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AP photo by Michael Woods / Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill avoids Arkansas defender Andrew Parker on Nov. 2, 2019, in Fayetteville, Ark.

For as long as I've been an adult, for more than 40 years now, it seems that somebody or some group has been threatening the state of Mississippi with one thing or another if it didn't remove the Confederate battle emblem from its state flag.

And for more than 40 years, the Magnolia State has stubbornly fought off those challenges, much to its economic chagrin in some cases and an avalanche of national ridicule and condemnation in others.

But as soon as Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill, who's pretty good at his craft, went on social media eight days ago to declare that he would not take the field for the Bulldogs this fall unless the Confederate battle emblem was removed, that 160-year symbol of hate, slavery and oppression — at least to the vast majority of Americans, though not necessarily most Mississippians — was done, swiftly voted out by the state's lawmakers on Sunday.

It's not quite that simple, of course. Both the Southeastern Conference and the NCAA had previously declared they would hold no more championship events in the state until the flag was changed.

The NCAA had long ago taken away pre-scheduled events such as men's basketball regionals or national championship events in 2001. But this latest boycott was to have included, among others, baseball and softball regionals, which aren't often assigned until a few weeks before they're staged in order to reward those schools who are having championship-caliber seasons.

How important have those been to Mississippi in years past? Consider that Mississippi State and Ole Miss have combined to host nine baseball regionals or super regionals since 2016. According to Sports Illustrated, Ole Miss has grossed about $200,000 in each of its last two home regionals. Economic experts estimated each of those communities — Oxford for Ole Miss, Starkville for State — netted around $3 million each for each of those events.

As Phillip Gunn, the state's speaker of the house, told SI: "Many people don't care what the NCAA thinks, but it's not just about sports. It's about business. It's not just about playing a game — it's about economics and image."

And that's true. But those factors, economics and image, have been front and center since at least 2001, when a referendum to change the flag failed in a statewide vote, which led to the NCAA's first boycott.

Yes, these are different economic times. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, turning your back on millions of dollars to support a massively divisive symbol seems even less defensible than before, if such a thing be possible.

But to return to State's Hill, if you don't think the balance of power between athletes and those previously viewed as having authority over them has undergone a seismic shift in recent weeks, you haven't been paying attention.

Whether it be Florida parting ways with the Gator Bait chant, the Texas Longhorns strongly considering banning "The Eyes of Texas," or the University of Georgia band no longer performing "Tara's Theme" from "Gone With The Wind," athletes' voices are not just being heard, but acted upon.

The assassination of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963, couldn't bring down that flag. Nor the Birmingham, Alabama, church bombings that same year. Nor the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Nor the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King three years later in Memphis.

But given the prospect of star athletes fleeing its SEC campuses, the state's politicians suddenly saw the light.

Or as Gunn also told SI: "You know this has to impact recruiting. I talked to two Mississippi football players last week from Texas, and during their recruiting, the Texas schools used that: 'Don't go over there because of the flag.' That's going to just increase."

But what also increases is the responsibility of athletes to use this newfound power wisely. Most everybody will celebrate any action that hastens an end to systemic racism. But what if this shifts to how many wind sprints they're required to run? Or the school's uniform design? Or how many courses they're required to pass to graduate?

Not much was made of this because Oklahoma State football coach "Mullet Mike" Gundy is a tough guy to embrace, but Cowboys running back Chuba Hubbard — a certain Heisman Trophy contender — going to social media with a threat to not play until something was done about Gundy wearing a T-shirt promoting right-wing news organization One America Network certainly bordered on going too far.

Yes, OAN is offensive to many, and Gundy would be wise to pay closer attention to those organizations his T-shirts trumpet. But Hubbard threatening not to play before he'd personally spoken to Gundy was also wrong, not to mention possibly turning a lot of fans who might help him later on against him.

How, for instance, would Hubbard's supporters have reacted if Gundy had called him out on social media for wearing an AOC (ultra-liberal U.S. House Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York) T-shirt before privately talking to him? Exactly.

"Power is not revealed by striking hard or often, but by striking true," wrote French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac more than 175 years ago.

Regarding the power to redesign the Mississippi state flag, Kylin Hill and his fellow athletes struck true. Now they must resist the urge to strike hard and often for far less noble causes.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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