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  • "Doing Just What the Others Were Doing":The University of Kentucky Wildcats and the Debate over Commercialized College Athletics, 1946–1954

University administrators, professors, coaches, sportswriters, boosters, fans, and athletes have debated amateurism in college athletics since the end of the nineteenth century. These debates came to a head following World War II, as interested parties discussed eligibility rules and the increasing "commercialism" of college athletics. In the midcentury, complaints about commercialism typically came when players were paid or universities accepted large sums of money for playing certain games, especially in the postseason, both of which ran against the ideal of amateurism. Of course, the ideal of amateurism—as defined by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and university administrators—has changed over time. After the war, "reform-minded educators and the NCAA attempted to eliminate the widespread illegal subsidies and academic manipulations practiced at member schools by establishing uniform national standards," historian Charles Martin has noted.1 The advocates of amateurism, especially university administrators at midwestern and northeastern institutions, won a major victory in 1948 when the NCAA instituted new rules regarding amateurism. The new Sanity Code, as it was called, was [End Page 525] hotly debated and ultimately lasted only a few years.

While some universities, particularly private institutions such as the University of Chicago, the University of the South (Sewanee), and the Ivy League schools, decided to de-emphasize athletics, many other universities made the decision to emphasize athletics, especially as a way to generate revenue and build a national reputation.2 Some universities, especially in the South, fought against the new Sanity Code and ignored its rules, and many players desired to be paid for their work on the field or the court. In the 1940s and 1950s, as the University of Kentucky (UK) basketball and football programs rose to national prominence, the university and its players flouted the rules about "illegal" inducements and remuneration. The actions of UK players, especially on the basketball team, demonstrate clearly that many of them thought they should be paid for their work. UK administrators, coaches, and boosters agreed, not necessarily out of solidarity with their student-athletes but in order to win more games. Although the NCAA and most university administrators today oppose paying their "student-athletes" anything more than scholarships and living expenses as defined by the association, for a brief period following World War II at least some university administrators and coaches, including those at UK, were strong advocates of altering the amateur code.

Few college athletics programs endured more turbulence during the immediate postwar years than the University of Kentucky. Between 1946 and 1954, the Wildcats experienced the highest of highs and weathered the lowest of lows, making the period among the most successful and most penalized that any program has ever experienced. In this nine-year stretch, the program's basketball team won one National Invitation Tournament (NIT), three NCAA championships, an Olympic gold medal, an Associated Press end-of-season number-one ranking (outside of its NIT and NCAA championships), and eight Southeastern Conference (SEC) championships. However, it served a one-year suspension for a gambling scandal involving three [End Page 526] All-Americans and two other starters and dealt with NCAA and SEC investigations on player eligibility. In addition, the Wildcat football team had unprecedented success while also testing NCAA eligibility policies and skirting rules about paying players. Like their counterparts at many other research institutions, university administrators and coaches at UK often joined with boosters and alumni in pushing the limits of NCAA regulations so that their school's athletic teams could succeed on the field and the court, thereby boosting the image of the university and, they hoped, increasing the bottom line.

Two prominent figures in UK athletics at the time, the notoriously outspoken basketball coach Adolph Rupp and a rising star football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, add another complicated layer to this turbulent period. Rupp, a native Kansan born to German immigrants, played basketball for the game's founder, Dr. James Naismith, and his successor, the legendary coach Dr. Forrest "Phog" Allen, at the University of Kansas. Rupp came east to begin his coaching career in Lexington...


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