Originally created 03/02/05

Confederate flag follows SEC tournament.



COLUMBIA, S.C. - The Confederate flag could cost South Carolina future sporting events like the Southeastern Conference women's basketball tournament this week at Greenville's Bi-Lo Center.

SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said his league selected Greenville when its original site, the Phillips Arena in Atlanta, withdrew because it planned on hosting the 2005 NHL All-Star Game. At the time, Slive said the SEC had no firm policy on the issue and the Bi-Lo Center was a good location.

But Slive told The Associated Press on Tuesday the flag would be on the agenda at the SEC's spring meetings this year and could lead to a similar moratorium on bringing championships to the state like the one the NCAA established in 2002.

"We have enormous respect for the issue," Slive said by phone. "We're about diversity and opportunity."

The NAACP began an economic boycott of the state in January 2000 because the flag flew atop the South Carolina Capitol. That flag has since been removed, but a similar one was put up at the Confederate Soldier Monument on Statehouse grounds. The NAACP says the new location is even more visible and the boycott has continued, but it's not as widely supported as the original action.

Since 2000, few high-profile sports events have been held in the Palmetto State without the shadow of the flag creeping onto the playing field.

The NCAA first imposed a two-year ban on awarding predetermined championships to the state in 2002. The governing body extended the ban indefinitely last year.

Slive expected the SEC would follow the NCAA's model and keep neutral site championships like men's and women's basketball out of South Carolina.

"I applaud the leadership of the conference for coming out and saying that they will be more understanding," said Lonnie Randolph, state director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "Understanding and respect is what's important."

Slive says he'll meet with Randolph this week at the tournament to discuss the flag boycott.

Events awarded on merit, like NCAA baseball and softball regionals, can still be held in South Carolina. Slive said SEC championships that rotate among the 12 league schools would probably still come to the state.

NCAA spokeswoman Gail Dent said the flag issue has not been raised at recent executive committee meetings. "But you never know," she said. "It might not be on there officially, but if someone brings it up it could get talked about."

South Carolina lawmakers, for the most part, consider the issue closed.

"I think most members feel like that issue was dealt with honorably and that this is behind us," House Speaker David Wilkins, R-Greenville, said. "I don't see in the House - or the Senate - any real appetite to bring that issue back to the forefront."

Wilkins said he hoped that groups honoring the NAACP's sanctions would talk with state leaders.

"I think the sanctions have been totally ineffective as far as moving the issue forward," Wilkins said. "I think what the sanctions are doing is hurting the economy to a small degree and citizens that want to see these various sporting events."

The NAACP has protested at several sports events, including the NCAA men's basketball regionals held at the Bi-Lo Center in 2002. At the time, the NCAA said there was too little notice to move the tournament from South Carolina. But the championship moratorium was set soon after.

Several schools and regions of the state have been affected.

Furman had hosted the NCAA cross-country championships for 21 consecutive years, but not since the moratorium took effect.

The Atlantic Coast Conference removed its 2003 baseball tournament from Knights Castle in Fort Mill because of the moratorium.

Both Carl Scheer, developer of the Bi-Lo Center, and South Carolina athletic director Mike McGee submitted bids for the men's NCAA basketball tournament since 2002 and have been turned down.

The NAACP has staged pickets at Southern Conference basketball tournaments in Greenville and Charleston. The civil rights organization has protested at the Family Circle Cup women's tennis tournament on Daniel Island and held a march in Hilton Head Island during the PGA Tour's MCI Classic.

The Black Coaches Association would not support a proposed Palmetto Bowl college football game proposed for Charleston because of the flag.

The 2000 Olympic Women's Marathon Trials, held in Columbia, became a forum on the flag. Competitors spoke against the banner and wore ribbons supporting the NAACP.

The ban costs the state financially. The 2002 NCAA tournament in Greenville had a local impact of about $5.2 million, according to the Greenville Convention and Visitors Bureau. Four of the past five SEC women's tournaments have drawn more than 39,000 fans with this year's event no different.

Randolph says the NAACP's previous sports actions have succeeded in raising the flag issue to people around the nation. He said one area of impact is college recruiting because families and prospects don't want to play where a state sanctions "symbols of bigotry."

"The fight for justice is an ongoing fight," he said. "We're talking about changing attitudes."

NAACP volunteers won't set up outside the arena this week at the SEC tournament. Randolph said there are other matters taking up the NAACP's time and "no offense, but this is not a high-high profile event."

Randolph promised the group would continue protesting state sports events to get its message out.

Slive has pledged to improve the league's "gender and ethnic diversity challenges."

"Sometimes it helps more to immerse ourselves in the issue than if we stayed away," Slive said.