The Texas Longhorns sing "The Eyes of Texas" after a 41-34 win over Texas Tech in Lubbock in 2018. (Brad Tollefson/Lubbock Avalanche-Journal)

Brian Davis

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Eyes on Texas: After speaking up about social issues, Longhorns’ voices will only get stronger

Williams: ‘I'm proud of Tom for really listening and supporting his players and not shaming them for having a voice’

Posted September 10th, 2020

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Story highlights
  • No, Caden Sterns is not interested in hearing about how you want him to “stick to sports.”
  • Campbell: "When a kid tells you something, you better listen because they know something and that's true with our athletes.”
  • These current Longhorns know that not everyone will agree with their social opinions. And nobody’s asking you to agree.

Caden Sterns’ words may shock Texas fans, and his feelings toward “The Eyes of Texas” may anger and disappoint them, too.

“I don’t know, but I won’t sing the song at all, if I’m just being blunt,” the UT senior said this week. “As a team, we kind of talked about it. I can’t answer for everybody else, nor do I want to make it about me. But personally, I won’t sing the song.”

Online haters will flame away, and those who don’t understand that newfangled “Facechat” or “Snapbook” gobbledygook are probably out of their minds. But here’s the thing. It’s 2020, and one of the most interestings thing to come out of this pandemic is that athletes are no longer afraid.

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They’re not afraid to speak their mind. They’re not worried about blow-back from coaches. Chances are, they’d laugh now at those worried emails from staffers asking them to “take that down” off the Internet.

Will UT players stay on the field Saturday night during the post-game singing of “The Eyes of Texas?” Will some leave the field while others stay? It’s unclear. Coaches and players were asked about it this week and dodged the question.

Longhorn fans sing “The Eyes of Texas” before the 2018 Texas-Baylor game at Royal-Memorial Stadium. There will be a big change this season: The Longhorn Band won’t be at games, which means the school song will be piped through the public address system. (Stephen Spillman/For Statesman)

Having been around college sports for more than two decades, I’ve seen firsthand how athletes have been forced to swallow their tongues. Don’t want to anger the big donors, season ticket-holders or those in administration. They get calls from even bigger donors. Everybody is worried about sponsors. Yes, college athletics is a business, but so is higher education. Never forget that.

Oh, the calls are still coming in. It’s just that the days of athletes worrying about it appear to be over.

At Texas, football players spoke up about social justice issues and gave the school a list of requests demanding change. Lo and behold, UT officials blinked first, agreeing to change the names on some buildings, erect a statue for Julius Whittier and change the name of the field to honor its two Heisman winners.

And before anyone slams interim UT President Jay Hartzell or athletic director Chris Del Conte, know this: They did the right thing. Every single request was reasonable except for two. Giving money directly to Black Lives Matter was a non-starter, although UT is hyper-focused on its community outreach programs to encourage more minority applicants. And the school wasn’t changing The Eyes.

“I think I’ve grown to see how big this world is,” said Texas safety Caden Sterns, on this summer’s social injustice movements. “And how me missing a tackle or getting beat against LSU on third-and-17, how small that is, right?” (Nick Wagner/American-Statesman)

“To sit here and say that football is the most important thing right now, it’s not,” Sterns said. “You’ve got some real-life issues going outside of here. You’ve got a whole pandemic going on for one, and you have some racial issues that we’ve been dealing with for however long we’ve been a country.

“I think I’ve grown to see how big this world is,” he continued. “And how me missing a tackle or getting beat against LSU on third-and-17, how small that is, right? To me, it seems big because this is my world, but you got people out here dying, like, from being stopped by a cop, which shouldn’t be the case, right?

“It really just opened my eyes to see how can I make this world a better place and doing what I can to make sure those around me are safe and protected.”

No, Sterns is not interested in hearing about how you want him to “stick to sports.”

In some respects, it was only a matter of time before the protesting and energy on the campus’ West Mall crossed San Jacinto Boulevard.

Members of the Texas football team march to the Capitol from Royal-Memorial Stadium on June 4 in a demonstration against racism and social injustice issues. (Lola Gomez/American-Statesman)

Texas coach Tom Herman walked with his players to the Capitol this summer. He’s led the way nationally among his peers in supporting Black players. Notice how only recently did Oklahoma and Alabama do something similar. The Horns were doing that in early June.

Iowa players, many of whom are Black, spoke up about mistreatment from the strength coach. He was fired. In women’s basketball, Texas Tech players blew the whistle on coach Marlene Stollings’ abusive tactics. She was fired.

At Clemson, quarterback Trevor Lawrence is now one of the most vocal players in college football. Others are feeling more emboldened, too. There’s always been talk about college players unionizing, and while it’s a long messy process, the noise is louder than ever.

You may not like it, and that’s OK. The college athletic labor force is finally standing up for itself.

“The time that I came through, whenever players even whispered about social issues, we tended to be shamed by coaches as being a distraction,” Texas’ 1998 Heisman winner Ricky Williams said this week. “And I have to say I’m proud of Tom for really listening and supporting his players and not shaming them for having a voice. I’m glad that I’m alive to see that to see the change.

“But, you know, I felt like when I played that I wasn’t able to have the kind of voice that I that I envisioned for myself,” Williams added.

Now 43, Williams may not remember exactly how he was at 19 or 20. But he certainly had a massive audience, even though Williams did many interviews wearing his own helmet for psychological protection, if nothing else.

Every athlete that comes to Texas must think about how they intend to use the school’s incredible platform. For many at UT, these few years will be the only time they have access to such a hot microphone and spotlight. What do you wish to say?

“We have some great young men at that university,” Earl Campbell said. “I have a chance to sit down with them and talk to them and they are very educated, they’re very sensitive about what’s going on. They know what’s going on. I talk to them on a regular basis and they’re very concerned about every aspect of that university.”

At 65, Campbell knows full well about today’s youth. “They’re no dummies,” he said. “You can’t fool these kids now. When a kid tells you something, you better listen because they know something and that’s true with our athletes.”

These current Longhorns know that not everyone will agree with their social opinions. And nobody’s asking you to agree. You simply need to respect it.

If you can do that — show respect for others, even those you may disagree with — Texas athletics would love to have you.

“At the end of the day, we know that we’ve got one another,” safety Chris Brown said. “We don’t need everybody; we just need the right people. And we felt like we got the right people. We’re a focused group, we’re focused bunch and we know what we can do, amongst ourselves. So, it’s kind of like, ah, whatever anybody else got to say.”

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com.

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