The Texas Longhorns have a Texas-sized problem on their hands. It turns out that their beloved school song, “The Eyes of Texas,” is steeped in racism. They know it, yet they played it last week and they’ll play it this week and they’ll play it next week at sporting events across campus.
The anthem that brings athletes, alums and fans together at the beginning and at the end of games with an arm raised in their familiar, two-fingered “Hook ‘Em Horns” salute traces its roots to a campus minstrel show, in which white performers sang and danced in blackface. It is set to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” which itself has racist origins. It also takes its name right out of the playbook of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who, as president of what would become Washington and Lee University, told students, “The eyes of the South are upon you.”
These very significant issues were brought to the attention of university leaders by nearly 40 student-athletes this summer in the midst of the national reckoning over race and police brutality in the wake of the death of George Floyd. On a list of concerns, the athletes’ final one was simple: they called for school officials to replace “The Eyes of Texas” with a new song “without racist undertones.”
Texas football coach Tom Herman even encouraged them to do it, telling his team, according to the Austin American-Statesman, “You’re a minority football player at one of the biggest brands in the country. You have a voice. Use it. And you know, I support them in that.”
It turns out that he really doesn’t, certainly not completely. Several months have gone by and the song still rings out in the football stadium at his team’s games, and in sports facilities across the Texas campus, forcing the athletes to take the stand that university officials so far haven’t shown the courage to do.
After one victory earlier this month, the volleyball players gathered in a huddle, refusing to acknowledge the song as it played in the arena. After the football team’s loss to Oklahoma at the Cotton Bowl on Oct. 10, Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger was seen standing alone for the playing of the song, while most of his teammates had left the field, apparently to avoid it. Even the Texas marching band doesn’t want to play the song and won’t attend Saturday’s home game with Baylor, according to The Daily Texan.
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Some Texas fans (and donors, we would presume) reportedly were furious that only Ehlinger was pictured sticking around to honor the controversial song. That kind of feedback probably speaks volumes about the inaction of university leaders.
To be fair, those leaders have done something: they have formed a committee that is reviewing the history of the song and is expected to report back in January. But this is October, and Texas is in the middle of a full-blown controversy right now, a controversy entirely of its own making, a controversy so pervasive that Herman had to start his weekly press conference last week talking not about football, but by reading a statement about a darn song.
“There are very strong emotions on both sides,” he said, adding that he will “encourage” his players to stay on the field after games for the song, but it will not be mandatory.
Knowing how much football coaches despise distractions, and knowing how bad songs with racist roots can be, it’s mystifying that Herman hasn’t publicly been able to muster a better answer, something like, “Let’s get a new song.”
Tradition is lovely until we realize it’s racist or sexist or just plain awful. This is the situation University of Texas leaders now are in, the same kind of pickle that the Washington Football Team found itself in with its racist name that was defended for years as “tradition.” We know how that worked out.
We also can guess how this will work out. The pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement have exposed weak leadership everywhere in this country. Clearly, there’s an abundance of it in Austin. The sooner Texas officials act like true leaders and get a new song, the better off their athletic program, and their campus, will be.