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Mississippi State coach Nikki McCray-Penson on flag: ‘It was time for change’

Bulldogs first-year women’s basketball coach explains the significance of the state flag’s removal, in her own words

The month of June was a roller coaster for first-year Mississippi State women’s basketball coach Nikki McCray-Penson.

On June 19, the NCAA banned states with prominent Confederate flag symbols from hosting postseason tournaments. On June 25, McCray-Penson stood on the steps of the state Capitol calling for the removal of the state flag, which had flown with a Confederate symbol for more than a century. Two days later, the governor of Mississippi, Tate Reeves, signed a bill into law to remove the flag.

In her own words, McCray-Penson explains the significance of the flag’s removal and her experience with the Confederate symbol.

126 years. That’s how long the flag had flown.

I was actually in my car driving when we got the official word that the Mississippi governor had signed the law to ban the flag. I was just so thankful.

The decision to ban the flag says, in this particular time, ‘We’re moving forward. Progress is being made.’

Most people don’t remember that five years ago, the Confederate flag that was flown at South Carolina’s Statehouse was removed. When I was an assistant coach to Dawn Staley at the University of South Carolina, I saw the Confederate symbol quite a bit. I saw how hard at times it was to recruit.

Other schools say, ‘Why do you want to go to a school where it’s not equal, it’s not representing unity?’ It’s those things that you have to constantly tackle.

I came to Mississippi State because I knew we could be successful. To kind of relive it again, it’s like, ‘OK, we need to change this because it’s the right thing to do.’

When the SEC and NCAA came out with their statements, and then you had student-athletes speaking up, especially with everything that is going on still today in our country, it was time for change.

We had a microscope on us.

The opportunity for me to be at the state Capitol on June 25 came from athletic director John Cohen. He called me and said that he wanted us to present a united front, along with the other universities going to the state Capitol, to talk about removing the flag. Without hesitation, our athletics department went down there.

There were only three people that spoke that day: Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives Philip Gunn, Ole Miss men’s basketball coach Kermit Davis and me — the only African American and woman to speak. It was such a powerful moment, a historical moment.

I was nervous before I started speaking, because of the moment and the intensity of knowing that a decision was going to be made soon after. I didn’t want to get too emotional, I just wanted to make sure I spoke from my heart and said what needed to be said in a way that those that were going to make the decision knew how it affected me, our student-athletes, the economy, all of it. And what the flag represents when you look at it. In my speech, I referenced how, for me, the flag has always represented a ‘symbol of hatred.’

To be a woman of color, and stand up there and speak in that moment, representing MSU and our student-athletes, that’s where the pride comes from. It was never about me, ever. It’s about the movement.

In the wake of the social justice movement that has spread across the country, I’ve had a gamut of emotions. These injustices have been happening. With the recent events of George Floyd, the 8:46. To watch it, that was hard.

I’m a mom, I’m a leader, I have a Black husband, I have a Black son. I’m fearful. To this day.

I don’t want to live in fear. I don’t think every cop that you see is bad. But, at the same time, I am on edge. We don’t travel at night. Those are just facts right now because that’s a comfort. When a cop pulls up behind us, it makes me nervous, and I shouldn’t feel that way. But with everything that’s going on, I do think this is a time where we’re able to express ourselves positively to seek change. I think our players, our young adults, are seeing this. I just don’t want this cycle to continue to happen.

What do we have to have in place to where this is a movement moving forward so that my son doesn’t have to go through this? We need a change — to get things to a place where we’re not seeing this. I want to be a part of change.

I had great conversations with my players individually to be able to be a sounding board for them to express themselves. I expressed my feelings and I think that was the start. It’s been a challenge. I’m having to do this through Zoom, and I’m in my first season. I think the biggest thing for me is to listen and to let them know I understand these emotions because I’m feeling that too.

We’re putting things in place to where we can continue to educate everybody. Our student-athletes have a platform where they are putting together changes that they would like to see. They meet about that all the time. I have some things in place, as well, that we’re going to do with our team. It’s important that we continue to educate and create positive change.

Whenever we get our next opportunity to host a postseason event, I’m going to feel a lot of emotions. It’s something I’ll be very proud of for our players because they put us in a position to do that. They deserve it. They put in the work.

Mississippi State women’s basketball is a brand. Our program has been to back-to-back Final Fours, been in the NCAA tournament the last five years. We’ve been able to host the last four years, right here in Starkville.

Any time you can host — first and second rounds — right here on your own home floor, it’s a proud moment. We’ll be competing knowing it was up to us to be able to host and it wasn’t because of the flag.

We’ve been able to keep our home-court advantage.