While my time in South Carolina is drawing short, there are a few comments I’d like to make about how ridiculous this state remains. I first moved to South Carolina in the fall of 2001 to go to college in Greenville. I graduated in 2005 and then moved back to the state, to Columbia, in the summer of 2007. So for most of the past decade I’ve been living in the state. Not much has changed while I’ve been here, except one thing. The state is no longer allowed to host NCAA tournament games of any kind in any sport.
My first year at Furman, the BI-LO Center in Greenville hosted first and second round NCAA tournament basketball. While I didn’t actually go, the city was buzzing with people for a week. This was the spring of 2002. Since that weekend seven years ago, South Carolina has been barred from hosting games because of the Confederate flag that flies on the state house grounds, now just five blocks from where I live. With protests from the NAACP (among many other groups) the flag was removed from flying atop the state house (where it had been since 1962) and placed next to the monument to Confederate soldiers at the intersection of Main Street and Gervais Street in downtown in 2000. As long as that flag flies there (or anywhere) the entire state of South Carolina is barred.
In a purely objective sense, it doesn’t really bother me that the flag is flying. For as many people as there are in this state who detest the flag as a symbol of racism and hatred, there are equal legions of folks who see it as a symbol of cultural heritage and state pride. I am not going to judge either side for their arguments. But there is a very different argument that is especially pertinent this year.
The economy in this country is in shambles. Of the fifty states in this country, only a few are worse off than South Carolina. With unemployment soaring past 10% (and rising), one of the worst public education systems around and a Governor who is trying his best to refuse federal stimulus money (and run for President in 2012), it is just not a good time to have a multi-million dollar influx disappear. Or really, never even be a possibility.
Columbia built the Colonial Life Arena for the University of South Carolina and specifically to host NCAA tournament games in 2002. The 18,000-seat gym is a beautiful structure and a great place to watch a game. It’s in a relatively large city that is easy to reach by interstate (I-26, I-20 and I-77 all meet here) or by plane. The gym is less than a five minute walk to the most interesting and happening part of Columbia, the Vista. But because of the ban, not a single tournament game has ever been played here.
Now think about this: Boise, Dayton, Albuquerque, Greensboro. What do those places have in common with Columbia? They’re all either state capitals or middle-sized cities without professional sports. What doesn’t Columbia have in common with them? Columbia is never, ever mentioned 200 times per day for the first four days of the NCAA tournament. In a state with 10% unemployment, wouldn’t a vast need for at least part-time work for parking attendants, hotel workers, waiters and bar tenders, concession stand workers, ushers, arena cleaning and myriad other opportunities for work be exactly what could help people in this area? Those aren’t glamor jobs but the need for work around here is palpable.
The point of all this is just to say that this state is wasting an easy opportunity to bring millions of dollars into the economy on a near-yearly basis just to fly a small, square flag that happens to have stars and bars. There isn’t much that can be done about Mark Sanford at this point except to wait out his term, but in a state whose largest source of financial strength is in tourism (golf mostly, and Charleston/Myrtle Beach/Hilton Head), why not add to that pot? It’s a shame to have such a great arena sitting empty each and every March in a city that really could use the business.