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College athletes are speaking out on troublesome campus traditions. It's time to listen.
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College athletes are speaking out on troublesome campus traditions. It's time to listen.

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Back in the day while playing Trivial Pursuit with a couple of recent college grads, one of the kids complained about the fairness of a question from the yellow-wedge category. The incident in question, she argued, took place before she was even born.

Yes, I told her, history is like that. The world didn't start with you, no matter what your parents say.

Used to be you couldn't hold a kid to anything that happened before Friday night. Most couldn't tell you antebellum from Auntie Mame. But they're catching up now, and with a vengeance, you might say.

College athletes all over the nation - and in particular down in Austin - are flush with information about the occasionally troublesome traditions on their campuses. As a result, they're demanding to be heard. And if they're not, Longhorn football players say, they won't take part in rituals that help make Texas the nation's richest football program.

Some of the demands are easy enough to accommodate. Got a building named after Robert Lee Moore, a math professor and segregationist who for years denied black students entry to his classes? Seems like a no-brainer to me. Besides, wiping his name off the building could afford school officials fresh naming rights on a campus that's more landlocked by the day.

Before they announce any new titles, though, they might want to check the bona fides of the bidders, just in case. Hate to have to do this all over again in another hundred years.

Some of the players' other demands are more problematic. Especially for Texas alums and donors attached to "The Eyes of Texas," the school spirit song. The problem isn't necessarily the lyrics, though there's a wink at Robert E. Lee's admonishment about the "eyes of the South." At issue is the song's birth in an early-20th-century minstrel show performed in blackface.

Let me first say that, as a Houston alum, I've got no dog in this hunt. Maybe that's why it's easier to see both sides. At the very least, players shouldn't be required to sing it if they find it offensive. It's also worthy of discussion among players and school officials, as Texas' athletic director, Chris Del Conte, has acknowledged.

All those who responded in anger to the players' protests might do well to pause to consider that it could have been worse. Players asked that some facet of Royal-Memorial Stadium be named after Julius Whittier, the Longhorns' first black football player. What they didn't ask is that Darrell Royal's name be removed, along with his likeness out front.

Royal was agonizingly slow to integrate his football program, and though he no doubt met resistance from regents and boosters in the '60s, it's clear he didn't use his considerable clout to force the issue, either. By 1963, he owned Texas' only national football title. Who would have denied him then if it meant he'd leave if he didn't get what he wanted? Imagine if Royal had been as bold as Hayden Fry, who told SMU officials before he took the job in 1962 that he wouldn't come unless he could integrate the football program. And all he had on his resume at the time was a couple of stops as an assistant at Baylor and Arkansas. The difference in priorities is why Royal may be the greatest college football coach in the state's glorious history, but Fry remains the most important.

For the record, Royal came to regret that he didn't stand on his principles sooner. Asher Price's book, Earl Campbell: Yards After Contact, spells out how gregarious Ken Dabbs sold the Tyler Rose on Texas, not Royal. Black families were well aware of Royal's history. He'd famously passed on Jerry LeVias. Told Dabbs in '66 when he suggested the talents of Elmo Wright for Texas, "Unfortunately, at this stage of the game, we're not ready to take that step."

Of course, you say, all that was a half-century ago and times have changed. Not as much as you think, probably. Anyway, the point here is not to make a case that Royal was a racist, only that for too long he came down on the wrong side of history. Something for the rest of us to remember in times like these.

As for what's next in the crosshairs of student-athletes, who knows? One of these days it'll occur to someone that half of Mount Rushmore is populated by former slaveholders.

Now, I'm not saying we should reflexively trash our history or the icons served up to us all those years in school. Far from it. Perspective is important. But it should all be fair game for discussion. If our current condition has taught us anything, it's that an open accounting of the facts is necessary in all facets of our lives.

Meanwhile, try to be a little more open-minded when it comes to kids these days. Some of you grew up in the tempestuous '60s and were shaped by them. Or should have been. Maybe you've forgotten. Fortunately, we live in an era when you can look up anything, as some of us are just now finding out.

Visit The Dallas Morning News at www.dallasnews.com

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