Confederate Iconography and Southern Football Follow-Up

By Matt Follett

In Hoover, Alabama, from July 13-16, SEC players and coaches fielded questions concerning Xs and Os, records and predictions, and even fashion during the SEC Media days.  Due to the Charleston, South Carolina, killings and subsequent Confederate flag debate, reporters at the SEC Media days also broached the relationship between the flag and SEC football.  While the majority of the players who were asked about the flag punted instead of saying anything impactful, University of Mississippi defensive lineman C.J. Johnson talked about the racist culture growing up in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and the meaning behind the Confederate flag.  “Although it represents some people’s history, there are still a lot of people out there who use it to show hatred or ill will to other people” he said.

In his first SEC Media days appearance as SEC Commissioner, Greg Sankey spoke about the progress the conference is making regarding the controversial social issue.

I am particularly proud of the leadership demonstrated on our campuses in the states at the center of this debate. South Carolina President Harris Pastides; University of Mississippi interim Chancellor Morris Stocks; and Mississippi State University’s President Mark Keenum, along with their athletics directors and coaches, have all stated their desire for change. The times, they are changing, and the times will continue to change as we move forward.

While Sankey publicly supported the removal of the flag from schools in the SEC, The Post and Courier reporter Gene Sapakoff does not think the rhetoric will lead to reform in Mississippi, which is currently banned from hosting NCAA championship events due to the state’s Confederate-themed flag.  Sapakoff argues Sanky’s “supportive words are one thing, but the SEC isn’t about to tell Ole Miss and Mississippi State to move their home games to New Orleans.”

Influential head football coaches from three deep southern states—South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi—admonished the flag.  Staying true to past opinions in 2007 and immediately after the Charleston killings, South Carolina Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier praised the removal of the flag.

“I applaud our governor for setting the initiative to remove the flag and obviously it was received very well by just about everyone in our state and around the country,” Spurrier said.  “Obviously all of us in college sports, we know the importance of equality, race relations, everyone getting along. I know the coaches all over South Carolina were happy and glad to see the flag come down.”  Spurrier’s comments, however, also incited rage from some South Carolina football fans who are pro-flag:

clarkgablefan: “Spurrier is not a South Carolinian.”

axle357 : “what an idiot he is… just coach the team and quit sucking up to the naacp and the rest of the liberal jerks!!!”

Charles Lufkin: “Spurrier is a TRAITOR.All he cares about is being pc and recruiting blacks.”

donnydinker: “What a spineless twit Steve Spurrier is!! I hope they lose every game.”

Michael: “I for one am proud of my southern heritage, am proud of the flag. As well, had that war went the other way I think this country would be better for it.”

Similar to Spurrier, Alabama Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban denounced the Confederate flag during his slot at SEC Media days.  “My opinion is any time we have a symbol that represents something that is mean-spirited or doesn’t represent equal rights for all people,” Saban said. “I’m not for having that symbol represent anything that we’re involved in.”  On the surface, especially given Kevin Scarbinsky’s article “Times a-changin’: SEC’s most powerful voices shout down the Confederate battle flag,” Saban’s commentary reveals progress. However, the comments at the bottom of the article prove too many detractors are fighting against any change:

Deacon Blue:  “Scarbinsky you are a tool. You know damn well the ONLY reason that any coach said anything at all about the stars and bars is because of black recruits.  The end.”

tafriar: “Nick doesn’t even know Sherman burned the Uo fA campus to the ground !”

“Why not address the current truly offensive….Rammer Jammer, DixieLAnd Delight.  Playing Soulja Boy with “Yank my Crank” lyrics”..HAving Scott Cochran’s” program laced rant on your big screen.  Some SEC venues are NOT Child Friendly..I have not seen a confederate flag at an SEC game in years.”

bathtub gin:  “Thanks, carpetbagger.”

fobnel62: “Kevin, You make me sick more than you make me well. Once again you have let your liberal crappy thinking get in the way of common sense.”

Woody64:  “Taking the flag down will not change anything in the black community where black on black crIme is rampant. Jerks like you worshipping at the throne of political correctness can feel good about yourselves but this flag brouhaha is sort of like someone once said about life being like actors on a stage, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing. Shakespeare was a pretty sharp dude, way ahead of fluffers like you and Dylan.”

duffergkr: “I-65 runs north. Unlike you, I’m proud of my heritage and nothing the government, NAACP will ever take that away. Where we are: black on black crime at all time high,  black unemployment at all time high, food stamp recipients have increased from 32M to 46M since Obama has been in office and unwed mothers at all time high in the black community and you are worried about a flag? Really?” ()

At the SEC Media days, comments from Mississippi’s two coaches were oppositional.  Aligning with Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban, the Oxford, Mississippi, native and University of Mississippi Rebels coach Hugh Freeze supported the removal of the flag.

