Texas Football: “The Eyes of Texas” are unsure where to look next

Texas Longhorns sing "The Eyes of Texas' after beating the Baylor Bears 26-16 in the NCAA college football game on Saturday, October 24, 2020; Austin, Texas, at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.Rbb Texas Baylor
Texas Longhorns sing "The Eyes of Texas' after beating the Baylor Bears 26-16 in the NCAA college football game on Saturday, October 24, 2020; Austin, Texas, at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.Rbb Texas Baylor /

The surrounding controversy of “The Eyes of Texas” can teach us all a valuable history lesson. Can a new report show the way forward?

On Tuesday, the long-awaited report on “The Eyes of Texas” finally was released by the University of Texas, and in the end, many will be unsatisfied with its results.

In recent months, the school song has generated controversy for its supposed ties to racist origins as many have questioned whether the tradition should be continued.

According to the report, the song was not found to be intentionally racist but likely made its debut during a minstrel show in the early 20th century with performers in blackface. However, the 24-member committee could not find a direct link that the phrase “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You” originated from a saying by Robert E. Lee as was previously believed.

The man who coined the phrase, William Prather, appears to have been inspired by Confederate leaders who used similar sayings, but “the eyes of” has its origins long before the Confederacy in a variety of historical sources.

“There’s no smoking gun,” said Richard Reddick, the chairman of the committee behind the study. “There’s nothing that either vindicates or implicates ‘The Eyes of Texas.’”

Yet, this news feels more like an epilogue to the renewed debate over the past year.

In Texas, state pride is unlike anywhere else in the country, and football is a religion. “The Eyes of Texas” has been sung before and after Longhorn games for generations. The anthem has been a unifying force, a means of strengthening social bonds, and is fundamental to their identity.

However, the song was known to have ties to a racist origin. Its identity compromised; the song now divides fans as it serves as a constant reminder of a shameful past. As more people became aware of its history, players chose not to stay on the field during its rendition, and the band even decided to stop playing the tune at games later last season. Obviously, this did not sit well with some who supported the song.

In a damning article published last week by the Texas Tribune, emails obtained from upset donors demanded players be required to participate in the university tradition or else they would pull their donations from the school. Several even argued that Black students who were offended should leave the school or the state. According to Longhorn player Caden Sterns, alumni had threatened that players would “have to find jobs outside of Texas if we didn’t participate.”

These bombshell revelations turned out to be more damaging than anything found in the report. In addition to private conversations, people who have voiced opposition to the song often have found themselves the repeated targets of online criticism. It might be enough to make players and students take pause when deciding whether to attend the university.

In the article, the opinions of this segment of the wealthy alumni base are suggested to be representative of the part of the fanbase who want to keep the song. Their emails supposedly bare a naked truth underneath the layers of “tradition” and “school pride.” Anyone who supports the song also supports these people by extension, some of whom appear to harbor racial prejudice.

Undoubtedly, some of their opinions are completely unacceptable. However, their complaints might be less racially motivated but are driven by a deeper desire for them – power. These are the same people who want to have their names attached to buildings and scholarships and who feel like they are contributing to the team’s success while they sit high above in their luxury skyboxes in the stadium, disconnected from the crowd. Threatening players’ future job prospects is an extension of their perceived influence.

Like fans who said that they would boycott the NFL over players choosing to kneel over the national anthem, it was never about football. Instead, they are trying to take action against the shifting cultural forces. Money talks, which many believe is the main reason “The Eyes” has remained.

Despite this, the debate continues for the rest of the fanbase over the song’s meaning as part of a larger discussion the United States is having about who we are and who we want to be. As awareness of systemic racism in this country increases, the easiest places to initiate change appear to be the everyday reminders of our nation’s past. Over the past few years, the names of buildings have been changed, statues have been removed, and flags have been replaced.

However, the findings of the report on “The Eyes of Texas” reveal a much more complicated history behind the song. Its lyrics and intent were not found to be “overtly racist,” but like many artifacts throughout human existence, “The Eyes” grew from dubious origins that compose the detritus of history. It happened to have the misfortune of being included in the school’s early minstrel shows alongside other songs whose intent was to parody Black culture. If anything, trying to separate the two from each other reveals a deeper issue that racism is not a stain on society but is woven into the fabric.

So if the song was originally associated with racism, how much racist meaning can still be assigned to it? As a symbol, the song’s interpretation can be questioned. Symbols are abstractions whose meaning is subjective.  They arguably have no inherent morality but are shaped by a time and place. This can result in something having more than one meaning.

An American flag can be an expression of patriotism here in the United States, and at the same time, it can be an inflammatory symbol in another country on the other side of the world. A confederate statue can be a symbol of ancestral heritage and still be a reminder of what the Confederacy stood for.

That said, the prevailing cultural opinion shaped by these forces can replace subjective interpretations of symbols with objective ones. Nobody is mistaking a swastika for anything other than what it is despite its original Buddhist origins.

For Longhorn fans, the song’s interpretation is still up for debate as they find themselves split on the issue with one eye on the past and one on the present. Each person must decide what “The Eyes of Texas” means for them. If nothing else, the report earlier this week should help educate those who struggle with its meaning.

Texas president Jay Hartzell has wanted to keep the song. In an interview with Longhorn Network, he stated that he wants to start a discourse that will create a shared understanding.

"“The hope is that everybody will use this report as an opportunity to come forward with the same fact base and be able to have more conversations, certainly including with our student-athletes.”"

In a university-wide email sent last Friday, Hartzell wrote, “The conversation on social media suggests we can’t solve problems together. But when we gather face to face, we naturally gravitate toward humility, empathy, and problem-solving.”

It is a reasoned take, and if the song can ever unify the fanbase again, this might be its only chance. Unity is often misunderstood to mean solidarity. More often, it means finding a middle ground. As our country continues to become more divided, it is a return to the principles that we are losing sight of.

For most fans, the song has always been set in the present. The people who have sung it have changed and so has its meaning. No longer does “The Eyes” represent an all-white student body but people of all races. The diversity of those raising their collective voice during its rendition is a rebuke to the legacy of the past.

Still, that does not mean that fans should ignore the song’s history. The process of reckoning with it remains uncomfortable for many people. For them, retaining the song would instead be a compromise of the values that America should aspire to attain.

Given that the song will continue to be “problematic” for years to come, perhaps parting ways with “The Eyes of Texas” would be best for the university in the long run despite the objections of donors and those who still support the song. This would appear to be the simplest, most decisive fix to the issue. Instead of trying to own the history, they should start a new one.

However, replacing a shared tradition goes beyond any tangible drop-off in donations it would bring. By getting rid of it, many fans also lose something that is harder to define. Something that connects them to everyone else while remaining deeply personal to every individual. Perhaps it might be thought of as a “soul” that is at stake.

The song appears like it will continue to stay for the foreseeable future and so will the debate. In the report, the university has said that students should not be required to sing the song. Whether the football players will be required to be on the field while it is played remains to be seen.

Reddick, who is black, has acknowledged that there are no easy answers. “This is the story of the US, the story of Texas. So a lot of time, there’s one step forward is one step back. And that’s really the story here.”

As the football team struggles on the field to return to national prominence, many have wondered whether Texas will ever “be back.” As long as the university struggles with a different set of questions off the field, many now wonder if “The Eyes of Texas” can ever look forward.