Gordon Monson: Sports are playing an important role in calling for and making significant change

NBA basketball player Russell Westbrook joins demonstrators Sunday June, 7, 2020 in Compton, Calif., during a protest over the death of George Floyd who died May 25 after he was restrained by Minneapolis police. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

As sports begin to pick up again, they pick up alongside a newfound emphasis and responsibility to move toward the goal of erasing social injustice and embracing racial equality.

It’s a great goal, one that blows past touchdowns and 3-pointers and home runs, requiring a whole lot of embracing and erasing.

Sports can’t change the world on their own, but the high-profile nature of and the heavy interest in some of them make their sphere of influence notable, running the gamut in possible actions taken and influence spread from small to big. Every contribution helps.

The SEC the other day pushed back against the state of Mississippi’s flag, a banner that prominently holds within its design — the only state flag to do so — the emblem of the Confederate battle flag. That state has had that flag for 126 years. But the SEC, of which Ole Miss and Mississippi State are longtime members, is insisting now that symbol, which is widely viewed around the country as racist and offensive, is inappropriate and unacceptable.

League commissioner Greg Sankey stated on Thursday:

“It is past time for change to be made to the flag of the state of Mississippi. Our students deserve an opportunity to learn and compete in environments that are inclusive and welcoming to all. In the event there is no change, there will be consideration of precluding Southeastern Conference championship events from being conducted in the state of Mississippi until the state flag is changed.”

To which, Mississippi AD John Cohen issued a statement that read as follows:

“We are disappointed that our student-athletes and coaches will potentially be affected by something outside their control. At the same time, we understand and support commissioner Greg Sankey’s stance on the flag of the state of Mississippi. Mississippi State is proud to be among the most diverse universities in the SEC. Alongside our university leadership, we aim to continue our support for changing the state flag, which should unite us, not divide us.”

That message, along with the SEC’s, was backed not just by Ole Miss athletic director Keith Carter, but by the school’s chancellor Glenn Boyce, who also called for change, noting that the university hasn’t flown the state flag over its campus since 2015:

“The University of Mississippi community concluded years ago that the Confederate battle flag did not represent many of our core values, such as civility and respect for others … Mississippi needs a flag that represents the qualities about our state that unite us, not those that still divide us. We support the SEC’s decision …”

Conference USA, of which Southern Miss is a member, applauded and agreed with the move, calling for its own review.

For some, the Confederate emblem is a nod to Mississippi’s history and tradition, but for so many others — Mississippi has the highest percentage of black Americans — it is a symbol of racism and hate.

A symbol of what must change.

NASCAR, in a simple attempt to take the race out of racism, or the racism out of racing, already has banned use of the Confederate battle flag at its events.

Other movements within sports include the University of Florida discontinuing its “Gator Bait” cheer at football and basketball games. According to school president Kent Fuchs, the discontinuation is one small part of a bigger plan across the university to make strong moves against inequality and racism.

“… There is horrific historic racist imagery associated with the phrase,” Fuchs said in his announcement that the cheer will no longer be used.

He properly added: “We know that we cannot undo lifetimes of injustice and racism, but we believe we can make progress — in education, in advancing truth, reconciliation and justice, and in anti-racism … working to eradicate inequities.”

Athletes and coaches across many sports at the college and professional levels, from Gregg Popovich to LeBron James to Brian Flores to Mark Stoops, also are speaking out, some joining protest marches, calling for a new way.

At Kentucky, Stoops, wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt at a rally, told his players: “We’re not going to tolerate any more racism … we want to make a difference and be a part of the solution. … Everybody needs to get off the bench and make a difference.”

Half of Auburn’s football team, as well as coach Gus Malzahn, recently participated in a rally at Toomer’s Corner for racial equality.

The NBA and its players have committed to keeping the Black Lives Matter message in mind and in front of television cameras as the league ramps up to restarting its season in its bubble in Orlando in the weeks ahead. They do not want that resumption of play to wash away the significant messages currently being sent.

And hopefully, heard and acted upon moving forward.

Sports, while in most cases a business and entertainment, a respite from other concerns, a way to take people’s minds off outside troubles, can and will play an important role in small gestures and big actions helping issues of equality and justice stay right where they should be, where they should remain.

At the forefront of American life.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.