Should UK rename Rupp Arena?



Sarah Michels

Several UK faculty have prompted a social media debate after calling for the renaming of Rupp Arena and other campus buildings some say are named after enslavers, Confederate sympathizers and white supremacists.  

On Thursday, the faculty of the African-American and Africana Studies (AAAS) program sent a letter to President Eli Capilouto with 10 steps to take concerning racial inequity on campus. They wrote that while they acknowledge UK’s diversity efforts in the past months, the actions they are suggesting would allow the university to address deeper, structural change that would have a lasting impact. 

One change the letter pushed for is the renaming of Rupp Arena in light of the late Adolph Rupp’s perceived racist history. 

The letter points to former Kentucky basketball coach Rupp as being a symbol of the systemic racism part of college sports in the 1960s. 

“The rebuilding of the arena and the convention center offer an opportunity to change the name to a far more inclusive one, such as Wildcat Arena,” the letter reads. 

Several publications have attempted to determine whether Rupp was racist or misunderstood. According to them, his track record is mixed. Documentaries, films and articles tell different versions of Rupp’s allegedly racist speech and actions. 

Those opposed to changing Rupp Arena’s name have questioned the validity and strength of evidence against Rupp. Others have asked whether UK has the authority to rename the arena. Some have suggested that Rupp is merely the latest victim of “cancel culture.” 

What evidence is there that Rupp was racist? 

Rupp did not recruit any Black players until his 40th year of coaching, in 1970, when Tom Payne joined the Kentucky team, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. When pressed about it by former Kentucky player Reggie Warford and others, Rupp claimed he hadn’t recruited Black players because he hadn’t needed to—with the talent level of his all-white team, the thought simply hadn’t occurred to him. Even when he began recruiting Black players, they felt he did it reluctantly. 

Rupp’s all-white team received a national spotlight during the championship game of the 1966 NCAA tournament. In what would be later known as a watershed moment, Kentucky’s all-white starting lineup lost to Texas Western’s all-Black starting lineup, the first to win a NCAA victory.  

While at the time, most publications didn’t mention race in their coverage of the game, in the decades since, that aspect of the game has gained great significance. The year after Kentucky’s loss, the Southeastern Conference began recruiting more Black basketball players, the last conference to fully adopt this strategy, according to the Washington Post

The game, which took place at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, has been labeled “the Brown vs. Education game” and the “Emancipation Proclamation of 1966” by sportswriter David Israel and former Kentucky player Pat Riley, respectively. Riley started for UK during the championship match.  

There are several other second-hand accounts alleging Rupp’s racist behavior, but his delay in recruiting Black players is perhaps the most damning. There is also evidence that seemingly points to Rupp as a champion for racial equality, as UK sportscaster Dick Gabriel has reported, including that he had been pushing for the recruitment of Black players, but was blocked by the SEC. 

The faculty who wrote the letter and others in favor of the name change questions whether this is enough. Did Rupp actively fight against racism? 

“The Adolph Rupp name has come to stand for racism and exclusion in UK athletics and alienates Black students, fans, and attendees,” the letter said. 

Being actively anti-racist may seem like an overly high expectation for a basketball coach in the 1960s, but maybe if we started setting higher expectations for our public figures, we wouldn’t still be dealing with the centuries-old issue of racism. 

Sure, if Rupp had been actively anti-racist by using his power to recruit more Black players throughout his career, despite what the SEC culture was at the time, racism wouldn’t have disappeared off the face of the planet. But with a platform as large as Rupp’s, it could have made a difference. 

Why now? Nobody had an issue with the arena name before. 

There is power in numbers, in movements, to raise issues that haven’t been addressed before. Without the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s likely no one would have called for the change in the arena’s name because they assumed the idea had no traction. The idea wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without a movement behind it. That doesn’t mean the name wasn’t an issue or hasn’t always made Black fans, players and visitors to the arena feel unwelcome. 

Does UK have the authority to change the name? Doesn’t the city own Rupp Arena? 

UK spokesperson Jay Blanton said he would not speculate on what the renaming process would involve, so it remains unclear who does and doesn’t have naming authority. However, if there’s anything we’ve learned in the past few months, it’s that when enough powerful people call for a change, change happens. Even if UK technically doesn’t have the authority, I am confident that if they called for a name change, the city would gladly comply. 

Is Rupp just a victim of today’s “cancel culture”? 

“Cancel culture” is a recent phenomenon in which public figures are called out for their past or current actions, including those that are racist. 

When these figures are “cancelled,” they often experience a loss of support from their audience or fans in some form. While “cancel culture” has gotten a bad reputation recently, it can be a good thing. 

Holding prominent figures accountable, forcing them to reexamine their words, actions and intentions, allows both them and their audience to learn and grow from their mistakes rather than hide from them. We should grow and learn from the mistakes of those who preceded us, not remain stuck in the past.

How can we, as a society, improve in regard to race relations, if we idolize historical figures who allegedly did and said racist things? How is immortalizing their names going to move us forward?  

Why judge people from the past based on today’s standards? 

Is it okay to be racist in an environment where everyone is racist? It’s very possible that Rupp wasn’t as racist or as heroic as some believe he was—most people are somewhere in between. Rupp was a human being with both flaws and strengths, and while his allegedly racist actions weren’t societally denounced in his time, that doesn’t mean we should accept them now. By glorifying Rupp’s likeness, we are condoning the racist connotations that come with his name. 

When it comes down to it, Rupp Arena is just a building, and Rupp is just a name. If the Black community is saying it makes them feel uncomfortable or unwelcome, who are we to tell them they’re wrong? 

How can we idolize and profit off of the talent of Kentucky’s many Black basketball players while simultaneously refusing to make even the tiniest sacrifices to further their equality? How can we support them on the court but not off it? 

It’s going to be hard to let go of Rupp Arena’s name; maybe the sacrifice is part of the point. If changing the name is one of the steps UK has to take to prove to its Black community that its commitment to racial equality is real, not a temporary, superficial publicity stunt, then they should change it.