COLUMBIA — For the University of South Carolina athletics department, the lowering of the Confederate flag on Friday morning had to feel like the removal of a long, painful thorn which had irritated the Gamecocks for decades.
USC certainly dealt with its share of frustrations over the banner’s presence on the Statehouse grounds, only a few blocks from the school’s Horseshoe. There was the nuisance that was the NCAA’s ban on predetermined championship events, which ultimately didn’t have much teeth, but did effect the women’s basketball and golf programs. And there was always the lingering question over whether the banner had a negative impact on recruiting, given that the argument over the flag often took place in what was effectively South Carolina’s front yard.
So you won’t hear any arguments from USC against the university being better off today than it was 24 hours ago, now that the flag has been removed from a place of sovereignty and is headed for its rightful home in a museum display case. No more questions about why baseball could still host NCAA playoff games despite the ban. No more explanations of the format of the women’s NCAA basketball tournament, and why the Gamecocks could host this season after being sent on the road the past two years. No more stigma of being one of two states publicly shamed by the sanctioning body of college sports.
Say what you want about the NCAA’s diminishing reputation and whether the association really had the moral high ground to do such thing, and argue all you want about whether the ban — with its sizeable loophole allowing postseason games determined on merit — really had any effect. But it probably kept Dawn Staley’s women’s basketball team from making a more serious run at the Final Four in 2013. It probably kept a bowl game out of Charleston. It certainly scared the ACC into moving its baseball tournament from Myrtle Beach to Durham, before the first out had ever been recorded on the Grand Strand.
Now, questions like those are Mississippi’s problem alone. College sports are a competitive business, and schools search for any edge they can. While there may not have been a clear case of a recruit choosing not to attend USC because of the Confederate flag’s presence, it was always there as potential fodder for negative recruiting by other schools. If you wanted USC to succeed on the athletic front, if you wanted the Gamecocks to have every advantage possible, there was no option but to support the flag coming down.
Now, it has. That means no more questions about the banner posed to USC coaches and administrators, no more linking the terms “Gamecocks” and “Confederate flag” in news stories, no more having to explain why some South Carolina teams could host postseason events and others couldn’t. Think all that doesn’t make a difference? Think again. Coaches have spoken out against the banner for over a decade now, and those comments were certainly prompted by a sense of civic justice. But no question, there was a competitive aspect to this issue as well, given that the Gamecocks faced a controversial issue Georgia and North Carolina didn’t have to deal with. As Gov. Nikki Haley said, it’s a new day in South Carolina, and USC is better because of it.
Of course, the sports element of this movement does not eclipse the real-life tragedy which started it, the murder of nine churchgoers June 17 during a bible study at Emanuel AME in Charleston. The flag came down less than a month later, which speaks volumes about how South Carolinians were horrified and then galvanized by the actions and motivations of alleged killer Dylann Roof. Athletics seems insignificant in comparison, but leave it to perhaps USC’s best sports ambassador to accurately reflect the feelings today of so many around the Palmetto State.
“Those nine victims gave the ultimate sacrifice of their lives,” Staley said last week, “for the greater good of the state of South Carolina.”