SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
At the University of Kentucky, a list of demands from Black professors has brought new life to an old debate about the name of the school's basketball arena. Rupp Arena is named for Adolph Rupp, the famous basketball coach who sustained success in the mid-20th century, turned the program into the powerhouse it remains today. But his role in Kentucky's basketball history of segregation has some wondering if his name should be so prominent. NPR's Becky Sullivan has the story.
BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: In 40-plus years of coaching, Adolph Rupp won more than 800 games, four national titles and five Coach of the Year awards. Rupp Arena opened just a few years after he retired in 1972, and the Wildcats have played there ever since.
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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Rupp Arena, a singular college basketball cathedral that packs more than 20,000. And...
SULLIVAN: Then this summer came the letter from the African American & Africana Studies faculty. It outlines the challenges faced by Black students, staff and faculty at the University of Kentucky. And it lists 10 demands, things like requiring that undergrads take a course on race and inequality, appointing more Black faculty to leadership positions and so on. It's the very last demand on that list that has gotten the most attention. Quote, "The university should rename Rupp Arena." Derrick White is a history professor who helped write the letter.
DERRICK WHITE: The most recognizable building on our campus not only to people here but across the country and even across the globe is Rupp Arena. And Rupp, as the most powerful basketball coach in America, only coached one Black player.
SULLIVAN: White says they don't want to erase every mention of Adolph Rupp. But his name, the letter says, has, quote, "come to stand for racism and exclusion." It's a striking ask because Kentucky basketball is so big and because it has no bigger name than Adolph Rupp.
DICK GABRIEL: Rupp was the man who built Kentucky basketball into sort of an iconic program...
SULLIVAN: That's Dick Gabriel, a longtime Kentucky sports broadcaster.
GABRIEL: ...And at the time he retired was the winningest coach in college basketball. But he was and still is criticized for not recruiting African Americans until the last couple of years of his career.
SULLIVAN: Like many sports, college basketball began to integrate in earnest in the years after World War II. Indiana played its first Black player in 1947; Kansas in 1951. Before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, he played basketball at UCLA. And by the 1960s, schools across the country were recruiting and winning titles with Black players.
In the South, segregation held on. But even there, under pressure from the federal government and pressure to win, teams began to integrate in the mid-'60s, including peer schools like Louisville and North Carolina. Gabriel, says Rupp, didn't play his first and only Black player until 1970, in his second-to-last year before retirement.
GABRIEL: Rupp developed a reputation as someone who did not want Black players on his team. Fairly or unfairly, that was the knock on Adolph Rupp.
SULLIVAN: The demand to change the arena's name has a lot of opponents - Kentucky fans and some people who knew Rupp who point out some other facts about him - that he did try to recruit several Black players over the course of the 1960s, that he asked ushers to remove fans who yelled racial slurs, that he was willing to play against integrated teams when some other Southern schools would not. Those things were highlighted in a documentary about Rupp produced by Dick Gabriel back in 2005.
Gabriel doesn't have an opinion on the name change. But he did say that as a kid growing up in Kentucky, he'd had this idea that Rupp was an avowed racist. But his research showed him it's more complicated than that.
GABRIEL: I had to do a complete 180 on my opinion that Rupp was indeed a segregationist. I came to realize he was not. But that's what makes it so confusing is that he was active in trying to sign Black players. And yet, on the other hand, it's been documented that he had used inappropriate language.
SULLIVAN: It's partly this murky picture of Rupp that has dampened debate in Lexington, a progressive college town that, a few years back, removed two Confederate statues just blocks from the arena. Among students on campus, there isn't a huge clamor to change the name, says Chandler Wilcox, a sophomore who is white. But most of his classmates, he says, are willing to do what he calls listening and learning.
CHANDLER WILCOX: Basically, like, let's do the research. Let's figure out - looking back, is there enough evidence to prove that Adolph Rupp intended on not allowing African Americans in the program? Was he in fact racist? - you know, those kind of questions.
SULLIVAN: For Derrick White, the Black faculty member, he's a historian who studies sports history. He grew up in Kentucky, too. But at the end of the day, he says, in sports, people are judged by results.
WHITE: We don't give them credit for just showing up to the game. Right? We give them credit if they win. And in the case of Rupp, the results are that he had one Black player in 42 years.
SULLIVAN: Since the letter was publicized about a month ago, the conversation on campus has died down, overtaken by worries about reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic and whether the football season will go on. The University of Kentucky has responded in some ways to the 10 demands. The school committed $10 million to studying issues of race and promised to work with the faculty members on other goals for equity and inclusion. But on the Rupp name, no word yet.
Becky Sullivan, NPR News.
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