Former UT basketball star Imani McGee-Stafford wants her alma mater to show up for its Black student-athletes
‘I love the University of Texas … but at the same time, like when you love something, you critique it because you expect it to be better.’
Imani McGee-Stafford remembers making the connection during her sophomore year.
After every game as a University of Texas at Austin student-athlete, McGee-Stafford, who played for the women’s basketball team from 2012-16, was expected to face her home crowd, raise up her right hand to mimic a symbol of the school’s famed Longhorn mascot and recite the school’s fight song, “The Eyes of Texas.”
“It’s like something that’s ingrained in you. Your freshman year, they tell you you can’t play if you don’t learn the school song,” McGee-Stafford said. “It’s probably a joke, but, like, as a freshman, you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, I need to learn the song.’ You have to sing it after every game, that’s not a debate.”
After her first year of singing the school anthem, McGee-Stafford noticed the song’s similarity to a popular children’s song.
“Our song literally is ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.’ That’s what the beat is,” McGee-Stafford said. “I remember figuring that out and being like, wait a minute.”
The school’s song, which was derived from the tune “Levee Song,” has a racist history rooted in minstrel shows in the 20th century. The school anthem can also be linked to Confederate general Robert E. Lee. William Prather, the school’s third president, attended Washington College (now known as Washington and Lee University) of which Lee was president. Lee commonly used the phrase “The eyes of the South are upon you” when addressing faculty and students. Prather later adapted the phrase to “The eyes of Texas are upon you.”
McGee-Stafford said the school fight song is just one example of the microaggressions that are “built into the system” at Texas and have negatively contributed to the Black experience at the university for Black students.
“I don’t think people are racist at Texas,” McGee-Stafford said. “It’s a racist institution because it’s built through these things. These microaggressions are interwoven throughout our campus. We walk through and we have a Robert E. Lee statue [The Lee statue was removed in 2017, after McGee-Stafford graduated], James Hogg Auditorium, these are all Army veterans. We have buildings named after them.”
While attending the university, McGee-Stafford said, she didn’t truly understand her power as a student-athlete to be able to change the status quo of a school that has existed for more than a century.
But as the country finds itself engulfed in a social justice movement, college athletes around the country have come together to demand change from their institutions.
In June, members of the Texas football team sent a list of requests to the university to make the school “more comfortable and inclusive” for its Black athletes. The requests included replacing the fight song, renaming multiple campus buildings, replacing multiple campus statues and donating money annually to Black Lives Matter. Players said if the university did not approve their requests, they would not participate in donor events or aid in the recruitment of future players.
The university responded in July, announcing it would not change the school anthem. But it has made other commitments: The school will rename a building named after Robert Lee Moore, a former math professor and segregationist. It has already renamed Joe Jamail Field after Black former Texas players Ricky Williams and Earl Campbell. And a statue will be erected in honor of Julius Whittier, the university’s first Black football player.
When McGee-Stafford recently had an opportunity to show support for Texas athletes, she used it to shed light on the Black experience at the school. Against the backdrop of a Black Lives Matter mural, McGee-Stafford delivered a candid account of her experience at the university. McGee-Stafford said the intent was not to denounce her alma mater, but instead to ask it to confront its history and make change.
“I felt like the poem was just something that was really nice for me because I love the University of Texas,” said McGee-Stafford, who is currently taking time away from basketball to pursue a law degree. “I credit that school for saving my life. But at the same time, like when you love something, you critique it because you expect it to be better.”
What compelled you to write this poem and make this video?
I think it’s really cool what the Texas football team is doing. But I didn’t want to co-opt their movement. Being comfortable enough and understanding how much power you have, as a Texas football player, to change the status quo and being comfortable enough to use your voice to do so. That is amazing to me, because I wouldn’t have been able to do that. And I don’t even think I had just the mindset to know that I had the power to do that.
Did seeing the action taken by the football team lead you to reflect on your own experience at Texas?
For sure. One of the things that I realized, once I left school, was just how much I didn’t tap into the Black community when I was in college. Not necessarily purposefully – I was just so wrapped into my sport.
I think knowing – the football team literally didn’t even ask for something crazy. They said, they’re not gonna do recruiting, and they’re not going to do booster events. And they said take the racist names off the statues and take the racist names off the buildings, and then donate 0.5% to Black Lives Matter. It kind of made me think about how I felt on campus when I was there. It’s a weird feeling. You hang out with all Black kids because athletics is predominantly Black. But when you leave your athletic bubble and go to your classes, especially if you’re taking a substantive major, you’re the only Black kid in class.
