So the Southeastern Conference has thrown down the gauntlet in the direction of Mississippi, whose state flag is an embarrassing relic that stubbornly honors American traitors who do not deserve it.
It’s no secret that administrators and coaches associated with the SEC’s two Mississippi schools have wanted the flag gone for a long time. Its nod to the Confederacy is outdated, its symbolism is a disgrace and the fact it hasn’t been changed is an endless frustration to the people whose business is attracting Black students and athletes to those institutions.
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.
“Our students deserve an opportunity to learn and compete in environments that are inclusive and welcoming to all,” Sankey said.
But if this is where the SEC is going to draw its line in the sand, if this is the moment when the league is going to wade into a gnarly, emotional political mess that is intertwined with a never-ending love for Confederate nostalgia, how can it not address the fact that one of its very own members is called the Ole Miss Rebels?
It’s time to have that conversation.
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.”
Much to its credit, the University of Mississippi has taken significant steps in the last 25 years to bring its athletic department out of the dark ages of American history. The school banned the Confederate flag in the late 1990s. It dumped Colonel Reb, a caricature of a gentlemanly Southern plantation owner that used to roam the sidelines as its mascot. It banned playing any variation of “Dixie.” And at every step along the way, it endured complaints from fans who saw the school as dumping on tradition for the sake of political correctness.
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But even with all that, Ole Miss remains on the wrong side of history because all of those accoutrements were born from the original sin of being named the Rebels, the meaning of which we should no longer go out of our way to sanitize.
The truth about Ole Miss is that it is a great school, located in a beautiful college town, filled with good people. And yet it is not the state flag of Mississippi that has, time and again, drawn racists to Oxford to use the school’s platform as a way to demonstrate their evil.
This isn’t ancient history. When the school got rid of “From Dixie with Love” from the band’s playlist in 2009, the Ku Klux Klan showed up. There was an on-campus protest in 2012 the night President Barack Obama was re-elected. A former Ole Miss student went to jail for putting a noose around the statue of James Meredith, the school’s first Black student, in 2014. More KKK rallies in 2015 and 2019 drew national attention, the latter of which inspired the Ole Miss basketball team to kneel during the national anthem.
People associated with Ole Miss will argue that these incidents are largely instigated by students from out of state or people that have nothing to do with the school. That may well be true. But doesn't it beg the question, why do the racists always go there to demonstrate? What draws them to that campus time and time again as though it’s a shrine to their twisted ideology?
It’s obvious what draws them. And it’s obvious why it happens there and not at Alabama or Mississippi State or Georgia or any other SEC school with a complicated racial history.
Why is that worth preserving? Why is it important to fans of a football or basketball team to let the racists glom onto their athletic brand as a platform to spew their hate
It is impossible for the SEC to claim that student-athletes are threatened by a flag but not a nickname that is worn across their chest every single day. It is impossible for a school to strip away all the symbols and say they've done the hard work for racial reconciliation except for clearing the hurdle they still broadcast to the world. It is impossible for the Ole Miss Rebels to be moving in the same direction as American culture and the righteous arc of American history as long as they are the Ole Miss Rebels.