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UK community grapples with Rupp name and legacy

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Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. Nov. 1975. CLAY LANCASTER KENTUCKY ARCHITECTURAL PHOTOGRAPHS

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Kentucky plays a basketball game on Monday, May 2, 1977 at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo from UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY GENERAL PHOTOGRAPHIC PRINTS

On July 23, 2020, the faculty of UK’s African American and Africana Studies (AAAS) program wrote a letter to president Eli Capilouto calling for actions to be taken that “would have an immediate impact on racial equity” and “demonstrate that Black lives truly do matter at the University of Kentucky.”

The majority of the items were non-controversial, barely garnering attention from those outside of Lexington and the surrounding areas. But one of the requests snagged headlines all over the nation: renaming Rupp Arena.

“The Adolph Rupp name has come to stand for racism and exclusion in UK athletics and alienates Black students, fans, and attendees,” the letter read. “The rebuilding of the arena and the convention center offer an opportunity to change the name to a far more inclusive one.”

The character of Kentucky men’s basketball’s all-time winningest head coach has repeatedly been brought into question. As UK’s most celebrated coach, he has his share of both hard-hitting critics and staunch defenders.

Some of the most opinionated voices on the issue have not been recent attendees or employees of UK. As those most directly affected by the policies and decisions of Capilouto and others, the student perspective is perhaps the most important to consider on the topic - and they agree that Rupp is more than just a name.

No matter the stance on renaming, those who hail from the Commonwealth agree the word “Rupp” holds a certain lore in Wildcat society.

“It’s a cultural thing,” senior business communication major John Cole said. “It is more than just a name to students, faculty and staff.”

But does that mean everyone thinks of the same characteristics when it comes to mind? Certainly not.

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Portrait of Adolph Rupp. RUSSELL RICE COLLECTION ON UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY SPORTS

Cole and plenty of others associate Rupp with the “pride” of championship glory. But there is a large contingent that sees it as a symbol of an old guard; one that may have been tolerable back in Rupp’s heyday, but certainly isn’t so in the modern age.

“The name holds racism,” said senior journalism major Neha Yousuf. “If UK truly believes in equality and inclusivity, especially for its Black students and athletes, then I hope they would change it.”

What has caused this apparent divide amongst the Wildcat population? It’s possible this specific issue is simply black and white.

“I don’t think white students are aware of the scale of racism or hate that goes on,” Yousuf said. “It just doesn’t pertain to them directly, and often times they don’t put themselves around people who have to face it.”

For the Black students on campus, the story is different.

“I'm very familiar with the ways, and particularly the ways in which the black community in Lexington has traditionally viewed Adolph Rupp,” UK associate professor of History, African and African American studies Derrick White said. “That trickles into the ways in which the Black community and black students who grew up in this town in particular [and] across the state imagine their experience at the University of Kentucky.”

White said people have to remember the context of the era Rupp participated. This is typically something the longtime coach’s defenders point to in their arguments, but White goes down a different path.

“Adolph Rupp was the leading and most powerful coach in college sports… there are very few coaches, in fact, there are literally no coaches who had the kind of a power that coach Rupp had,” he said. “[With] the support from both the governor and the state for integration at this time, there was no better positioned coach to break the color blind in the Southeastern Conference.”

But Rupp dragged his feet, White said, not putting forth his strongest effort to recruit Black players and provoking a student protest on the matter.

“If you're the most powerful college basketball coach in America, and you are not moved by this civil rights movement… if you're not actively trying to be part of what we would say now, ‘on the right side of history’, then you are not using your power and position to really facilitate change in terms of race relations and integration,” White said.

Rupp signed his first African American player, Tom Payne in 1969, six years after UK desegregated its other sports. Most of the other basketball programs in the state, Division 1 or not, had integrated a full two years earlier by 1967. Louisville had “accomplished the feat” by enrolling three players in 1962, including Wade Houston, who later became the SEC’s first African American head coach when he took the job in Knoxville in 1989.

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Payne, Tom, first African American basketball player at University of Kentucky. He signed in 1969 to play for Coach Adolph Rupp. PORTRAIT PRINT COLLECTION (UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY) 

As Washington notes, the only Black recruits Rupp attempted to secure were the biggest available. Rupp didn’t directly meet with Unseld or Perry Wallace, who broke the SEC men’s basketball color barrier with Vanderbilt in 1967, during their recruiting processes. At the same time, there were countless white players who received offers that were not as highly regarded as some of Kentucky’s own African American prospects.

