Ole Miss coach Kermit Davis says ‘respect the flag’ remarks not about deterring freedom of speech

Hitting on everything from his Mississippi roots to his ultimate vision for the program, Kermit Davis had a lot to say when he was formally introduced as Ole Miss’ men’s basketball coach Monday at The Pavilion.

One of his comments didn’t come without some controversy.

Describing what the program will look like under his guidance, Davis said Ole Miss will be “relentless, athletic and explosive. A team that you’re going to have to play on and on and on to beat. It’s going to be a team that’s going to be unselfish. We’re going to play fast and smart in transition. We’re going to try to get easy baskets. We’re going to try to play with great body language.”

Davis then added, “We’re going to be a team that respects the flag and the national anthem.”

That line has gone viral given the recent political climate that includes mostly professional athletes kneeling or sitting in protest during the anthem, particularly African-Americans — the demographic that’s largely dealt with oppression and police brutality in America and one that Davis will spend most of his time recruiting to Ole Miss. According to a study released earlier this month by Shaun Harper, executive director of Southern Cal’s Center on Race and Equity, black student-athletes make up 56 percent of basketball teams in Power Five conferences.

Davis came to Ole Miss after a successful 16-year run at Middle Tennessee State, where he emphasized players putting their hands over their heart while standing at attention during the national anthem. Reached by phone Wednesday morning, Davis told The Oxford Eagle he has “total respect” for free speech and that his comment didn’t mean he would try to deter players who may want to protest in some form from doing so.

“Very simply (respecting the flag) was kind of what we were about at Middle Tennessee for 16 years, but our guys will have a platform for freedom of speech and freedom to voice their opinion and choices,” Davis said. “That’s what makes our country great. And that’s all I’m going to say about it.”

Davis is one of the few college coaches to voice any kind of opinion on the hot-button topic. College football teams stay in the locker room during the national anthem while Ole Miss’ men’s basketball team has not had a player take part in any form of protest in the two seasons since former NFL player Colin Kaepernick, then a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, helped spark the Black Lives Matter movement by sitting while the anthem was played during three preseason games in August 2016.

Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork said the school has “an obligation to teach and educate all of our student-athletes in all of our sports. We talk about freedom of expression and we talk about freedom of speech, and none of that will change at all. We’ll continue moving forward doing the same things.”

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