Despite the sports world being in its limbo state for the past several months, Mississippi coaches and athletic administrators came together to take in changing the state’s flag.
Over the weekend, both chambers of Mississippi’s legislatures voted to take down the state flag. Playing a significant role was the Mississippi sports community.
As the debate over the state flag intensified, the NCAA, Southeastern Conference and Conference USA announced that tournaments would not be held until the Confederate emblem was removed from the flag.
Initially, Southern Miss athletic director Jeremy McClain felt sympathetic for the student-athletes but quickly realized that the bans were for a greater purpose.
“When you get that information from the conference or the NCAA level, you are disappointed because of the impact it could have on your student-athletes,” McClain said. “They have no say so in what their state flag looks like. For them to be negatively impacted by the decision like that is first frustrating, but there is a bigger picture as well from that standpoint. We are very supportive of Conference USA and the NCAA’s stance on the issue. Fortunately, we are at a point where that isn’t going to negatively impact our student-athletes, but there is a much bigger picture than hosting tournaments.”
According to Southern Miss baseball coach Scott Berry, the tournament ban was a strong statement from the athletics world and that the impact it could have had on Mississippi would have been immeasurable. Since 2016, Division I baseball programs in Mississippi have hosted six different NCAA regionals as well as the C-USA tournament.
“(The bans were) a pretty strong statement obviously,” Berry said. “When you look at the history of athletics in our state, specifically baseball, I thought they were really talking to baseball more than any other sport just because all three schools on the Division I have consistently hosted tournaments. You also look at other schools like Delta State, who hosts tournaments as well. All of us get grouped into the same situation.”
Soon after the bans, Southern Miss coaches Scott Berry, Jay Ladner, Joye Lee-McNelis and McClain, along with Deputy Director of Athletics Jeff Mitchell, joined Mississippi college coaches and administrators to address the state legislature on Friday.
“(Southern Miss) and all the universities in the state made a commitment five years ago not to fly the state flag,” Mitchell said. “I certainly think with today’s events that people and entities saw the opportunity to make the significant change. In our culture, in the southeast and in particular, in the state of Mississippi, there is power in leadership in the sports world. Credit to the presidents of the state institutions. With coach McNelis, Coach Berry and Coach Ladner we were able to talk to members of the legislature. Even if we swayed one vote collectively, that’s an example of the power that the sports world and the leadership within the sports world has. It was a very powerful moment.”
Along with arguing the need to change the flag over its history, coaches and administrators argued what the practicalities were if the state chose to keep the flag.
“I think we were essentially trying to get across that we want to represent our student-athletes because we envision a brighter, better and bolder Mississippi,” Mitchell said. “We have to say this is a great place to come to school, and it’s a great place to play intercollegiate athletics.
“The coaches’ message was that (the change is) the right thing to do. It is for a better future. There will be significant economic disadvantages associated with not being able to host like conference tournaments or NCAA events in the state and on-campus. It would also have an impact on recruiting. We want to invite students into the state and eventually stay at local and regional businesses in the state. In order to do that, it was clear that we had to send a message of openness to the world and to the nation and really our own backyard.”
According to McClain, it was important for Southern Miss to be a part of the key moment, but that event also highlights the importance of how sports can unify people.
“I do hope that college athletics helped because I want to make sure that we acknowledge the people who have been fighting for a long time helped get this done,” McClain said. “I’m thankful college athletics could be a small part of that. I’m a native Mississippian and spent 40 years of my life here. One of the things that we are always able to be proud of its sports. The number of outstanding athletes who have come from the state of Mississippi and gone on to do great things is always important for Mississippians. For sports to have such an impact with this is really fitting.”