Texas boosters threaten to withhold funds, deny jobs to athletes over school song

Clarence E. Hill Jr.
·6 min read

“What starts here changes the world” has been the official trade-marked slogan of the University of Texas since 2005.

But a more apt slogan might be “Money talks.”

Everything about Texas has always started and ended with money, especially when it comes to the once-proud football program.

From the Permanent University Fund, which is fueled by 2.1 million acres of oil and gas land in West Texas, to the athletic department, which still made a profit of $22.1 million in 2019-20, despite the COVID-10 pandemic.

Financial largess is what Texas does best and seemingly respects most.

And there appears to be no room for racial awakenings, based on the findings of a Texas Tribune report on the lingering controversy surrounding the Texas Longhorns football program and the school song, “The Eyes of Texas.”

Roughly 75 of the school’s wealthiest boosters threatened to withdraw their financial support in the summer and fall of 2020 after several members of the football team refused to sing the popular school song because of it’s black-faced minstrel show origin and perceived racist overtones.

The player action was part of a larger movement that began following the death of George Floyd last May. In June, students demanded that the university shed past relics of racism and some athletes threatened to not show up at donor events if the university didn’t take action.

The school announced in July that it would change the name of some buildings, rename the football field after Heisman Trophy winners Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams and erect a statue for the school’s first Black letterman Julius Whittier among other concessions.

But Texas President Jay Hartzell said the song would remain.

In October, Hartzell formed a committee to review and document the history of “The Eyes of Texas” and provided options for how the school can learn from its past, which is rooted in Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s famous phrase about the “Eyes of the South is upon you” and is sung to the tune of the “I been working on the railroad” which is rooted in the racist “Levee Song.”

The report is due later this month.

Based on The Texas Tribune report, which examined 300 emails to the president’s office from last June to October, the damage may be beyond repair from a public relations and recruiting perspective.

Over 70% of the nearly 300 people who emailed Hartzell’s office demanded the school keep playing the song. Roughly 75 people explicitly threatened to stop supporting the school financially.

“My wife and I have given an endowment in excess of $1 million to athletics. This could very easily be rescinded if things don’t drastically change around here,” one donor wrote in an email to Hartzell in October. “Has everyone become oblivious of who supports athletics??”

“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 another donor who graduated in 1986. “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.”

Added Steven Arnold, a retired administrative law judge and UT-Austin law school graduate: “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.”

The article in The Texas Tribune came as no surprise to members of the Texas football team who were part of the initial protest over the summer.

Former safety Caden Sterns said some alumni told him and his teammates that they would have to “find jobs outside of Texas.”

“My teammates and I got threatened by some alumni that we would have to find jobs outside of Texas if we didn’t participate [in singing the song],” Sterns said in a tweet Monday in response to The Texas Tribune report.

Junior linebacker DeMarvion Overshown said via Twitter Monday that he received death threats: “When we put out the statement, I received many hateful things including death threats! But that never bothered me...it was the promises that were broken and the fact that they TRIED to strip us of our freedom. No where in my NIL does it say ‘you have to sing’ to play here.”

The players were initially given a choice not to stay on the field and sing the school song by former coach Tom Herman. They were strongly asked to remain on field for the final three home games and the Alamo Bowl.

It won’t be an issue under new coach Steve Sarkisian, who made his intentions toward the song clear in his opening press conference.

“I know this much,” Sarkisian said, “’The Eyes of Texas’ is our school song. We’re going to sing that song. We’re going to sing that proudly.”

Sarkisian can keep the players on the field. He can’t make them sing.

What does seem certain is that there will be no changes to the song, based on the financial rhetoric from boosters.

Billionaire businessman and alumnus Bob Rowling, whose holding company owns Omni Hotels and whose name graces a building within the McCombs School of Business, was among the donors who reached out to Hartzell.

“I am not advising you or taking any position regarding this issue right now, other than to say ‘The Eyes’ needs to be our song,” Rowling wrote. “I AM wanting you to be aware of the ‘talk about town’ regarding UT. There are a lot of folks on this email chain who love UT and are in positions of influence.”

Rowling stood by his email in a follow up interview with the Texas Tribune.

“My advice to Jay was these alumni have given and are giving,” Rowling said. “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.’”

Will the university continue to side with the big money donors over its student athletes and many student groups who feel the way about the song?

If so, how will that impact minority enrollment and recruitment going forward?

Sarkisian has reeled in seven commitments since taking hold of the Longhorns program in January.

Black student enrollment was at 5.3 percent for the Fall of 2020. In July, the Texas athletic department promised a multi-million dollar investment into campus efforts to recruit, attract, retain and support Black students.

Now, that the Texas Tribune report is out and the inner feelings of many powerful Texas boosters have been revealed, does any of that even matter?

Money talks.