Newly surfaced emails have revealed that University of Texas at Austin alumni threatened to withhold donations unless the school reaffirmed its commitment to the controversial fight song, The Eyes of Texas, that many find to be racist because of its links to blackface minstrel shows and Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
The song, which is traditionally sung by athletes and fans both before and after Longhorns sporting events, has not been banned, and new football coach Steve Sarkisian has assured supporters that ‘we’re going to sing that proudly.’
However, alumni are threatening to stop giving to the school unless UT-Austin embraces the controversial tune after many Longhorns football players refused to sing it last season.
‘My wife and I have given an endowment in excess of $1 million to athletics,’ read one of several emails from unidentified donors to UT-Austin President Jay Hartzell that were published by The Texas Tribune on Monday. ‘This could very easily be rescinded if things don’t drastically change around here.’
The controversy has created a rift between players and fans. Former Longhorns safety Caden Sterns tweeted Monday that he and his teammates were ‘threatened by some alumni that we would have to find jobs outside of Texas if we didn’t participate’ in the song. Meanwhile, at least one donor suggested that black players should attend a different college.
‘It is sad that it is offending the blacks,’ the donor wrote. ‘As I said before the blacks are free and it’s time for them to move on to another state where everything is in their favor.’
Newly surfaced emails have revealed that University of Texas at Austin alumni threatened to withhold donations unless the school reaffirmed its commitment to the controversial fight song, The Eyes of Texas, that many find to be racist because of its links to minstrel shows and Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The song, which is traditionally sung by athletes and fans both before and after Longhorns sporting events, hasn’t been banned, and new football coach Steve Sarkisian has assured supporters that ‘we’re going to sing that proudly’
University of Texas Football players are seen making the Hook ’em Horns hand signal while singing The Eyes of Texas after at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin in 2017
Ex-Longhorns safety Caden Sterns tweeted that he and his teammates were ‘threatened by some alumni that we would have to find jobs outside of Texas if we didn’t participate’
Sports columnist Jemele Hill suggested African-American players follow the advice of the donor who suggested they find another state to play football
The controversy began over the summer in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, when black football players and other athletes addressed the issue in a memo to Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte. Specifically, critics objected to the song’s origins in blackface minstrel shows in 1903, and its connection to Lee.
According to Edmund T. Gordon, an associate professor of African and African Diaspora Studies & Vice Provost for Diversity, the song was originally a satirical take on what Lee told students at Washington and Lee University.
‘Lee, as president used to say to his assembled faculty and students, ‘The eyes of the South are upon you,” Gordon told the American-Statesman.
Former UT President William Lambdin Prather later adopted the phrase at the onset of the 20th century, but repurposed it for his state: ‘The eyes of Texas are upon you.’
‘The Eyes of Texas,’ was originally sung by students at an annual minstrel show, which typically features actors wearing black face.
‘So its origins are either as a black work song or as a minstrel song, in other words folks in black face impersonating black folks,’ Gordon said.
New football coach Steve Sarkisian has assured supporters that ‘we’re going to sing [The Eyes of Texas] proudly’
Del Conte replied to the athletes by tweeting: ‘I am always willing to have meaningful conversations regarding any concerns our student-athletes have. We will do the same in this situation and look forward to having those discussions.’
However, no formal change has ever been made.
The situation escalated on October 10, following a loss to rival Oklahoma, when nearly the entire team walked off the field without signing, leaving Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger to do a solo performance in front of irritated fans.
‘It is disgraceful to see the lack of unity and our fiercest competitor Sam [Ehlinger] standing nearly alone,’ wrote one graduate. ‘It is symbolic of the disarray of this football program which you inherited.
‘The critical race theory garbage that has been embraced by the football program and the university is doing massive irreparable damage.’
‘The Eyes of Texas is non-negotiable,’ wrote another graduate and season ticket holder. ‘If it is not kept and fully embraced, I will not be donating any additional money to athletics or the university or attending any events.’
Texas billionaire businessman and UT-Austin alumnus Bob Rowling was identified in the story, reminding Hartzell that many angry fans ‘are in positions of influence.’
‘My advice to Jay was these alumni have given and are giving,’ Rowling told the Tribune. ‘We’re in the middle of a capital campaign right now. …We’re raising billions of dollars right now. If you want to dry that up immediately, cancel “The Eyes of Texas.”‘
The situation escalated on October 10, following a loss to rival Oklahoma, when nearly the entire team walked off the field without signing, leaving Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger to do a solo performance in front of irritated fans
In this March 3, 2018, file photo, Texas head coach Shaka Smart, left, sings the ‘Eyes of Texas’ with his team after defeating West Virginia 87-79 in Austin
Some of the emails argued that donors were more important to the future of the football program than players.
‘UT needs rich donors who love The Eyes of Texas more than they need one crop of irresponsible and uninformed students or faculty who won’t do what they are paid to do,’ Steven Arnold, a retired judge and UT-Austin law school graduate, wrote to Hartzell.
In an email to the Tribune, Hartzell articulated his and the school’s position.
‘Many believe the song is a positive unifying force that inspires Longhorns to do their best,’ he wrote. ‘We also recognize that some feel differently. This is why we have taken the approach that we did, conducting an in-depth study of the history and origin of the song.
‘My hope is that with clarity of the facts, we can begin the process of learning about and reckoning with “The Eyes of Texas” in a way that can be a model for having difficult conversations, bridging divides and understanding diverse points of view.’
Texas billionaire businessman and UT-Austin alumnus Bob Rowling was identified in the Tribune story, reminding Hartzell that many angry fans ‘are in positions of influence’
Athletes are not alone in this fight. There has also been a Change.org petition launched by the student body to change the fight song.
But among the school’s 540,000 alumni, there is a real fear that abandoning the song could leave UT-Austin and its athletic department with budget shortfalls.
‘[Alumni] are pulling planned gifts, canceling donations, walking away from causes and programs that have been their passion for years, even decades and turning away in disgust,’ Kent Kostka, the president of the Longhorn Alumni Band Charitable Fund Board of Trustees, wrote to a group of administrators. ‘This is not hyperbole or exaggeration. Real damage is being done every day by the ongoing silence.’
Anger over the song is nothing new for Longhorns football players.
Former Texas linebacker Sam Acho, who played the past nine years in the NFL, tweeted in June that ‘most black players hated singing that song.’
‘We were required to,’ he continued. ‘We knew about the racial undertones but didn’t know how to address them. This group finally had… bravo.’
‘I agree with it 100 percent, everything that they said,’ Charles Omenihu, a former Longhorns player now with the Houston Texans, told CBS Austin. ‘The song is extremely racist, very distasteful to a black student, not just a black student athlete, a black student period that goes to the university.’
Former Texas linebacker Sam Acho, a nine-year NFL veteran, voiced his support on Twitter
One Texas Longhorns fan suggested that the song had served to unite players and fans
Acho told the fan that black Longhorns athletes ‘hated’ singing the song, but didn’t protest