UT’s “Eyes of Texas” verdict misses the mark

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On Oct. 6, 2020, University of Texas president Jay Hartzell announced the formation of the Eyes of Texas History Committee. The 24-member group, which was composed of prominent student athletes, faculty members, former and current students, and administrators, was tasked with exploring arguably the most explosive topic in collegiate athletics at the time: the racist roots of UT’s beloved school song. Five months later, the committee’s findings are finally available for public consumption.

To grasp the significance of this 58-page report—which was released this morning—you have to first understand the larger factors at play here. As the Black Lives Matter protests reached a fever pitch last summer, student-athlete coalitions (including members of LHBlacks, which represents Black members of the school’s acclaimed marching band) began amplifying long-held concerns about systemic inequity and racism at the university. And “The Eyes of Texas,” which was first sung by performers in blackface at a minstrel show in 1903 and reportedly tied to Confederate Robert E. Lee’s adage that “the eyes of the South are upon you,” was central to their criticism. 

Hartzell and the university’s initial response to the controversy was surprisingly substantive. In July, campus leadership took steps like giving Ricky Williams and Earl Campbell top billing on its football field (previously named for billionaire benefactor Joe Jamail) and renaming a building named after segregationist mathematician Robert Lee Moore. They also committed to dedicating athletics department revenue to recruit Black and underrepresented students from across the state.

But when it came to “The Eyes,” they drew the line. Despite meeting with athletes and students who were frustrated by requirements that they participate in a tradition steeped in racism, Hartzell continued to endorse the song—a stance that only heightened tensions as the Longhorns’ football season heated up and its band began boycotting games. 

That’s where the aforementioned committee comes into play. From its inception, this endeavor was never meant to challenge the status quo or entertain the prospect of removing “The Eyes.” Rather, its charter suggested, the goal was to provide historical and cultural context around its adoption among the Longhorn faithful. In other words, yes, the song’s ties to minstrelsy must be acknowledged (along with being sung to the melody of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” which has its own ties to racism), but so should its significance to the UT students and alumni who associate it bowl game victories and glory days. Hartzell and the university’s board of regents said as much in their assurances that the committee wouldn’t threaten the heritage tune’s place on campus. 

“To be clear, the UT System Board of Regents stands unequivocally and unanimously in support of President Hartzell’s announcement that The Eyes of Texas is, and will remain, the official school song,” regents chairman Kevin Eltife said in an October statement.

Considering these explicit instructions to tread lightly, it’s no wonder the committee’s report is so disappointing. Indeed, although it includes a deep dive on the song’s past—including a thorough exploration of whether it’s legitimately connected to Robert E. Lee—and a demand that campus leaders and Texas students learn about the song’s connection to minstrelsy, it falls short of its one core responsibility: confirming that the song is indeed rooted in racism. 

“This report is not a cudgel to settle a debate. Instead, it is a call to accountability. While many school songs are hubristic statements of pride, “The Eyes of Texas” is a song lyrically that reminds the singer that the best is expected, at all times, from this moment to eternity,” the report states in its executive summary. “Our task as a university community – students, staff, faculty, alumni, friends of the university, and the larger community – is to acknowledge our history in its entirety, understand where we must do better, and chart a plan of action living up to our espoused values.”

While aspirational, this conclusion is an abject failure for many Black students and athletes. Over the past week, reporting from outlets like the Texas Tribune revealed that a number of top-dollar boosters threatened to end their support of the university if the song were to be removed. Football players like team captain Caden Sterns even confirmed that athletes who spoke out would face professional reprisal from angered alumni. With that in mind, the idea that “The Eyes” simply means different things to different people, that people have to let bygones be bygones is a hollow, if not naive, notion.  

As a UT graduate who has deep ties to the university (both my parents worked at the school for decades), I can see both sides of this argument. I’ve sung “The Eyes” at many a tailgate and football game over the years, all without a shred of context about its history or racist undertones. To that end, this report will help enlighten students, especially white students, in a way I wasn’t during my college years. But the fact is, education isn’t enough here; not when a song rooted in racism will continue to be sung by tens of thousands of fans every Saturday this fall. Not when prominent former players—several of whom I’ve spoken with over the past few months—are too afraid of the consequences to publicly air their frustrations with the tune. And certainly not when it’s clear that the school’s rich, powerful, and conservative donors are the ones pulling the strings.

The question, then, is where does UT go from here? Does it continue to build upon its commitments last July and lean into addressing the many remaining deep-seated racial inequities littering its campus? Or will it, as president Hartzell has already done with this hot-button issue, make half-hearted attempts and pander to the burnt orange elite? My money is on the latter, but only time will tell. One thing’s for sure: The next time I’m in the stands, I’m keeping my horns down and my mouth shut when “The Eyes” begins to play.

Photo: surelyitsjohn / Wikimedia Commons

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