The well-compensated football coaches in the Southeastern Conference hold celebrity status. At SEC Media Days, where fans populate the hotel lobby, coaches sign more balls and mini-helmets than the players.
Rarely at this occasion are they quizzed about topics more pressing than season prospects; when they are, stiff-arming is a common reflex. “We focus on the things we can control,” is the default position.
But a month ago, the racially motivated shooting during a prayer meeting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., that left nine dead, rekindled the Confederate battle flag debate. The shooter was photographed holding the flag in images on his website.
Coaches from the states where the Confederate flag or symbol flew on statehouse grounds were asked to comment, and to their credit most met it head on.
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In South Carolina and Alabama, the flags have been removed and their coaches said good riddance.
“Any time we have a symbol that represents something that is mean spirited or doesn’t represent equal rights for all people, I’m not for having that symbol represent anything that we’re involved in,” Alabama’s Nick Saban said.
South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier said his sentiment was echoed by fellow Gamecocks coaches.
“Obviously, all of us in college sports, we know the importance of equality, race relations, everybody getting along,” Spurrier said. “I know the coaches all over South Carolina were happy and glad to see the flag come down.”
This wasn’t Spurrier’s first shot at the flag. In 2007, he called the flag “embarrassing … (and) if anybody were ever to ask me about that damn Confederate flag, I would say we need to get rid of it.”
Spurrier and Saban rode the momentum of public opinion. In the wake of the shooting, the flags were removed with a groundswell of support.
Mississippi is more complicated. The Confederate symbol is a portion of the state flag. The state studied replacing the current flag’s left corner with symbolic stars about 15 years ago and put it to a vote. By a 2-1 margin, citizens voted against change.
But Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said it’s now time to move on.
“I’m a Mississippian,” Freeze said. “No one understands the pride of the people of the state and the heritage of the state any more than I do. While I’m not a political figure, that symbol has been hijacked by groups that have meant ill will toward other people.”
Asked later to clarify, Freeze essentially repeated his original answer and said he wanted to study the issue more. He’d find that the Confederate flag first flew over the South Carolina statehouse in 1962 to mark the Centennial anniversary of the Civil War, but others believed it symbolized defiance of the Civil Rights movement and school desegregation.
In other ways, Mississippi has shed Confederate symbolism. In 1997, the school banned waving Confederate flags at football games. And “Colonel Reb,” the school’s Confederate soldier mascot, was retired in 2003.
A symbol of Southern pride and heritage to some means racism and now a massacre to others. Black leaders and ministers have attempted through the courts to have the flag removed from public spaces. In some states, like Georgia, the flag was changed.
Not every coach took a stand. Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen was evasive.
“People are really looking into how we can make things better in the state of Mississippi,” he said. “And I hope as a university we’re out on the forefront of trying help make things better with the type of school we have and the diversity we have in our school.”
Mullen has earned well-deserved praise for turning around the Bulldogs’ program, but this was a missed opportunity. In fairness, Mullen reportedly supported a statement made by the school the previous week that offered a reminder that Mississippi State’s faculty senate recommended changing the state flag in 2001.
Most coaches made the smart move this week by commenting and condemning. Some qualified their responses by reminding they don’t hold public office.
In this case, that doesn’t matter. Successful coaches are revered in the SEC, and what they say will be heard by the people of their states. Taking a stand can mean more than promoting a player or advocating a rule change. Sometimes it means lending a voice to a sensitive issue even if it involves stepping outside their comfort zone.