In the late ’90s our university made a move to go away from the Confederate flag and being a Mississippian I have a great appreciation for the Mississippi people and the pride we have in the heritage and all those things […].  Unfortunately that symbol has been hijacked by some groups that mean ill-will towards some people. […] I strongly believe it is time we move in a different direction and change the flag. Hopefully that’ll happen.

Conversely, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen expressed little concern over the flag.  “I don’t see it very often […]. “We don’t have it on our campus.  We’re the most diverse campus in the Southeastern Conference. I know the university embraces that diversity as a whole.” Two months later however, Mullen joined Freeze and other Mississippi luminaries by signing a letter in The Clarion-Ledger “calling for removal of the Confederate emblem from Mississippi’s state flag.”  That led Facebook commenter Harrsion McElrod to remark “Freeze and Mullen need to concentrate on jock straps instead of the flag.”

Archie Manning, who was the Unviersity of Mississippi quarterback from 1968-1970, also was criticized for signing the letter.  Gary Winborne’s Facebook comment read “just a political move for these people i am disapointed in Manning.”

Rebels fans ignored head coach Tommy Tubberville’s request to limit the Confederate flag inside the stadium in 1997, and it appears some current fans are opposed to Hugh Freeze’s wishes as well.  Wheras South Carolina’s ban from hosting championship events was lifted by the NCAA after the flag was removed from the state grounds, Mississippi remains the only state that is still barred from hosting NCAA championship sites.  But that does not seem to bother Mississippi residents protesting the removal of the Confederate-themed state flag:

Ron Collins, Florence, Mississippi: “This PC garbage is getting ridiculous. They want the legislature to change the flag without giving Mississippi the chance to vote on it because they know that the majority once again will vote to keep it as it is. Here’s my recommendation for changing the Mississippi Flag: MAKE IT TWICE AS BIG !!!”

Marvin Floyd:  “Ron Collins We voted in2001 by a 70% to keep our flag the way it is,i say all the PC crowd can go stright to hell.”

Cindy Bond:  “I’m sorry , I do not agree.. The flag that flies over our State houses does not represent slavery. Check the history. Most of the signers of the letter do not live here and they moved away for personal gains, not because of the flag.”

Larry Watkins: “How many of these “notable peopole” actually live in Mississippi. If you left the state and don’t live here, then this is really not your concern. The voters of Mississippi have already voted to keep the current flag. Deal with it!”

Frank Hurdle:  “Most of the people on the list are extreme liberals who support any position that is considered “politically correct.” A lot made donations to Obama’s campaigns. I don’t think we should let Obama or his left wing cadre decide what our state’s flag should be. The people have already decided, by an overwhelming margin.”

Patsy Hudson Clements:  “How many of these people who signed still live in Mississippi? If you choose to leave, Mississippi is no longer your home. The people of this state already voted on their choice of flag. Go bother the people in the state where you moved to get away from Mississippi!”

Although the public comments criticizing the Confederate flag from Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban, and Hugh Freeze permeated through their respective states, the Confederate flag supporters combatted their involvement with social issues.  When Steve Spurrier advocated for change he was seen as an outsider from South Carolina, even though he is a native southerner who was born in Tennessee and played and coached for the University of Florida.  When Dan Mullen and Nick Saban supported the removal of the flag, they were viewed as Yankee carpetbaggers.  Hugh Freeze, who was born in Oxford, Mississippi, was told by some fans to stick with football and avoid commenting on social issues.  If the football coaches in a region that is fanatical about football cannot deter a faction of racist and incredibly ignorant southerners from blindly supporting the Confederate flag, then what will?

Matt Follett is a Public History PhD student at Middle Tennessee State University, where he focuses on modern southern culture.  Feel free to contact him with any questions or comments at mfollett618@gmail.com or @MattFollett.

