Last month, Shuronda Robinson was scrolling through the news when she came across an article discussing Texas Longhorn football players’ June 4 march from Darrell K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium to the Texas Capitol. The team was protesting in response to the killing of George Floyd, and dozens of players, coaches, and support staff were there together. Robinson couldn’t believe it. She logged on to Facebook and tracked down an old friend from college, Shola Lynch. A former All-American UT track star, Lynch is now a Peabody Award–winning documentarian. Robinson clicked on her profile to write a message. “Shola,” Robinson wrote. “This is what we dreamed of. They’re doing it.”
In 1990, Robinson was a freshman education major and activist involved in the Black Student Alliance; Lynch was a sophomore track athlete and Plan II student. The pair became close that spring, when a series of racist incidents at UT led to a wave of student activism and demands for change. At the forefront of those protests were student athletes, and Lynch, with Robinson’s help, worked to organize a rally that saw about one hundred athletes march through campus calling for justice. It’s a movement that’s been lost to memory but predated the current Longhorn athletes’ demands for equality, as well as advances at Texas A&M, by thirty years (UT recently announced sweeping changes in response to this year’s demands).
Walk through the doors of Jester West dormitory in April 1990, and you would have heard debate about how to respond to egregious acts by two fraternities on campus: one frat had spray-painted a car at a party to say “F– Coons” and “F— You N— Die,” shortly before another sold T-shirts for an annual basketball tournament with a Sambo caricature’s head pasted onto Michael Jordan. Jester was a hub for Black students at the time, and undergraduates there discussed how to use the outrage to make Texas more welcoming toward minority students. Late-night debates eventually morphed into a student-written proposal titled “Proposed Reforms in Diversity Education,” or PRIDE. It called for the university to hire more minority professors and incorporate more diverse works into curricula. “When I was a student at UT,” explains Robinson, “I took Black literature, but it didn’t count towards my degree. It counted as an elective.”
Throughout April 1990, students marched through campus weekly. “In 20 years I’ve never seen so much life in the students,” history professor Tom Philpott Sr. told the Daily Texan at the time. One evening, a crowd of more than a thousand gathered outside the fraternity that had distributed the racist T-shirts, shouting “Hey, hey, ho, ho, racist frat boys have to go!” The activists garnered some media coverage, but they lacked leverage. “We could protest,” says Robinson, “and we could make demands and share our concerns, but as students, we really didn’t have any power to effect change. The only group on campus at that time, and probably today, that really had power to affect the system were the athletes.” Lynch had been involved with activist groups on campus since taking classes on African American history, but she and Robinson struggled to get other players to join Lynch en masse. Most didn’t want the attention.
That changed on the evening of Friday, April 13. President William Cunningham, feeling pressured by demonstrations, called a hasty speech on the steps of the UT Tower. Immediately before, someone from Cunningham’s office asked two basketball stars and a football player to come to the Tower without telling them why, according to the Daily Texan (Cunningham tells Texas Monthly that he doesn’t remember how the players got on stage that day). The athletes were placed prominently behind his podium to look as if they were lending their support, stage decorations in an apology tour. “Racial insensitivity will not be tolerated on this campus,” he said at one point, but more than 1,500 protesters booed him off the stage before he could finish his remarks. “Many students feel it was just a new version of the same old speech, with just a few references to current events to make it relevant,” one student told the Daily Texan after the event. “They made their minds up before I spoke,” Cunningham tells Texas Monthly.
The next day, at the athletes’ dining hall, swimmer Shaun Jordan approached Guillermo “Panama” Myers, one of the basketball players who had been stationed behind Cunningham. Jordan, a junior, was one of the most accomplished athletes on campus at the time. He had just returned from leading the Longhorns to their third straight national championship, and, even more impressive, he already had a gold medal from his time on the American 4×100 team that won at the 1988 Summer Olympics.
“What the hell?” Jordan asked Myers. “What’s going on, how did that happen?”
“We got tricked,” said Myers.
The racist acts by the fraternities, which went largely unpunished, were painful enough—but now that administration had used athletes in an empty show of support, many decided they wouldn’t stand for it. You can still hear the outrage in Jordan’s voice today. “I was like, ‘Oh, come on,’” he says. “‘Really? This is happening?’ It doesn’t represent the student body. It doesn’t represent the athletic department. It was not fair to use UT athletes like that.”
