Weeks before the University of Texas’s 2020 football season was defined by a nearly 120-year-old song, the team huddled with then-coach Tom Herman to talk about not singing it.

It was the height of last summer’s racial reckoning. Several Black players expressed concern about the postgame tradition of belting out the school’s alma mater, “The Eyes of Texas”; its title was believed to have been inspired by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, and it was first performed in a minstrel show.

The choice was theirs, players were told. They would not be forced to remain on the field and sing following games. The marching band even elected not to play it.

But then the Longhorns lost a big rivalry game, and fans noticed the players’ absence during the playing of “The Eyes of Texas.” Cue the uproar. Fans criticized players on social media. Alumni sent an avalanche of emails to administrators, including some that invoked racist tropes. Big-pocketed donors threatened to end their patronage.

Months later, the song remains a postgame tradition in Austin. And while school officials insist athletes aren’t required to sing it, the pressure on them appears here to stay, too.

Herman is gone. Newly hired football coach Steve Sarkisian, at his introductory news conference, told reporters, “We’re going to sing that song, [and] we’re going to sing it proudly.” And Tuesday, the university published a 59-page report that determined the intent of the song is not “overtly racist” and encouraged students to “participate” in the tradition.

University of Texas President Jay Hartzell, who commissioned the report, had already pledged to keep the song. He tasked the committee of faculty experts, students and archivists not with determining the tradition’s fate but with uncovering its history, he told reporters. If the committee unearthed new and damaging information about “The Eyes of Texas,” he might have reconsidered, he said. But it didn’t.

No athletes, cheerleaders or band members will be penalized for not singing or performing “The Eyes of Texas,” Hartzell said. “Nobody has been or will be required to sing the song,” he said.

But he said he hoped the report would encourage students to find ways to take part in the school tradition. This includes the most scrutinized group involved in the debate: football players.

“We hope that as people go through the report, read through the facts, that they’ll find ways to participate in some way,” Hartzell said. “But there’s going to be no punishment, no mandate, no requirement if people choose not to participate.”

There probably will, however, be backlash for players who don’t, and more frustration among players who feel pressure to sing.

“I signed up to play football, not … [to] sing a song at the end of the game,” said one current Texas football player, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing retribution from the team. “That’s not what I signed up for.”

Red River controversy

The song became a flash point in June, when several football players shared a letter on social media, demanding change on behalf of the campus’s athletes. The list included renaming buildings and adding statues of more diverse Longhorns. The final charge was for the school to replace “The Eyes of Texas” with a new song without “racist undertones.”

According to the current football player, Herman allowed players to express themselves about the song, and other matters of racial injustice, during a summer team meeting. Among his college coaching peers, Herman stood out as one of the first to make a statement after George Floyd died in police custody. He placed the decision of whether to sing the song in his team’s hands, the player said.

Early last season, several players left the field before the song was played following games against Texas El Paso and Texas Christian. Then, on Oct. 10, Texas lost its annual rivalry game, the Red River Showdown, against Oklahoma. An image went viral of senior Sam Ehlinger, the team’s White quarterback, appearing to stand alone while making the “Hook ‘em Horns” hand signal during the alma mater. Many in the fan base erupted in anger.

Former Longhorns defensive back Caden Sterns, who spoke out about the song last season, said he heard about threats from alumni that he would have to find work outside Texas if he didn’t sing. “I’ve already received so much BS, you can say, as part of this whole thing,” Sterns said in a recent interview.

Sterns described Texas as his “dream” school but declared for the NFL draft after his junior season of 2020. He said the controversy factored into his decision to leave school early.

“Partially, it did, honestly,” he said. “I knew for sure that I wasn’t going back to Texas.”

Fans also took their complaints to the top. University administrators were flooded with emails, many obtained by the Austin American-Statesman, in the aftermath of the Oklahoma game.

“Get rid of players before you get rid of the song,” wrote one donor, whose name was redacted. “If you give in it will never end, they will just demand something else. … If the University concedes to the blackmail of our student athletes and stops playing the Eyes of Texas; I will never give another dollar of donations to the Athletic department or the school that I love.”

“The players on this team ... are low character thugs that are stealing from the University and embarrassing former students who love UT,” another alum, whose name was also redacted, emailed Hartzell.

In another email, the women’s volleyball team was singled out.

“If your girls do not want to sing the Eyes of Texas, then you tell them to get their butts OFF the court so we can sing it with pride and not be disgusted by their somber huddle,” wrote a person who identified as a season ticket holder.

The Longhorns football player, who said he believes the song’s origins are racist, said there was another team meeting following the backlash from the Oklahoma game. This time, Herman and the school’s athletic director, Chris Del Conte, led the session.

“We start losing, his job is on the line: Okay, now you got to stand. Now you’ve got to stay out there,” the player said in an interview last month. “Now Del Conte is saying we’ve got to stay out there because it’s dividing our fan base. That’s what we were told: We had to stand out there because it’s dividing our fan base.

“Okay, it sounds to me that they’re threatening your money,” the player continued, “because just before the season, you said we didn’t have to stand out there, but now we’ve got to stand out there, we’ve got to stay on the field before the song is over with.”

‘A better set of facts’

In the report published Tuesday, the Eyes of Texas History Committee confirmed widely known facts about the song’s origins. It dates to 1902, when a pair of students penned the lyrics as a way to satirize a phrase often used by William Prather, the university’s president at the time.

A version of historical events that once appeared on the official Texas alumni website reported Prather had taken and revised the phrase from Lee (“the eyes of the South are upon you”), but the committee found no direct link between Prather’s line and Lee.

The report also confirmed the song debuted at a show in which singers performed in blackface May 12, 1903 — a painful and uncomfortable reality of the time, members of the history committee acknowledged. Still, the committee concluded it is “very unlikely” the quartet removed the blackface makeup before performing the song.

“The research leads us to surmise that intent of ‘The Eyes of Texas’ was not overtly racist,” the committee wrote. “However, it is similarly clear that the cultural milieu that produced it was.”

Hartzell said he hopes the report will help change minds on campus — and in the Longhorns’ locker room. He said he planned to meet with the football team Tuesday to address the report.

“It’s going to be an ongoing set of conversations, and I know for groups like the band there’s going to continue to be those discussions,” Hartzell said, “now we believe and hope armed with a better set of facts as we go forward.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the committee found that was “likely” the quartet removed blackface makeup before performing the song. The report found that it was very unlikely.