GREENVILLE, S.C. — South Carolina went 15 years without hosting an NCAA championship event because of a controversy involving the flying of the Confederate flag on its statehouse grounds.
It only ended that drought after the flag was finally taken down and North Carolina became embroiled in a political conflict of its own.
This week’s NCAA tournament basketball games at Bon Secours Wellness Arena were originally scheduled to be played in Greensboro, but were moved to Greenville as a direct result of HB2 — North Carolina’s contentious “bathroom bill.”
That’s why it was surprising to see an oversized Confederate flag flying over the parking lot adjacent to the arena as fans began arriving for Sunday’s second round games involving North Carolina, Arkansas, Duke and South Carolina.
The flag was a statement of protest by a group calling itself The South Carolina Secessionist Party, whose members are unhappy that the state bowed to pressure from the NCAA and other groups by taking the flag down in 2015.
“We started a campaign about two months ago to start flagging the state’s major tourist attractions,” said James Bessinger, one of group members staging the protest.
Bessinger said his group’s members are frustrated by South Carolina’s failure to display the Confederate in a state museum as agreed upon in the legislation that led to it being removed from the state house grounds.
“This is our way of putting a little pressure on the legislature,” he said. “If you’re going to hide our flag, we’ll fly it loud and proud in front of everyone who visits your state until you do what you said you were going to do.
“The second part of this is that the NCAA boycotted our state for I think it was 12 years because of the flag. Now that they’ve lifted their boycott, we want to make sure people see it.”
Bessinger and two other men made sure their flags would be visible by standing outside the main entrance to the arena with them. They were eventually told to move by police, because the length of the poles on which their flags were attached were longer than allowed by Greenville city ordinance.
The largest flag, attached to the bed of a pickup truck on the roof of the garage, remained and could be seen by everyone arriving for the games Sunday.
Including those representing the NCAA, which issued a statement about the situation shortly after it came to light.
“The NCAA is proud and excited to host championships in the state of South Carolina once again,” said Dave Gavitt, the NCAA’s senior vice-president of basketball. “We are committed to assuring that our events are safe and accessible to all. No symbols that compromise that commitment will be permitted to be displayed on venue property that the tournament controls. Freedom of speech activities on public property in areas surrounding the arena are managed by the city of Greenville and we are supportive of the city’s efforts.”
From a logistical standpoint, Greenville and event host Furman have done a solid job of hosting their first NCAA tournament since 2002. The arena has been full, the games have gone off without a hitch and the city’s revitalized downtown area has been a popular gathering spot for fans of all the teams involved.
But considering that the NCAA pulled its events out over the Confederate flag once, Sunday’s protest could potentially jeopardize the scheduling of future tournaments here.
That would be just fine with Bessinger and his fellow protesters.
“If they decide not to come back how would I feel?” he said. “I’d be ecstatic. If you’re going to get into the political ring, you better be prepared to face it from all sides. Politics isn’t a monologue. If you don’t want to have a dialogue and not come back, more power to you.”