As if two losses in four games to open the season weren’t enough to rile up a frustrated fan base, many supporters of the University of Texas football team see a program lacking in unity.
That starts with university athletics director Chris Del Conte, who said he expects the team to stand as one and sing “The Eyes of Texas” — despite its racist roots — after each game, as has been tradition.
His expectations have fallen short of late, with senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger the lone Longhorn singing “The Eyes” after their four-overtime loss to rival Oklahoma at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on Oct. 10.
“Many of your questions have been about our student-athletes and the confusion about why they have not remained on the field for ‘The Eyes of Texas’ after the games,” Conte wrote in his Longhorns blog, Forty Acres Insider. “I, like so many of you, view the song with pride and sing loudly and proudly in honor of the efforts of those who represent and support this phenomenal institution. As much as our student-athletes love this University, they have questions about the history of ‘The Eyes’ and concerns about it.”
The concerns have to do with the roots of the song, which surrounds blackface minstrel shows.
“As you are aware, this past summer, during the height of civil unrest in our country, some of [the players] brought to our attention their concerns over a number of issues on campus, including the origin of the song,” Conte continued. “President [Jay] Hartzell was absolutely clear that ‘The Eyes’ is and will remain our school song, but in an effort to further understand its origins, full history, and how it’s evolved over time, he established a committee to study, contextualize, and reclaim the song’s origin. We believe it is important to understand the history as we continue to perform it.”
The song was derived from a saying that former UT President William Prather uttered the day he was named to the position in 1899. In an address to students on the first day of school, Prather said: “I would like to paraphrase [former Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s] utterance, and say to you, ‘Forward, young men and women of the University, the eyes of Texas are upon you!”
From then on, it would become his catch phrase, Texas Monthly said.
Those words stuck with UT student Lewis Johnson who, in 1902, turned them into a school song with the aid of John L. Sinclair, the editor of the yearbook, according to Texas Monthly.
What started as a poem was tweaked by the students into song lyrics sung to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”
“The Eyes of Texas are upon you,
All the livelong day.
The Eyes of Texas are upon you,
You cannot get away.
Do not think you can escape them
At night or early in the morn —
The Eyes of Texas are upon you
‘Til Gabriel blows his horn.”
The song was commonly featured in minstrel shows, which were fundraiser events put together by students, sung primarily by white performers in blackface. These performances went on well into the 1960s, Texas Monthly said.
Civil protests swept the country over the summer, sprung from the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died while in police custody on May 25.He died after now-fired Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for about eight minutes, as three other officers didn’t intervene. All four were fired and charged.
All across the nation, protesters have taken aim at statues, monuments and school names that have historical ties to slavery and colonialism — from Lee to Christopher Columbus — in addition to protesting police brutality and racial injustice.
Led by members of the UT football team, Black student-athletes posted a two-page later on social media in June, demanding that the school eliminate racist connections to the university’s past – including “The Eyes of Texas,” the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.
The students said that if their demands were not met by the fall semester, they would boycott recruiting and booster-related events, the Star-Telegram reported.
Shortly after students posted their list on Twitter, Hartzell responded in a letter posted on the school’s website, saying that he was scheduling conversations with students and leaders of Black student organizations to gain more insight into the requests.
“Working together, we will create a plan this summer to address these issues, do better for our students and help overcome racism,” Hartzell wrote.
However, a month later, Hartzell said in another statement that the song would stay and that he preferred to “acknowledge and teach about all aspects of the origins of ‘The Eyes of Texas’ as we continue to sing it moving forward with a redefined vision that unites our community.”
According to The Washington Post, players did not join in the singing of the song after the first two games, while Ehlinger was the lone player to remain on the field after last week’s 53-45 loss to OU at the Cotton Bowl.
In his blog, Conte said that from that moment on, he expects UT players to remain on the field and stand during the playing of “The Eyes” as the university attempts to figure out a way to ring in a new era during civil unrest.
“I do want to clarify that I have had many conversations with our head coaches outlining my expectations that our teams show appreciation for our University, fans, and supporters by standing together as a unified group for ‘The Eyes,’ while we work through this issue,” he wrote.
“However, like all families who see the world through different lenses, we have plenty of work to do on this subject and will continue to do so, but rest assured, our student-athletes love and respect this University very much and are competing their hearts out for it.“