4 thoughts on “Confederate Iconography and Southern Football Follow-Up

  1. In reference to your blog concerning confederate iconography at college football games, specifically those of the SEC conference. I would like to challenge you on a comment made in your blog. You claimed in your closing statement that “If the football coaches in a region that is fanatical about football cannot deter a faction of racist and incredibly ignorant southerners from blindly supporting the Confederate flag, then what will?” I would like to ask you what percentage of southerners do you consider to be racist? I believe that there are many southerners that view the confederate flag as a true symbol of their heritage that has nothing to do with hatred of another race. While I will submit that there are indeed southerners that are racist, does this mean that there are no American flag waving racists from other regions of the country? If so, what then should we do about the American flag? Slavery existed under our American flag for many years prior to the Civil War, so should not that flag also be relegated to a museum along with the Confederate flag? Or would you contend that the American flag means different things to different people? If so, then why cannot the same be said of the Confederate flag? For many the American flag is a symbol of economic and cultural imperialism, jingoism and warmongering. How far should we take this issue of banning flags? I get the fact that there are many that are offended by the Confederate flag, but why are they offended? Is it out of ignorance or something else entirely? If the American nation can change its social policies towards minorities and still fly the Stars and Stripes with pride and honor, why cannot there be an honest change in the hearts of millions of southerners that take pride in their culture, which can be very different than that of the rest of the nation. What would be your remedy to make both sides happy? Do you even think that it is possible? Would creating a flag of the “new south” work or would politics as usual creep in and ruin that idea? I would contend that this whole confederate flag business is more about politics than true racism. The removal of the Confederate flag is not going to make the lives of one minority better. It will not create jobs, it will not send them to college, and it will not stop black on black violence or stop children being born in fatherless homes.

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    • Hi Jeff,

      Thanks for reading the blog and taking the time to post your comments. I can’t answer for certain how many southerners are racist, and that’s why I said a faction of people in the article.

      I personally have no problem with anyone waving or displaying a Confederate flag on their private property, even though I would never do it. Nor do I have an issue with the Confederate flag flying over Confederate cemeteries. I do think it’s valid for states or people to protest the Confederate flag on public property or at football games, as the Confederate flag was used in 1948 and 1954 as a symbol of white supremacy against integration with African Americans. My blog post that preceded this one delves a bit into those details, and numerous other journalists and historians have documented that topic as well (including Josh Howard’s essay on this blog).

      You’re right that the American flag has represented the negative attributes you referenced above, but I would argue it’s different to wave the American flag because the United States is still a country. It is fascinating how the Confederate flag can represent polarizing racial/political ideologies. I hope that contemporary southerners can take pride in their region and heritage without thinking the only way to do that is by displaying the Confederate flag, which had and still has a racist connotation. So again, since the Confederate flag is such a contested symbol, I’d argue it’s better to not be displayed in public spaces.

      Thanks again for reading the post. I hope you also find the time to read the fantastic articles on this site that aren’t as controversial.

      Matt Follett

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  2. Mr. Follett,
    I wholeheartedly agree with your post, and I believe much of the backlash about trying to take down the flag is tied to the fundamental differences between the North and South, both from social and cultural division, as well as the aftermath of the Civil War. In many ways, during the century after the war for independence, the Northern and Southern states would begin to have a divide both on overall level socially and culturally, but also specifically in the development of a sporting culture, especially around the 1800’s. In my opinion, this difference is what foments such a difference in the way football is conducted in the North and the South. And it is certainly worth noting that those attacking the “war on the flag” immediately resort to ad hominem attacks on the coaches and officials who are trying to make a change. And while some of them may not have racist intentions, that does not mean one cannot be racist while not meaning to. Simply because you do not believe you are being racist or that a symbol isn’t racist, doesn’t mean you aren’t or it isn’t. In this case, the two are not mutually exclusive. I would ask whether you believe that this divide can be remedied. Is it possible that this solidarity through Southern sporting events could serve as a rallying cry for a new attempt at Southern secession? That may be extreme, but I believe it certainly could serve as a bastion for racism within Southern communities. Do you see it as the same? Lastly, do you think that these schools and coaches are actually committed to removing the flag, or are simply doing lip service to save face?

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  3. Mr. Follett,
    I appreciate this article greatly having grown up in North Carolina (ACC country not SEC) I have seen a lot of outcry over the removal of the confederate flag. I’m glad you took time to directly quote the online comments from these outraged fans instead of generalizing public opinion on the matter. I believe you especially hit it on the head in the final paragraph when you mentioned coaches making political statements. Especially in the south where football reigns supreme it is hard to believe how quickly people will abandon a coach and “hope they lose every” game for simply speaking an opinion contrary to their own. Do you think this issue especially irritates fans or do they dislike any and all politicization of sports?
    Thanks,
    Tim

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