on the veracity of that statement aside, that he would even attempt to do so much is troubling. What's more troubling, though, is the offering of platitudes about diversity and change.

It was evasive. It was bland. It was a non-response.

However, this should not be surprising, given the statements offered by Sid Salter, Mississippi State's Chief Communications Officer...

Like all people of good will, Mississippi State University abhors the senseless violence that was visited on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and we grieve with the families of the victims. In 2001, the MSU Faculty Senate voted overwhelmingly in support of changing the state flag of Mississippi prior to the failed statewide voter referendum on that question. Other than lawful displays of the state flag, the symbols in question are not associated with our university. As the most diverse university in the Southeastern Conference and the most diverse of the original land-grant universities in the country, Mississippi State remains committed to diversity, inclusion, equal opportunity and a culture of fellowship, tolerance and peace. That's true in our academic offerings and in our athletics programs as well.

... and Mark Keenum,the university's President:

Flags should unite us and bring us together, not divide us. The tragic events in South Carolina and the evolving national debate over the state flag is a debate that should take place today in Mississippi. In 2001, the Mississippi State University Faculty Senate voted overwhelmingly in support of changing the state flag of Mississippi prior to the failed statewide voter referendum on that question. I have seen no indication that attitudes have changed on that question on our campus.

As the university with the highest percentage African American enrollment in the Southeastern Conference, this debate is relevant and important to us. Finally, MSU would certainly prefer the opportunity to host NCAA championships on behalf of our student-athletes, coaches, and university community. Since 1963 and the 'Game of Change' with Loyola in the NCAA basketball tournament, MSU has been unequivocal in our support for fair and inclusive competition.

So their stance is "murder is bad, we like diversity, our faculty senate voted on the Mississippi flag 14 years ago, so why are we even talking about this?"

Like Mullen's remarks, those statements fail to address the issue directly. You can read those and still legitimately ask "where does the Mississippi State administration, including President Mark Keenum and head football coach Dan Mullen, stand on the Confederate flag or the flag of the state of Mississippi?" We have an idea as to how the school's faculty senate feels, or at least how they felt 14 years ago, but we still haven't seen the university leadership take a stand.

Mississippi State is a hugely powerful and influential institution in the state of Mississippi. They have tens of thousands of students and alumni and hundreds of thousands of supporters, not to mention millions of people who have benefitted from their scholarship and research. Their purpose, as a state university, is to serve the public good of Mississippi. They should be direct and clear with their stance on the Confederate flag, and not skirt the issue in fear of backlash from less-than-agreeable fans and supporters.

That said, I recognize my biases here, and I realize that I'm probably being a bit hard on Dan Mullen, Mark Kennum, and the rest of the Mississippi State University brass. I do feel that, if they're going to claim that Mississippi is "their" state, they should be taking a stronger position on the matter. Even then, I recognize that this is much more of our concern than it is theirs.

It was the campus of Ole Miss, not Mississippi State, that served as the focal point of the integration of higher education in the South. It was halftime at an Ole Miss football game, not a Mississippi State one, where Ross Barnett gave his infamous "I love Mississippi" speech. The Confederate flag was a part of our football program's iconography for decades, not theirs. It was Ole Miss that received negative press for racially-tinged protests on the night of Barack Obama's re-election, and it was Ole Miss students who put a noose and an old Georgia State flag - which includes the confederate flag - on the statue of James Meredith.

This, through no fault of mine and most of the Ole Miss students, alumni, and fans reading this, this is our onus. It's not fair, but that's the reality we deal with. It is our place to be definitive and bold when discussing old Southern iconography, Southern civil rights, and racial reconciliation in Mississippi, because we are so often the focal point of those discussions.

As with both of his predecessors, Interim Chancellor Morris Stocks understands this burden, and stepped in front of it to offer a condemnation of the Confederate flag late last month.

The University of Mississippi community came to the realization years ago that the Confederate battle flag did not represent many of our core values such as civility and respect for others. Since that time, we have become a stronger and better university. We join other leaders in our state who are calling for a change in the state flag.

Clear, concise, and direct enough. "We don't identify with the Confederate flag, we're better off without it, and we agree that the state flag should be changed." That addresses the problem and answers the question, without dealing too much in platitudes and self-congratulatory distractions. Simply put: there's no question as to how the Ole Miss administration feels about the Confederate flag and the flag of Mississippi.

There's also no question as to the thoughts of Nick Saban, the head football coach for the University of Alabama, which shares a similar burden on the issue of race relations and has a much, much wider reach than Ole Miss and Mississippi State could dream of. When asked to opine on the issue, Saban replied with:

[A]nytime we have a symbol that represents something that's mean spirited or doesn't represent equal rights for all people, that I'm not for having that symbol represent anything we're involved in...It's just my opinion and how I feel about symbols that are not positive towards human rights and everybody having equal opportunity together.

Again, a direct condemnation of the Confederate flag. He went so far as to call the flag a symbol that is "not positive towards human rights," after quickly distancing himself and, by extension, the Alabama football program from it.

In just a few hours, Ole Miss head football coach Hugh Freeze will appear at SEC Media Days. He will field the usual questions, and offer the usual responses. Inevitably though, he will be asked about the Confederate battle flag, it's place on our state's official banner, and it's loose association with Ole Miss as a symbol of our state's flagship football program. Let's hope then that he doesn't offer the usual response, and instead gives a definitive, honest reply on what these symbols mean to Mississippi in 2015.

EDIT: And, as I was writing this, that's exactly what Hugh Freeze did. Good on him. Good on Ole Miss.