UK Needs to Acknowledge Racist Past to Erase the Stigma of 1966

By Off the BASN Sports Wire By Alan Aja
Updated: January 24, 2006

KENTUCKY—In the spring of 1997, while serving as the student representative on UK’s Board of Trustees, I rode an elevator to the top of Patterson Office Tower to a private meeting amid buzzing and whispers that usually coincide with rumors. UK had just lost Rick Pitino to the NBA, and the replacement would be an African-American man from the University of Georgia named Tubby Smith.

Honored to be a representative on the board during this crucial turning point in UK history, I celebrated Tubby’s blackness. Given UK’s history of blatant and institutionalized racism, from academics to athletics, the institution had taken a turn for the better, so we thought.

However, as I sat among the UK elite, the message conveyed to me was: “let’s downplay the race issue; he’s the best person for the job, period.” That Tubby Smith was the most qualified person for the position went without saying, but what Smith overcame to achieve such an esteemed position of leadership is a telling feat itself, especially in a national collegiate athletic system led, dominated and mostly consumed by whites (while unabashedly exploiting young people of color).

I recall a well-intentioned trustee conveying the message that we were color-blind at UK, which I found hard to swallow as I looked around at the overwhelmingly all-white male board. Some posed the argument that a black coach’s presence would serve as a role model to minority students, players and local Lexington urban youth whom for so long had seen so few like them in visible leadership positions. In this context, we asked, why can’t “race” matter?

Life chances have brought me to Brooklyn, N.Y., where I finished a graduate degree and teach part-time at a local college. During the college basketball season, I often throw on Kentucky apparel and head to any local pubs or restaurants to watch and yell at the television. I often come across former frat boys who support opposing teams. “Kentucky sucks!” is the usual phrase I hear. “Scoreboard!” I give in and usually repeat if UK has taken a comfortable lead, having learned the chant during the few away games I attended during my collegiate years.

This past weekend, a fellow Kentucky-New York transplant brought to my attention the most recent Kentucky-centered debate. The film “Glory Road” was about to open nationwide, and the issues of race and Kentucky basketball were at the center of discussion once again. The Jan. 13 Kernel shared its views about the film’s depiction of the 1966 NCAA Championship game. In the editorial, the Kernel admitted that coach Adolph Rupp did not hold progressive views toward integration, but then suggested that there is no significant proof he was a racist. Furthermore, the tournament championship was not about race, but instead was just an “underdog’s tale.”

Once again, an institutional body is given a chance to set the record straight, perhaps even apologize on behalf of students for UK’s past mistakes, but instead chose to play the same politics of denial some university officials played when Tubby Smith first came on board. It is true that it could have been any other all-white team losing to Texas Western, and that segregation was widespread and not endemic to UK’s basketball program.

However, this possibility does not absolve UK’s participation in a system of racial apartheid. To suggest that Rupp may not have been a racist but admit that he supported a system that segregates people based on ascriptive traits makes him, by default, a racist!

Today, many of us like to believe that we have socially and economically “progressed” since the boycotts, church meetings, marches and eventual re-distributive policies introduced during and after the civil rights movement. Seeing a few faces of color here and there makes many of us feel that we’ve moved forward, often alleviating any guilt of our actions of the past.

The reality is that we continue to perpetuate and live segregated lives while limiting blacks to roles (such as athletes and entertainers) that won’t interfere with white power and privilege. We’ve rolled back most of the measures needed to even begin full economic and social integration, with affirmative action on its last breath and an immigration policy arguably designed to exploit vulnerable immigrants while adversely impacting the lives of blacks and poor minorities in the job marketplace.

While it is true that past and present minority leaders of various U.S. institutions like Tubby Smith and many others worked their way into their respective positions like anyone else, the racial-ethnic barriers they overcame must not be muzzled and instead be seen as significant parts of their achievements. To be a color-blind nation we must first be color-sighted. Likewise, to argue that the historic moment in College Park, Md., in 1966 was just a game and had little to do with race and segregation is equally representative of American society’s consistent refusal to try and understand the issue of historical and present institutionalized racism altogether. By first admitting to our racist practices rather than indulging in the feel-better politics of denial is one of the foremost steps we must take toward social and economic inclusion.