The University of Texas campus is quiet on Sunday March 29, 2020, since it was closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. [JAY JANNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Bohls: The Eyes of frustrated players are upon Texas, but the song remains the same

Posted June 13th, 2020

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Story highlights
  • A week ago, the football players marched. On Friday, they basically gave their school marching orders in no uncertain terms as they demanded action or they won’t participate in recruiting future Longhorns or joining donor-related events. Who said social change has to move slowly.
  • Ironically enough, last week’s player march in support of the Black Lives Matter movement came on the 30th anniversary of a similar stand when many black football players did likewise with their own march to the Capitol.
  • The players said they do not think they should be required to sing the song at sporting events. I don’t think anyone should be forced to do something they personally consider immoral or offensive. They should not be enslaved to a tradition they don’t embrace, but that doesn’t have to keep others from singing it.

Texas players have spoken in good faith.

The school will listen, we trust, equally in good faith.

And the eyes of the nation will be upon both parties going forward in these turbulent times.

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A week ago, Longhorns football players marched. On Friday, they effectively gave their school marching orders in no uncertain terms as they demanded action or they won’t participate in helping to recruit future players or take part in donor-related events. Who said social change has to move slowly?

More than three dozen UT athletes in six different sports posted a two-page letter on Twitter that stated they want several issues addressed through the implementation or a plan for implementation at the start of the fall semester.

A renaming of buildings named for men who were blatant racists or strongly supported slavery. Removal of campus statues of men linked to the Confederacy and the abomination that was slavery. Promotion of racial awareness with a Black history exhibit at the new Hall of Fame. An outreach program for inner cities. A way to honor Texas’ first black football letterman. A donation of more than $1 million to black organizations. Even the replacement of “The Eyes of Texas” as the school song.

Texas players Joseph Ossai and Kirk Johnson walk back into the locker room at Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth after last season’s 37-27 loss. (Ricardo B. Brazziell/American-Statesman)

So much for a symbolic march to the Capitol. And count this as support for all those goals except a specific financial allotment and the stance on the school song. 

Making demands is hardly the optimal way to gain widespread support for an otherwise worthy and humane cause, especially because they have a very supportive head coach in Tom Herman and athletic director in Chris Del Conte. But it certainly speaks to the players’ boiling frustrations, which makes this a delicate, sensitive situation.

Ironically enough, last week’s player march in support of the Black Lives Matter movement came on the 30th anniversary of a similar stand when many black football players did likewise with their own march to the Capitol, outraged by an incendiary celebration on campus during spring Round-Up when the Fijis fraternity passed out T-shirts bearing the face of a “Sambo” on top of Michael Jordan’s body and another fraternity took sledgehammers to a car adorned with racial slurs. Then-head coach David McWilliams canceled spring practice so the players could walk in protest.

Texas football players marched to the Texas State Capitol from Royal-Memorial Stadium in a demonstration against racism on June 4. (Lola Gomez/American-Statesman)

UT has long had a dismal reputation in race relations, something it’s tried hard to fix on a campus where still only 4.9% of the student body claims African-American heritage and just 3.6% of the faculty’s full professors (91 total) are black. Five percent (85) are tenured or on track. The late Julius Whitter, the San Antonio offensive tackle recruit who became Texas’ first black letterman in 1970 as one man of color among 92 white players, endured slights from his own teammates and never took a class taught by a black professor.

Here’s another grand opportunity for Texas to make real, substantive progress. 

“We, as student athletes, and collectively as the University of Texas Longhorn football team,” the letter said, “are aware that we are an athletic department made up of many black athletes, and believe that it is time we become active on our campus.”

Texas football players kneel in silence for nine minutes at the end of a team march to the Capitol on June 4 to protest the killing of George Floyd. (Jay Janner/American-Statesman)

It is time, if not past time. Those players cited the school’s slogan of “What Starts Here Changes the World” on Friday. It should have started long before 2020, and that’s a shame they and their predecessors didn’t feel they could take such a stand. That they didn’t feel comfortable or safe in expressing their opinions long before now speaks not only to their courage now but also to the fear they could be alienating multitudes of fans. And they will, without question.

One such person tweeted Friday, saying that “those people who want to remove ‘The Eyes of Texas’ can politely go hang themselves.” Need any harsher reaction than that?

Some athletes like Malik Jefferson and Quandre Diggs have taken strong public stances about societal issues, but they have been few and far between. Now prompted by national outrage over the murder of George Floyd and global protests that have gone on for weeks, they have stood front and center and said they are waiting no more. 

Texas kicker Cameron Dicker stands for the playing of “The Eyes of Texas” after kicking the winning field goal in last season’s 27-24 victory over Kansas State. (Nick Wagner/American-Statesman)

Longhorns athletes have not always held their tongues.

