Originally created 03/17/04

Flag issue still swirls in South Carolina



COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The NCAA said Tuesday it will continue its ban on awarding championships to South Carolina because of the Confederate flag flying on Statehouse grounds.

In August 2001, the NCAA executive committee voted for a two-year moratorium on selecting sites in South Carolina for things like basketball championships. NCAA spokesman Jeff Howard says the August 2001 decision called for "significant change" from the state of South Carolina. That has not occurred, he said.

"The membership believes that this is the correct stance to take around this particular issue," Howard told The Associated Press by phone.

While the NCAA basketball tournament draws fans to arenas across the country, the Palmetto State can only remember the frenzy of two years ago when the Big Dance came to the Bi-Lo Center in Greenville.

Developer Carl Scheer and the arena enjoyed unprecedented exposure - and the region an estimated benefit of $10 million - from the NCAA South Regional.

And still, the Confederate flag's legacy trailed close behind.

The flag flew atop the Statehouse dome until a legislative compromise four years ago moved it to a Confederate monument in front of the Capitol steps July 1, 2000.

A tourism boycott, announced in 1999, remained in effect in spite of the change, because the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People wanted it off Statehouse grounds entirely.

The civil rights organization, the National Association of Basketball Coaches and the Black Coaches Association had petitioned the NCAA to remove the 2002 tournament from Greenville. When the tournament hit town, the site was a prime target for an NAACP protest.

Participating coaches and players were asked about the issue. NAACP members picketed outside the tournament site. And a rally and march to Bi-Lo's main entrance was held while second-round games went on inside.

"We believe sporting events and other tourism venues have served us well," said Dwight James, executive director of the state NAACP.

James said the rally outside the Bi-Lo was particularly effective in reminding out-of-towners that the Confederate flag issue in South Carolina was not settled.

Since then, little has come up in the Legislature to reopen flag debate.

The NAACP's sports actions also have waned. The group had pickets at the yearly Southern Conference tournament, held for the past five years in South Carolina. SoCon spokesman Steve Shutt says they did not hear from NAACP leaders this year and there was no protest.

James of the NAACP says his group is being more selective about protest sites.

The NAACP could still appear this spring, James said, at the Family Circle Cup women's tennis event in Charleston and the PGA Tour's MCI Heritage in Hilton Head Island.

Opponents of the flag say it's a symbol of racism and hatred. Flag supporters say it honors heritage.

The flag's position has cost South Carolina prominent athletic events. Furman hosted a NCAA cross-country regional for 21 years until the NCAA ban in 2001. The Atlantic Coast Conference removed its 2003 baseball tournament from Knights Castle in Fort Mill because of the moratorium. Both Scheer and South Carolina athletic director Mike McGee submitted bids for the men's basketball tournament and were turned down.

"It's a very frustrating situation," Scheer said. "Because it's such a wonderful event to bring in."

Scheer remembers watching Duke practice on the Bi-Lo floor two years ago. Thousands showed up in Blue Devil tee shirts and caps to watch their heroes play," Scheer said.

The NCAA's ban also costs the state financially.

The University of South Carolina's 18,000-seat Colonial Center was opened in 2002 with NCAA regionals in mind, McGee said.

Tom Regan, chairman of the university's Department of Sports and Entertainment Education, says a region can benefit by as much as $12 million to $15 million dollars from a weekend of NCAA tournament basketball.

The NCAA's Howard says members of the group can petition for a change, but the governing body had no such submissions pending.

Scheer and McGee say the NCAA tournament's prestige makes it too big an event not to fight for.

"I think there's a time when the opportunity will arise," McGee said. "When it does, we'll have a great shot at getting one."