Rally scheduled to pressure UK Athletics to cut ties with coal industry

The University of Kentucky Beyond Coal movement will hold a rally Wednesday to ask UK Athletics to cuts its ties with the coal industry.

The Beyond Coal group is part of a larger national movement started by the Sierra Club in an attempt to end the extraction and use of coal in favor of cleaner energies such as wind and solar. Most of the local group's activities have been dedicated to asking UK to stop using its coal-fired power plant on campus.

"We are asking UK to add coal to its list of harmful products," said Lauren McGrath, a Sierra Club representative, noting that UK Athletics already rejects sponsorships from tobacco and alcohol companies.

"I think if UK and the state of Kentucky made that transition with tobacco, we can do the same thing with coal," McGrath said.

Advertising and sponsorships have not been sold to tobacco or alcohol companies for several years under the university's media rights contract, UK spokesman Jay Blanton confirmed.

The coal industry, however, is a major contributor to UK Athletics, most of it led by Joe Craft, the billionaire CEO of Alliance Resource Partners, one of Kentucky's leading coal producers.

Craft donated $6 million to build the Joe Craft Center, a basketball practice facility and office complex, and came up with an additional $7 million from himself and a variety of other coal executives to build the Wildcat Coal Lodge for men's basketball players.

With the donation, Craft stipulated that the lodge's lobby contain a "tribute" to coal and its benefits to Kentucky. Meanwhile, a university policy required the building to be constructed using energy-efficiency standards set by the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).

Coal also has become more visible at athletic events. Last year, Friends of Coal, an offshoot of the Kentucky Coal Association, paid $85,000 to be the signature sponsor of the UK-University of Louisville football and men's basketball games, and also helped sponsor Big Blue Madness.

"My initial thought is when you think of the Beyond Coal campaign, you think beyond coal to what?" Bill Bissett, executive director of the Kentucky Coal Association, said by telephone from Tampa, Fla., where he was attending the Republican National Convention. (He travels to Charlotte, N.C., this week for the Democratic National Convention.)

Bissett pointed out that the national Beyond Coal movement is mostly funded by a $50 million donation from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

"When I think about powering Kentucky, I'm not interested in what the mayor of New York City has to say," Bissett said.

In a statement, UK officials declined to address the coal issue directly.

"One of the most important aspects of college and university life is the ability of people throughout the institution to make their voices heard — whether in classroom discussion or vocal dissent," Blanton said. "We also appreciate our donors to both the academic mission and to athletic endeavors. That commitment, too, is among the most important aspects of our university."

Beyond Coal and the coal industry have played their own games over athletics: In January, after the Friends of Coal sponsorships, the Sierra Club decided to sponsor a UK men's basketball game against Arkansas, and a UK game at Indiana.

The sponsorships allowed both groups to display their messages on various screens at the games.