“The history doesn't suggest that that was done in good faith,” White said. “It was done more of a way of saying, ‘look’ to the president and others, ‘I tried, but I didn't really try that hard.’” Kentucky’s eventual integration happened in spite of Rupp, White believes.

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Tom Payne, his parents, Joe B. Hall and Adolph Rupp. June 9, 1969. RUSSELL RICE COLLECTION ON UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY SPORTS 

Critics might say White’s statements color Rupp as an inactive participant in a changing society. They’d add that while he may not have been the most vocal advocate for African American players, he did recruit the period’s high-profile African American names, such as Wes Unseld and Butch Beard, but was unable to land them.

The Undefeated’s Jesse Washington spoke on this fact and more in his own piece on the “Man in the Brown Suit”, including how Rupp “helped Black high school star Jim Tucker get a scholarship to Duquesne in 1951… coached a Black player in high school in Illinois in 1929, helped place Don Barksdale on the U.S. Olympic team in 1948 and sought advice on integration from then-Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, who broke baseball’s color line with Jackie Robinson.”

Were these few incidents enough to balance the scales? White doesn’t think so.

“Former white players on these almost all white teams, they're like ‘oh, he wasn't racist,’” he said. “[But] there's a lot of evidence that moves a different way when you talk to other elite players from the 1960s.”

Records also note many instances of Rupp using derogatory language. In his book Adolph Rupp: As I Knew Him, former assistant coach Harry Lancaster recounts a story where Rupp, after the infamous 1966 NCAA Championship loss to Texas Western told him, “Harry, that son of a b---- (UK president John Oswald) is ordering me to get some n-----s in here. What am I going to do?” Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford, who was in the locker room when Kentucky trailed the all-black starting five his opponent brought, reported Rupp saying “You’ve got to beat those coons” to his players at halftime. Nevil Shed, the tallest man on the Miner roster, stated Rupp didn’t shake any Texas Western player’s hand at the game’s conclusion and gave them no credit for their victory.

Anecdotes like these give a lot of credence to those who say the man who upon his retirement was the winningest college coach of all-time was not the man most Wildcat fans choose to see.

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Adolph Rupp and Harry Lancaster. RUSSELL RICE COLLECTION ON UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY SPORTS

Rupp’s alleged or proven racism aside, UK’s legacy of hostility towards Black athletes and students had a real effect on the university and its athletic programs.

“One of the reasons [UK] struggles with this recruitment is that there’s this kind of legacy… [a] legacy of being hostile to black students,” White said. “I'm the Lexington native, had plenty of opportunities to come to the University of Kentucky... I didn’t even apply.”

White studies the intersection of race and sports. For him, the conversation about changing the name of Rupp Arena hints at a key conflict of the university - its reliance on Black athletes to promote and make money for a predominantly white institution.

“We really want them to ‘shut up and dribble,’ right, and so they cannot raise claims about the very places, under the very banners that they have to play under 15 or 20 times every season,” White said of fans’ approach to majority Black basketball players.

Current UK forward Keion Brooks Jr. witnessed that contradiction in August of 2020, when his statement that he supported a Rupp Arena name change was met with harsh backlash from fans.

The team’s attempts to stand up for racial injustice have met with similar vehemence, including legislative retaliation from a Kentucky county after the team kneeled for the national anthem.

“They have the right to use this platform to challenge things because one of the things I think they are very aware of is that it’s not like being a University of Kentucky athlete will not stop them from police harassment,” White said. “It will not stop them or their friends from being possibly killed under these terrible pretenses.”

The university has in recent years drawn criticism from its Black students for its lack of support for minority initiatives and recruitment. Though Lexington’s Black and African American population is 14.6% of the city as of 2019, Black students accounted for less than 7% of UK’s student population this year. Rupp’s legacy was also affected by his reluctance to recruit Black athletes.

“[Under Rupp], they did not ever get back to the Final Four after 1966. One could make the claim that one of the reasons is because they had no ability to recruit the elite pro talent that was African American coming through the state of Kentucky,” White said. “That went other places, and starred at other institutions. It took Joe B. Hall, really, to change tide back in the favor of the University of Kentucky.”

