JACKSON, Miss. – The Southeastern Conference is considering barring league championship events in Mississippi unless the state changes its Confederate-based flag.
"It is past time for change to be made to the flag of the State of Mississippi," Commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement Thursday. "Our students deserve an opportunity to learn and compete in environments that are inclusive and welcoming to all. 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 until the flag is changed."
The NCAA has already said it would not schedule postseason events in Mississippi because of the state flag, which has been in place since 2001. On Friday, the NCAA said it was expanding its policy, which means that even when sites of NCAA events are determined by performance – as they are in sports such as baseball, women's basketball and lacrosse – Mississippi schools will not be permitted to host.
National protests about racial injustice have renewed debate about Confederate symbols. Mississippi has the last state flag that includes the battle emblem: a red field topped by a blue X with 13 white stars. White supremacists put the symbol on the flag in 1894 during the backlash to black political power that developed during Reconstruction.
During a Black Lives Matter protest June 5 outside the Mississippi Governor's Mansion in downtown Jackson, thousands of people cheered as an 18-year-old organizer, Maisie Brown, called for the removal of all Confederate symbols in the state, including from the flag.
Bipartisan coalitions of state lawmakers have been trying to build momentum to change the flag, but Republican Gov. Tate Reeves has said repeatedly that if the banner is to be redesigned, it should be done by the state's voters.
People who voted in a 2001 election chose to keep the flag rather than replace it with a design that did not include the Confederate emblem.
All of Mississippi's public universities and several cities and counties have stopped flying the state flag in recent years because of the emblem. The state has two SEC schools – the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University.
Leaders at both universities said Thursday that the state should change the flag.
"Mississippi needs a flag that represents the qualities about our state that unite us, not those that still divide us," Ole Miss Chancellor Glenn Boyce and athletic director Keith Carter said in a joint statement. "We support the SEC's position for changing the Mississippi state flag to an image that is more welcoming and inclusive for all people."
Mississippi State President Mark E. Keenum said in a statement that he respects Sankey's position. Keenum said he wrote to state elected officials June 12 telling them that the university's students, faculty and administrators have been on record in favor of changing the flag since 2015.
"The letter said, in part, that our flag should be unifying, not a symbol that divides us," Keenum said. "I emphasized that it is time for a renewed, respectful debate on this issue."