How Will Flag Deal Affect Sports?

Thursday, June 29th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — For almost six months, South Carolina's sports fields and stadiums lived in the shadow of the Confederate flag.

When the flag is lowered Saturday from the Statehouse and raised on a nearby pole, officials wonder if the cloud of the NAACP's boycott also will lift from arenas, golf courses, tennis courts and ballparks.

``I think that's difficult to say right now,'' said Russ Pate, race director of the U.S. women's Olympic marathon trials held here in February. ``Quite frankly, I am not entirely certain that we've adequately addressed this issue.''

From Darlington Raceway to Harbour Town Golf Links to the 26-mile blue marathon line that wanders through the streets of the capital, organizers, coaches and athletes have dealt with the tourism boycott.

There were marches that included football coaches Lou Holtz of South Carolina and Tommy Bowden of Clemson; statements condemning the flag from the Southern Conference, the NCAA and USA Track & Field; withdrawals from state events by the New York Knicks and tennis star Serena Williams; and even a meeting between another tennis player, Alexandra Stevenson, and Gov. Jim Hodges.

While not everyone is pleased with the legislative compromise, organizers and officials know that people were paying attention.

``I guess this shows that sports have a place in our society more than people give it credit for having,'' Southern Conference commissioner Alfred White said. ``There were a lot of industries in the state going on with business as usual. That wasn't the case with us.''

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People began its boycott Jan. 1 to force the removal of the Confederate flag from atop the Statehouse, where it has flown since 1962. Opponents say the flag represents racism and hatred. Supporters say it honors those who died in the Civil War.

After much debate this legislative session, the Senate and the House agreed to a compromise that removes the flag from the dome and puts a similar flag at the Confederate Soldier Monument on Statehouse grounds. The NAACP has rejected the compromise because the new flag will fly at one of the capital city's busiest intersections.

White's league and its season-ending basketball tournament in Greenville's Bi-Lo Center were among the first events in the boycott's cross-hairs in mid-January.

NAACP leaders asked the conference to move the events. White and conference leaders agreed to look elsewhere in 2001, when the tournament also is scheduled for Greenville — if the flag still flew.

The USATF, the marathon's governing body, considered moving the Olympic trials, which also were held in Columbia in 1996, but chose instead to ``urge the South Carolina Legislature to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse as soon as possible.''

Runners wore protest ribbons and spoke against the flag.

``I'd like to think that because people like to have things like Olympic trials take place in our state, we did have some influence,'' Pate said. ``Clearly, there was an impact on the state's image. There was considerable embarrassment. It was everywhere.''

Holtz, who stood with Hodges when he announced his compromise plan in February, said he had to deal with the issue when recruiting players. The Gamecocks' Eddie Fogler supported a National Association of Basketball Coaches' call to move the NCAA tournament from the Bi-Lo Center in 2002 unless things changed.

Some coaches, like Wofford's Richard Johnson, were uncomfortable mixing politics and sports. ``I'm just a basketball coach,'' Johnson said. ``Why should anyone want to listen to me?''

But many others made their views known:

— The Knicks canceled a pre-playoff camp annually held at the College of Charleston.

— The NCAA said it would not award championships or tournaments to state schools unless the flag came off the Statehouse.

— Williams, the U.S. Open champion and the first black woman in more than 40 years to win a Grand Slam tennis event, withdrew from the Family Circle Cup at Hilton Head Island because of the flag.

``Here's one instance where major sports leagues and organizations really did something right,'' Wofford history professor Phil Racine said. ``They made a decision based on conscience and it made a difference.''

Pate worries about the speed of the legislative solution.

The NAACP says it will continue its sanctions, including those aimed at sports events and figures. Dwight James, executive director of the South Carolina Conference of NAACP Branches, said officials will keep talking to the NCAA and other organizations about the boycott.

``I think they understand the feelings on this issue, how deeply it hurts us that the flag remains in such a prominent location,'' he said.

Benedict College canceled its football game with South Carolina State, a major rivalry, when Bulldogs' administrators would not agree to move the game out of state.

The Southern Conference leadership in November was the first to ask lawmakers to remove the Confederate flag. The league also said it would not award championships to its South Carolina members — Citadel, College of Charleston, Furman and Wofford — without change.

Now the Southern Conference has given its men's and women's soccer playoffs to Charleston's Patriots Point and extended its contract with Joseph P. Riley Field in Charleston through 2004.

White said things ``are better off today than when this whole exercise started. The people of South Carolina are headed in the right direction.''

NCAA members at first received angry e-mails about their position on the flag, but those have calmed considerably, NCAA spokeswoman Jane Jankowski said.