Commentary

South Carolina continues to suffer

Originally Published: July 9, 2009
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

University of South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier had it right two years ago, when he had the stones to say "I realize I'm not supposed to get in the political arena as a football coach, but if anybody were to ask me about that damn Confederate flag, I would say we need to get rid of it."

[+] EnlargeConfederate Flag
AP Photo/Eric DraperFlying the Confederate flag has cost South Carolina the opportunity to host three ACC baseball tournaments.

That damn Confederate flag is at it again. Thirteen stars. Two stripes. Forty-seven years (and counting) of polarizing controversy.

The Atlantic Coast Conference has had enough of that flag: Earlier this week it pulled the 2011, 2012 and 2013 ACC baseball tournaments out of Spurrier's state and relocated them to neighboring North Carolina. Myrtle Beach's loss becomes Durham's and Greensboro's economic and tourism gain.

Meanwhile, the NCAA won't touch the state of South Carolina with a vaulter's pole. Same goes for Spurrier's home conference, the SEC. And all because of a Confederate battle flag that first flew atop the state Capitol dome in 1962 and still flies prominently, defiantly and wrongly at a Confederate soldier's monument on the Capitol grounds in Columbia.

"It's disrespectful," said Dr. Lonnie Randolph Jr., president of the South Carolina National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "And we ask them not to fly the flag on state property. … Don't show it on the statehouse grounds. Our statehouse grounds are a monument to white supremacy."

"No, I don't understand why they feel that way," said Randy Burbage, South Carolina division commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which has 3,500 state members, while the national organization numbers about 35,000. "Respecting each other's heritage is a two-way street."

Problem is, one man's heritage is another man's symbol of slavery, of Jim Crow laws, of Bull Connor and the working end of a police dog's teeth, of terrifyingly worse.

Burbage, who said the SCV is a "historical honor society" that has counterprotested against the Ku Klux Klan, sees a flag that represents a state's history and the Confederate soldiers who died for it. That flag, he said, deserves its rightful place of honor.

"It needs to be at that soldier's monument," Burbage said of the flag's present home.

But for Randolph, the stars and bars represent repression, brutality and inequality.

"I've been in South Carolina for 60 years," Randolph said. "I was part of the era of school desegregation in South Carolina. Every time there was some kind of racial violence … that [Confederate] flag showed up everywhere. Because it was part of the white supremacist movement. This isn't a matter of what I feel; it's a matter of what I know."

From a practical standpoint, the Confederate flag is the economic and public-relations equivalent of chugging antifreeze. A South Carolina city hasn't hosted a round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament since Greenville did in 2002. During that same span, North Carolina cities like Raleigh, Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Greensboro have done so seven times.

With occasional exceptions, the ACC takes the South Carolina bypass when it comes to holding league championship tournaments in the state. Clemson, an ACC member institution, will get the league's men's and women's track championships next year. But no neutral sites in South Carolina will be awarded a site bid without the blessings of the NAACP. (The ACC thought the NAACP had signed off on the Myrtle Beach site for the baseball tournaments; it hadn't.)

And it isn't an accident that the NCAA hasn't brought its lucrative men's basketball tournament to Columbia and the university's $64 million, 18,000-seat Colonial Life Arena, which opened in 2002 and would be a nice fit for a first- and second-round venue.

"It's like they're holding the state economically hostage," Burbage said of the NAACP-organized boycott. "I don't understand why an athletic conference has to get involved in the internal affairs of state politics. We're good people in this state. It's not like you're going to come into South Carolina and we're going to hurt an athlete, endanger your lives in any way."

But the NAACP isn't holding the state hostage -- just accountable. Big difference.

Spurrier received death threats after saying the Confederate flag shouldn't be anywhere near the state Capitol. So did at least one member of his staff. The memories of the hate mail and the threatening phone calls won't soon be forgotten in the South Carolina football offices at Williams-Brice Stadium.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisSteve Spurrier spoke his mind on this topic, and got some serious heat for it.

Randolph was aware of what happened. When told of Spurrier's death threats, he said, "Yes, he did [receive some]. They come quite often."

That flag continues to leave bruise marks on the university. Start with South Carolina's athletic department, which is the primary owner and operator of the Colonial Life Arena (no NCAA tournaments). And this being the hyperintense SEC, you can bet some rival recruiters use the flag controversy to their advantage. At the very least, it must cause some recruits to think twice about signing with the Gamecocks.

"It hurts basketball," Randolph said. "It hurts football immensely. We do get calls and letters from parents saying, 'I wouldn't want my child to go there.'"

The Confederate flag, moved to the monument in 2000, isn't going anywhere without legislation. And according to subsection B of state code 1-10-10, any bill involving the flag's removal would require a two-thirds supermajority of the general assembly for passage. Most legislation in South Carolina usually needs just a simple majority to become law.

Coincidence? Of course not.

But Burbage, who honors that flag for its historical value, and others who honor it for far more offensive reasons should remember that even the legendary Strom Thurmond, who represented South Carolina as a United States senator for nearly 50 years (and who was no civil rights progressive), supported its removal from the state Capitol dome.

"Unfortunately, the presence of the battle flag over the Capitol has moved past its intended purpose of paying tribute to those who served South Carolina during the Civil War," wrote Thurmond in a 1996 letter to then-Gov. David Beasley. He added that the flag's removal was "not a slap toward those who wish to celebrate our past."

So, there is hope, right? Just move the Confederate flag off the state Capitol grounds to another appropriate monument or museum, and the boycott and controversy will end.

"Absolutely," said Randolph. "Instantaneously."

"No," countered Burbage, "we're not willing to compromise anymore. Not willing to back up anymore. Because we're not giving up."

Some things never change -- even though they should.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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