In July, UK faculty in the African-American and Africana Studies program asked the school to change the name of Rupp Arena, named after Hall of Fame coach Adolph Rupp.
It’s a polarizing topic to say the least, as Rupp coached in an era where the sport was just beginning to allow African-Americans to play. Though Rupp recruited Black players at UK and even coached Black players when he was a high school coach, he didn’t land one at UK until Tom Payne signed to play with the Wildcats in 1969.
Over the years, Rupp has been criticized for not having Black players at UK sooner, as well as racial slurs he used during his coaching career.
Our own Zac Oakes wrote about Rupp’s history and why reasonably taking a side on the matter of if Rupp was a racist and changing the name of Rupp Arena is easier said than done.
Lexington sports broadcaster Dick Gabriel did a great documentary on Rupp back in 2005 titled Adolph Rupp: Myth, Legend and Fact, something everyone should have to watch before forming an opinion on either issue.
Now, ESPN’s The Undefeated took a look at Rupp’s complicated history. It features several instances in which Rupp used racial slurs, including an account of one from former Rupp assistant Harry Lancaster, who later became UK’s athletic director.
After the Texas Western game, Rupp was under heavy pressure from his university president to sign a Black player, even for the end of the bench. Lancaster wrote that Rupp told him, “Harry, that son of a b—- is ordering me to get some n—–s in here. What am I going to do?”
Quotes like that are why people who are calling for Rupp’s name to come off Rupp Arena have a real argument for it, though some will argue that language like that, as awful and unacceptable as it is (and I absolutely cannot emphasize that enough), was more prevalent and acceptable back in the 50s and 60s.
Whatever side you’re on, it is clear that the pressure for UK to change the name of Rupp Arena is growing. Jesse Washington, the author of this piece, thinks that it may actually take former UK players like Anthony Davis and De’Aaron Fox to speak out against Rupp.
So far, no former UK players has publicly spoken out against Rupp. In fact, the piece includes quotes from UK Hall of Famer Pat Riley, who was adamant that Rupp wasn’t a racist.
“There wasn’t any racism in him. There wasn’t,” Riley said in Myth, Legend and Fact. “All there was was a guy who wanted to win, who would take the best players, and I think he was judged on this subject harshly because he was a winner, he was a bigger-than-life character.
“Adolph is totally misrepresented in this whole concept when it comes to being a racist,” Riley said. “He was not. I played for him, I know him.”
The piece also included a quote from Tubby Smith, the program’s first Black head coach, who declined to take a side on the issue.
“We all have a legacy to protect,” Smith said. “But you also want to be able to speak the truth.”
It’s still too early to tell if UK will actually change the name of Rupp Arena, but there’s no question the pressure to do so is growing.