Jordan, Lynch, and several other athletes huddled late one night to plan a coordinated response. They formed a group called the Student Athlete Coalition, and they wanted to march. In preparation, Jordan wrote a series of editorials in the Texan, decrying Cunningham’s use of the athletes as a “stage-managed minstrel show.” Lynch and Robinson tried to garner support for a rally by cold-calling every athlete they could think of, finding phone numbers in the student directory. “We’re planning a protest,” they’d explain. “Would you join?”
Lynch says that women were usually eager to join. Why? “Women’s athletics is born out of protest,” she says. The men were harder to persuade. Robinson remembers one football player who said he wanted to protest but was worried about losing his scholarship, although both Lynch and Jordan say they had the full support of their coaches. Jordan used his high profile to schedule a meeting with longtime athletic director DeLoss Dodds. “I support you, but just remember to be a gentleman. You represent the University of Texas,” Jordan remembers Dodds telling him.
Even Earl Campbell, the Heisman Trophy–winning running back, was on their side. In a column in the Austin Weekly, Campbell, who was employed by the athletic department at the time, wrote, “Somebody has to be a leader. I support the football and basketball players … They are some of the leaders on campus, and if they, as part of the student body, think it’s important to support the rally, I agree with them.”
Around midday on Wednesday, May 2, a hundred athletes and dozens of other students gathered by the athletic dorms to begin their march. “It was a large group,” says Jordan. “I remember not believing how many people had showed up.” Players from nearly every team on campus had come to demand that Cunningham apologize and adopt the PRIDE proposals. “We students were like Sleeping Beauty, and we were kissed by a prince,” Lynch said during a speech at the event. “Now we are awake.”
“The administration and the professors were shocked,” Lynch remembers. “They’d never seen a group [of athletes] come out and march.”
Afterward, Cunningham invited some athletes to meet with him, and at the meeting, Jordan confronted the president, whose apology he thought seemed insincere. “He just never got it. He never, ever got it,” he says. But then the administration caught a break. Summer vacation arrived, everybody went home, and the pressure was off. “Nothing can change the course of a student revolution as quickly as final exam week or an impending summer vacation,” wrote Cunningham in his 2013 memoir, The Texas Way. The PRIDE proposal foundered in the faculty senate.
Cunningham says that he worked extensively to address diversity at the university. “In my seven years as president, there were probably not more than a couple days that passed that we were not focusing on some portion of the minority question, and that had to do with recruitment of faculty, the recruiting of students, [and] how we dealt with staff,” he says. “Something was on the burner with that almost every day.”
There were some victories: Lynch was elected to student government the next year and used her position to help start the Minority Information Center, a place where minority students could find resources to help them with the transition to UT. Robinson was one of the center’s first codirectors. And for a generation of student athletes it became apparent that they didn’t have to stick to sports. After graduation, the leaders of the movement became award-winning historians, Olympic gold medalists, pastors, entrepreneurs, and coaches.
But over the years, their movement has been largely forgotten. Texas Monthly spoke with several current players across UT athletics, and none of them had any knowledge of the marches of the nineties, even as their eyes were being opened to the same realization of who really holds power.
“That’s the kind of erasing of accomplishment that comes with not telling the stories, not writing them down, and having only one version,” Lynch says. “So the version probably is, ‘Everybody else who came through never thought about it, never did anything about it, never protested,’ and that’s not true. That’s not true. It erases Black and brown agency.”
College athletes have long occupied a strange liminal space on campus. On one hand, they’re some of the most revered members of the student body; they’re certainly the most visible. On the other, they’re expected to keep their heads down and focus on their sport. “It’s super exciting to see the awakening of the athletes … who are beginning to understand both their power and privilege and to be unafraid to speak out,” Lynch says. “If you can’t do it in the university environment, we’re screwed as a culture.”
When UT’s administration announced reforms this month in response to athlete activism, the reaction from many Longhorn players was gratitude, pride, and caution; others expressed dismay that the university decided to keep “The Eyes of Texas” as its unofficial fight song. Nearly everyone was quick to note that the announcement was a great first step but only a first step, nonetheless. There is still work to do at the university, discussions that have been simmering for three decades. “That’s the gift of the progression of generations,” Robinson says. “The next generation should be freer and more powerful and more liberated to contribute and live their best life.”