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Fans in the student section celebrate during the game against Louisville on Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky won 78-70 in overtime. Staff file photo.

With that kind of influence, perhaps the arena should be renamed after Hall. AAAS faculty also suggested “Wildcat Arena” as a potential moniker. But raising the idea of a change and seeing that change implemented are wildly different prospects.

UK’s athletic director Mitch Barnhart already said at a press conference that Rupp Arena’s name could not be changed because it “sets apart” the team. Public opposition to the idea is also powerful.

“Fans are just fans,” White said. “They don't like change. They think that, based on the politics of this state, they see any of these kinds of claims as challenging.”

Onlookers’ inability to see racism as a spectrum prevents them from acknowledging accusations against Rupp, White believes.

“We have to move beyond this clownish caricature of racism… we imagine that the only people that can be racist are Klansmen,” White said. “Anybody who's looked at this knows there's a tremendous amount of fluidity and actions that are contradictory, yet still maintain is the institution of racism.”

Historically, Kentucky has been a slow mover in these sorts of moments. UK was the last Division I program to integrate its basketball team. Current students have sponsored a number of protests in recent years and feel that their input is not received.

“Black voices on UK’s campus are notably hushed,” Yousuf said. But UK is not the only campus grappling with its history.

In the last few years, universities across the country have been forced to confront their racist legacies. Protests by UNC- Chapel Hill students led to the tumbling – and eventual removal – of its iconic “Silent Sam” monument in August of 2018. The University of Texas-Austin is in an ongoing battle over the “Eyes of Texas,” the school’s historic song that some band members refused to play in 2020 due to derogatory origins.

White said reckonings like these are a question of who holds the power on university campuses.

Some schools, like the University of Maryland, have even voted to change their stadium names when the existing name was tied to a former president who “opposed admitting Black students.”

These instances demonstrate both a campus-wide discussion of what equality means and follow-through on reparative actions, which White says Kentucky has to do to be a fully inclusive educational academy.

“If we're going to be a flagship institution, we have to take on these hard conversations head on,” White said. “We can't just that they don't exist and that they're not meaningful.”

White said he and other faculty have offered to work with athletics on racial justice trainings.

The muffling of Black voices that Yousuf alluded to is not the only factor working against minority students; they also make up a small percentage of the student body. While the percentage of fall enrollees that were African American hovered between 6.5% and 6.9% in the 2010s, White says UK has historically been viewed as a place with malevolence toward its African American population.

“One of the things that this country really struggles with is an inability to acknowledge and face its past… generations [of] black folks in the state really didn't root for the University of Kentucky,” White said. “No one's stopping [UK] from keeping a relationship… to [properly] hold on to this relationship, they have to acknowledge… Rupp did not give people a welcoming sign they were going to be protected and wanted at the University of Kentucky.”

Some current students say they don’t feel welcome either - even when it’s not about Rupp.

“There are a lot of issues of current racism on campus that need to be addressed,” said communications major Bailey Hurley. “For starters, I don’t think there are enough Black professors to begin with. I’m a senior and I have only had one black professor my entire time being here. My roommate, an education major, has only had one black professor as well.”

Hurley said he feels like student diversity groups on campus do not receive support from the university, and that national politics are highlighting the divide on campus.

“A student was at the Capitol on Jan. 6 during the riots… Kendall Johnson is still at UK after posting videos in the summer asking why the cops didn’t shoot Breonna Taylor’s boyfriend. There are far more serious issues that UK needs to deal with instead of Rupp Arena,” Hurley said.

With COVID-19 and other large scale issues exhausting students’ mental and emotional reserves, some students say renaming Rupp Arena is lower on their priority list than meaningful change in their day to day lives. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter to them.

“Since UK’s population is predominantly white, it would show that those in charge stand for equality and hearing all voices,” Yousuf said. “It’s more than a name change; it’s showing they genuinely care and are accepting of their black and people of color athletes, students and fans.”

And if the university seeks ways to improve its institutional diversity, White brought up that communities have to know their history in order to build upon it.

“It is an important step in having the kind of reconciliation and accountability for the kind of things that happened in the past,” White said. “We can't just sweep it out in the rug, just as we celebrate his 800 plus wins.”