By Gregory Smith Jr.
First came the injury. For the third year in a row, arch rival Oklahoma whipped Texas in the Red River Showdown, a football classic. In Dallas, no less. In Cotton Bowl Stadium. (Seating capacity: 92,000.) In quadruple overtime. 53-45. It was a close contest with, unfortunately for some, a predictable outcome.
“Once again, the Texas Longhorns put forth a largely lackluster performance in a losing effort,” Cody Daniel wrote for Burnt Orange Nation, a blog for Texas fans. “This is a team that’s simply undisciplined, inconsistent, and poorly coached, and that’s been the case for nearly a month now,” he declared.
Sam Ehlinger had quarterbacked the Texas offense, and was still on the field after the final whistle as the Longhorns faithful stood for the usual post-game rendering of “The Eyes of Texas,” the university’s alma mater set to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” and sung before and after sporting events. Team members traditionally remain on the field and join fans in raising two fingers in the “Hook ’em ‘Horns” hand sign as the band plays on. But on that October day last year, Ehlinger was alone out there.
Other team members had returned to the locker room, in protest of the song, which for decades had been performed at campus minstrel shows, was tied to Confederate lore, and was one of the things students had called for the university to abandon in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
For many university alumni, that moment added insult to the injury. They threatened to withhold financial support if what they considered an iconic part of Texas culture was scrapped in response to complaints from a handful of student protestors, including any on the football team.
“Less than six percent of our current student body is black. The tail cannot be allowed to wag the dog..…and the dog must instead stand up for what is right,” Larry Wilkinson, a 1970 graduate and donor wrote in an email sent to university administrators. “Nothing forces those students to attend UT Austin. Encourage them to select an alternate school…..NOW!”
Bud Brigham, a Texas oil man who had recently given the school a five-year donation, appealed for one-time Longhorns team members to join the campaign to keep the song. “We need some reasoned and courageous former black athletes to step up, that share our/your perspective, or it may be game over for the song,” The Texas Tribune reported.
Another donor, whose name was redacted in documents obtained by The Tribune, told the university, “I have donated to the Engineering department every year since I graduated as well as most years to Texas Exes [the official alumni association]…[and] a sizable portion of my estate is directed to the university in my will. All of this will unfortunately have to end” if the song were dropped.
University President Jay Hartzell said the song would stay, but appointed a special committee to research its beginnings. That committee issued its report late last month. “The research leads us to surmise that [the] intent of ‘The Eyes of Texas’ was not overtly racist. However, it is similarly clear that the cultural milieu that produced it was,” the committee concluded.
“There’s no smoking gun. There’s nothing that either vindicates or implicates ‘The Eyes of Texas,’” Richard Reddick, the committee chairman and an associate dean in the College of Education, said when the report was released. “It’s an artifact of the university. It is a part of our history, the history of the University of Texas, Texas, the South, the post bellum Jim Crow South. So all those things are there.”
The report made no recommendation on whether students would be required to sing the song, and a The UT-Austin Black Presidents Leadership Council, a student group, had set a May 1 deadline for the school to respond to a list of other student demands presented along with the call to replace the song.
A new football coach, Steve Sarkisian, had come on board in January, and understandably wasn’t sure about all the challenges before him. “Well, I know this much,” he said at his inaugural press conference. “’The Eyes of Texas’ is our school song and we support that song, we’re gonna sing that song, we’re gonna sing it proudly.”
That, said Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP, could be an insult, and then some.
“It’s humiliating to be required to sit for the song or be in the presence,” he said. “It’s not whether you have to sing or not, it’s humiliation that requires you to be there while others stand and sing and pay homage or honor to a racist song.”
The song’s title line is a variant of a phrase said to have been a favorite of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee when he was president of what is now Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Lee frequently would admonish students to uphold Southern traditions of the time by telling them “the eyes of the South are upon you.”
William Prather, the president of the University of Texas from 1899-1905, had been a law student at the Virginia school while Lee was its president, and is said to have adapted the phrase to the school in Austin. Two students wrote lyrics for a song that was premiered at a campus minstrel show in 1903. “A tradition was born, and ‘The Eyes of Texas’ eventually became ingrained into Longhorn student life,” The Texas Monthly reported. The minstrel shows, which served as student-organized fundraisers and featured White singers and dancers in blackface, continued into the 1960s.
Financially, football is a big winner for Texas, even when the Longhorns are not. In 2018, it brought in $156 million, more than any other football program in the nation. “Texas football has been a virtual bystander on the national scene for over a decade,” yet it is “the most amazing money machine in college athletics,” NBC Sports and Harrisburg Patriot-News columnist David Jones reported last year.
Texas belongs to the Big 12 Conference, one of most competitive and lucrative of the so-called “Power 5” conferences that dominate big-time college sports. Several of those schools, including Texas, are large public universities in former Confederate states—Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana State, among them.
Nearly half the athletes on Big 12 football rosters from 2017-2019 were Black, and Texas—along with, California, Hawaii and New Mexico—is a state where the majority of the population is not White. Yet the university reported that only 5.3 percent of its student population last year was Black.
Around the same time that “The Eyes of Texas” controversy was headed toward a showdown, the University of Florida, another football powerhouse in a former Confederate state, was dealing with a similar situation involving its own fan culture.
The school’s sports teams are known as the ‘Gators’—short for alligators—and Florida fans often will move their outstretched arms in an exaggerated, up-and-down hand-clapping motion to imitate the jaws of the swamp creature chomping its prey, as they belittle opponents with taunts of “Gator Bait! Gator Bait! Gator Bait.”
Newspaper clippings from the early 20th century had reported times when Black infants “were intentionally placed at the edge of alligator-infested waters to lure the ferocious beast for hunters” to shoot, Domonique Foxworth reported for The Undefeated website of ESPN.
“The idea that black children are acceptable gator bait was not born in the head of one zookeeper, it was a practice in the American Everglades that inspired lore and occasioned memorabilia,” Foxworth wrote under the headline, “The Gut-Wrenching History of Black Babies and Alligators.”
Last summer, in the midst of the protests over Taylor’s and Floyd’s deaths, Florida University President Kent Fuchs said the time for change had come in Tallahassee.
“While I know of no evidence of racism associated with our “Gator Bait” cheer at UF sporting events, there is horrific historic racist imagery associated with the phrase. Accordingly, University Athletics and the Gator Band will discontinue the use of the cheer,” Fuchs announced in a statement.
“There are agriculture operations where UF has relied on prison and jail inmates to provide farm labor” he added. “The symbolism of inmate labor is incompatible with our university and its principles and therefore this practice will end.” He also said the school would remove any monuments on campus that celebrated the Confederacy.
“It is past time for UF to commit and engage in this challenging, uncomfortable, transformational work,” Fuchs said. “We know that we cannot undo lifetimes of injustice and racism, but we believe we can make progress—in education, in advancing truth, reconciliation and justice, and in anti-racism, equality and working to eradicate inequities.”