The backdrop of Texas' disappointing 2020 season was a boiled-over controversy regarding the school's alma mater, "The Eyes of Texas." In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement last summer, Longhorn athletes across all sports made it clear they wanted their university to implement several changes. Most notably, they asked that song be replaced with "a new song without racist undertones" while lifting the requirement for players to sing it after games.
While the university moved forward with some of those demands, it kept the alma mater with the caveat that it would teach its origins, which are traced to minstrel shows with performers in blackface during the early 1900s. Still, "The Eyes of Texas" was a season-long ordeal that nearly came to a head in October following the loss to Oklahoma when most of the team headed to the locker room instead of staying on the field for the song.
The idea of not singing or otherwise removing the song angered many fans and donors, and now we know just how much. A collection of emails from UT alumni and donors were obtained by The Texas Tribune and the details are pretty ugly. The publication notes that more than 70% of the nearly 300 people who emailed university president Jay Hartzell's office about "The Eyes of Texas" from June to October of last year demanded the school keep playing it. Around 75 people threatened to stop supporting the school financially -- though whether anyone actually followed through wasn't specified. While Texas has more than 500,000 living alumni, some of the emails obtained by open records requests included opinions such as:
"It's time for you to put the foot down and make it perfectly clear that the heritage of Texas will not be lost," wrote a donor who graduated in 1986. Their name was redacted by UT-Austin. "It is sad that it is offending the blacks. 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."
"Less than 6% of our current student body is black," wrote Larry Wilkinson, a donor who graduated in 1970, quoting a statistic UT-Austin officials have stated they're working to improve. "The tail cannot be allowed to wag the dog….. and the dog must instead stand up for what is right. Nothing forces those students to attend UT Austin. Encourage them to select an alternate school ….NOW!"
A day after the Tribune released the emails, Hartzell released the following statement:
People who target our students with hateful views do not represent the values of the Longhorn community. A few extremist views in the sample of emails the Texas Tribune reported on do not speak for the 540,000 proud Longhorn alumni who actively support our students and university. Out of the many emails I received this fall, a very small number included comments that were truly abhorrent and hateful. I categorically reject them, and they bear no influence on any aspect of our decision-making.
The fact that we don't all agree on our school song doesn't mean that we don't all belong. Next week, the Eyes of Texas History Committee will release its report. Equipped with a common set of facts, we will then continue the conversation about our song. Having spoken to students and faculty on the committee, I truly believe we can be a model for how communities address complex problems and move forward together.
A follow-up report from the Tribune, published Wednesday, shed more light on how players were instructed to handle the matter last season. Specifically, two Longhorns players told the publication that they were instructed by school officials during October to remain on the field for the song to appease fans and donors. The meeting came after the Oklahoma game, according to the report. Junior linebacker DeMarvion Overshown shed more light on the October meeting in an interview with the Texas Tribune.
"They said y'all don't have to sing it. But y'all have to stay on the field. Y'all have to go over there and at least show fans appreciation for coming out and watching you guys play," junior linebacker DeMarvion Overshown said.
Additionally, Overshown suggested to the Tribune that players were warned of potential repercussions for angering donors.
"It was really eye opening," he said. "These are some high-power people that come to see you play and they can keep you from getting a job in the state of Texas. It was shocking that they said that. To this day I still think back to the moment. They really used that as a threat to get us to try to do what they wanted us to do."
Former coach Tom Herman knew that forcing players to sing a song that may be offensive to them was a near-impossible ask. While he attempted to keep both sides calm, he strongly supported his players and pushed against them being told to "shut up and play" on Saturdays.
Herman was fired for performance, but the content of these emails clearly show there was pressure beyond the field on how boosters want the program to run.
Now Steve Sarkisian inherits a precarious position. Texas likely isn't the only school with boosters who share this mindset, but Longhorns donors do seem to be louder about it. He has already said the song will continue to be sung after games this year.