Tony Degrate, Texas’ Lombardi Award winner in 1984, told me and co-author John Maher in our book, “Bleeding Orange,” that his relatives told him the only blacks who went to UT “were Uncle Toms.”  Donnie Little, the school’s first black quarterback, received hate mail from fans, and his mother quit coming to games for all the heckling by Texas fans. He told us, “Some of them didn’t want a black leading their prestigious, fine white university.”

The dining hall was segregated if not by law. White players labeled the third floor of Jester Center where most of the blacks lived as “Little Africa.”

Donna Lopiano, Texas’ first women’s athletic director, said then, “There’s a difference between systemic racism and intentional racism.”

To fix both, current players went public with their demands.

Remove from places of honor those who advocated slavery. Implement modules on campus that teach the university’s own racial history. Find a way to honor Whittier. Maybe Texas should name the locker room after him. But shouldn’t Earl Campbell or Roosevelt Leaks, true trailblazers, have something named after them? If there’s no Rosey, there’s probably no Earl.

The Texas soccer team sings “The Eyes of Texas” along with fans after a September 2018 match at Myers Stadium. It’s customary to sing the song before and after UT sports events. (Stephen Spillman/For Statesman)

That said, I think it would be a mistake if the school banned the singing of “The Eyes of Texas,” the school’s fight song since 1903.

It seems many black Longhorns athletes are offended by it and have been for a while because the ubiquitous spirit song has racist connotations, largely because it was first sung during UT minstrel shows where whites wore blackface.

While totally unacceptable, those offensive origins should not cause the song to be painted with the same brush that stains racists. Some say the reference to never being able to escape the eyes of Texas stems indirectly as a paraphrase of a Robert E. Lee comment about slaves bound to their owners by law from night till early in the morn, but no black player brought that up as a major concern in our all-encompassing interviews for our book in 1990.

Open-minded discussions are essential. Texas should be receptive to the thoughts of its athletes and willing to change. Talk without action is meaningless. 

Texas football player Caden Sterns hugs head coach Tom Herman at the end of a team march to the Capitol on June 4. Sterns also spoke at the protest. (Jay Janner/American-Statesman)

However, the move of abolishing the school song would be so polarizing as to be counter-productive and probably seed resentment and more division. It’s sung robustly from weddings to graduations with no ill intent. It’s so widely sung it’s even incorporated into the fight song at Texas A&M, which I understand used to be Texas’ rival of some sort.

By now, it should be easy to understand why any connection between public universities and institutions and any vestige of slavery and racism in the South is not acceptable. I’m totally in support of the removal of statues bearing the names of Confederate soldiers and leaders as well as NASCAR’s long-overdue abolition of the Confederate flag and any images that subject black people to reflections of this dark period in our nation’s history.

The players said they do not think they should be required to sing the song at sporting events. I don’t think anyone should be forced to do something they personally consider immoral or offensive. They should not be forced into a tradition they don’t embrace, but that also doesn’t have to keep others from singing it.

We all know that Texas’ athletic history does not engender warm feelings by several generations of blacks. Texas was late to integrating its sports programs as was the school, which waited until the 1950s. Blacks referred to the school as Mr. Man.

Now it’s time to man up.

The Longhorns hold claim to the ignominious distinction as the last all-white national champion in college football in 1969, and the school was horribly slow to reach out to the black community.

In 1990, the school had inducted 203 Longhorns athletes, coaches and administrators into its prestigious Hall of Honor. Only four of them were black. There was but one single black assistant football coach then, and no black administrators, no black trainers, no black managers.

This is a school that has tried to make up for lost time with affirmative action and the removal of statues of Confederate leaders and the renaming of a residence hall that had been christened after a vociferous racist and Klansman to boot. This decade Texas broke more color barriers when it hired its first black head football coach and men’s basketball coach even though Charlie Strong was since fired after three seasons and Shaka Smart remains on thin ice.

Much more remains to be done. 

It speaks to the necessity of better understanding and larger sensitivity to those who have been oppressed for too long.

It’d be wonderful to see our colleges and universities set up George Floyd scholarship programs from Boston to Berkeley to better pay homage to the 49-year-old Texan who died on the streets of Minneapolis at the hands of policemen. Call it the 846 Scholarship for the duration of time a racist, white police officer kept his knee on Floyd’s neck. I’d donate.

There are many ways both small and large to right the serious wrongs committed in this country by police, vigilantes and even our colleges. Eliminate chokeholds. Stop pulling over blacks and killing them for a failure to dim their headlights. End the horrid killing of blacks while jogging, blacks while sleeping in their homes, blacks for being black.

The players should be applauded for taking brave stands as they did Friday in trying to do more than march, knowing they’ll encounter some resistance and hate.

If Texas chooses to change names on the edifices of dormitories and lecture halls, more power to them.

If they petition the university to devote a percentage of its annual athletic revenue to causes supporting minorities and advancing their cause, that can only help.

If they demand a better appreciation of their history and more diversity, that’s great news.

But if they want to get rid of a beloved fight song because of its origins and loose paraphrase of a Robert E. Lee comment, I respectfully say not till Gabriel blows his horn.

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