Flag cost USC, but NCAA ban backfires

Dawn Staley and No. 4 seed USC had to play in Colorado.

Far away in mile-high air, the No. 4 seed South Carolina women's basketball team Monday night suffered a 75-69 NCAA tournament upset loss to No. 12 Kansas.

Surely, Dawn Staley's Gamecocks would have fared better in a Columbia Regional — prohibited by the NCAA because the Confederate flag still flies on S.C. Statehouse grounds — than in Boulder, Colo.

The flag flap almost certainly cost South Carolina a trip to the Sweet 16, but ill-conceived NCAA punishment of our state isn't effective. Worse, it has backfired and should be shelved.

If the NCAA hard line was intended to change hearts and minds, well, I'm sure you had as much trouble as I did getting to work Tuesday with all the protesters clogging the sidewalks of South Carolina. More likely, the most ardent neo-Confederates were delighted that a bunch more out-of-towners didn't show up.

Biggest losers in this latest NCAA mishap: an accomplished African-American basketball coach, Staley, and her predominantly African-American program.

Solution: Let South Carolina host, insisting on a tournament-long series of lobbying, seminars and charity work. You know, something actually helpful.

As with so much NCAA policy, the intent of this social justice policy is good and the results make little sense.

Rulebook minutiae. Painkiller non-management. Enforcement snafus. Safety hypocrisy. In this case, the NCAA in 2001 adopted a Confederate Battle Flag Policy that “prohibits predetermined championship sites from taking place in states where the flag has a prominent presence.”

Within South Carolina borders and not particularly having to do with sports, the flag flap is a separate issue. Let's have a referendum, a vote.

But this NCAA matter is what my attorney friends might call “arbitrary and goofy.” If the NCAA is serious about the ban, it should go after states with state flags patterned after Confederate flags (Georgia), more popular sports (baseball in S.C.) and cities and counties named after men who enslaved some people and forcibly removed others. And the NCAA could expand its social justice crusade to include states that don't do a good job of protecting children from predators and states that have abhorrent debt resulting in school closings in “at-risk” neighborhoods.

But, no, that would hurt the NCAA financially.

So it picks on basketball. In just two states the NCAA doesn't really need, South Carolina and Mississippi, at least not until the men's teams at South Carolina or Clemson become Final Four contenders. Thus, Boulder and its lackluster fan base got to host a regional including No. 4 South Carolina, No. 5 Colorado, No. 12 Kansas and No. 13 South Dakota State.

I asked the NCAA to clarify its flag policy.

Why basketball and not baseball regionals?

“For the sport of women's basketball, all sites of the championship (first-round through Final Four) are predetermined and therefore prohibited,” said NCAA spokesperson Cameron Schuh. “Whereas in baseball and other sports (softball, volleyball, lacrosse, soccer, etc.) the regional sites for the championship are not determined until the teams are selected for the field.”

True, but it would be easy to simply ban South Carolina, Clemson, Coastal Carolina, College of Charleston, The Citadel, Mississippi and Mississippi State from bidding to host a baseball regional.

Why not?

Money, that's why. Those No. 2 and No. 3 seeded baseball programs usually do not draw as well as, say, Carolina Stadium with its 8,242 capacity.

Here is a short list of sports organizations not punishing South Carolina for its flag obsession: NFL (Carolina Panthers training camp in Spartanburg); NBA, NHL and major league baseball (all with recent exhibition games); PGA and LPGA; WTA (Family Circle Cup); WWE (various Smackdowns); and almost every NCAA sport except basketball.

OK, not just basketball. The “predetermined” NCAA flag-related rule also applies to golf, gymnastics, cross country and ice hockey.

So it will be a cold day in Hilton Head before there is NCAA tournament ice hockey in South Carolina.

The USC women's basketball team knows wind chill, having dealt with snow and sub-freezing temperatures in Boulder. But that was nothing compared to the well-meaning but poorly designed cold slap from the NCAA.

Reach Gene Sapakoff at 937-5593 or on Twitter @sapakoff