Can you delve a bit deeper into the Black experience at Texas? That’s obviously also a focal point of the poem.
I’m pretty sure to this day, I’m the only women’s basketball player to ever get a degree in accounting just because the McCombs School of Business is one of the toughest schools on campus. They steer us away from substantive majors. I fought for that major. The reason I went to Texas in the first place was to get an accounting degree. I just remember feeling so powerless and, like, trying to buck the system.
Can you expand on that?
College athletics is a business; regardless of how you want to put it, it’s a business. In some situations, you get some more than you give, but for the most part, they’re worried about getting everything that came from you, right, they’re going to get your five years, if you’re a football player, or if you’re any other sport, generally. And it’s your job to make sure that you get your education out of that. You have to fight for that. It’s not something that’s necessarily given to you and I think we look at student-athletes from, like, a regular person’s eyes. They assume they were given this amazing life. And granted, it’s very much a great situation, but at the same time, we’re here for a purpose. We’re here to make sure this big business of our university athletics keeps rolling. They don’t care about us individually. … That’s just how the system is built. It’s not like Texas is a terrible place or they have bad intentions. That’s just how the system works. That’s what the system is built for. It’s not built to create viable students and professionals. It’s built to create professional athletes and to keep college athletics afloat.
Do you think Texas has adequately listened and responded to the team ?
I didn’t think they were going to take the song away. This is just an institution, these are systems that have been in place for 50, 60, 100 years. So understanding how a system works and how to break it down is, like, the first step. They’re not going to take the song away, but they may start playing it lower. And now athletes don’t have to sing and you’re not going to get in trouble for not singing. It’s little things like that, that slowly erode this system that has been in place.
I think that the kids that lead this are very aware when they’re being placated. And I think that they’re not going to let that go. And granted, it obviously helps that they’re good at what they do. There’s a certain privilege that comes with being a star athlete and being comfortable using your voice because of that, so I think we’ll see. But I do think that there isn’t going to be a way to just kind of keep them quiet or, like, we’re going to do this so we can continue with what we’re doing. They’re going to continue to do the work and that’s awesome. And I hope that our university responds accordingly.
Is your experience at Texas shared by others who played for similar institutions?
For sure. I had a lot of my college-athlete friends read the poem when I was writing it just to see if people were going to look at me crazy. I had my friend who played at Georgia Tech read it, and he was like, ‘This is literally how I felt in college.’ I had a lot of people kind of go read it with me, both inside athletics and outside athletics. The response I got from most people was, ‘This was literally my experience, it’s not an isolated thing.’ When you think about it, that is the college athletic experience, though. The overarching theme is we take these Black kids out the ’hood that are good at sports and we save them by giving them an education and putting them in an environment to succeed. And that’s like the stereotype of college athletics, right? So breaking that mold and acknowledging that one, every student-athlete isn’t coming from the ’hood and coming into a situation and blessed to be here, but you kind of hear that consistently – you would not be here if you did not play sports.
There’s so many things that are just interwoven into how college athletics works that you continually hear like, man, if I didn’t play basketball, if I didn’t play football, I wouldn’t be here because me, just by myself, is not good enough to be here. I think that’s also why a lot of students and a lot of college athletes have such a hard time navigating the world when sports stop or if they have an injury, because you’ve been told like your only purpose on this campus is to be great at athletics.
How did the fact that George Floyd was from Houston change this for you or impact the Texas football team?
I think it hits home, especially because most Texas athletes are Texas born and bred. That’s just how it is in Texas.
My whole thing about Black Lives Matter, I don’t share videos. I’ve never seen a video of George Floyd. I’ve never seen a video of Ahmaud Arberry. I don’t do that, because I feel like the people we share videos for don’t care. We say, share the video because white America needs to see this and they need to tap in. But in reality, they don’t care. They scroll by while we are constantly looking at our fatality – somebody that looks like us, acts like us, being murdered for no reason. It’s just traumatizing.
I’m a firm believer that the people who we retweet [videos of police brutality] for, to show that it’s happening, they know what’s happening, they don’t care, and they don’t feel it, it doesn’t hurt them. It’s something that they think is an other-person problem and not an all-of-us problem. I think what Texas football players figured out was, this is how we make change. This is how we use the power and voices that we have.
If there’s one takeaway that you want viewers to take away from the video, what would that be?
You can’t love Black athletes and not Black culture. You can’t uplift Black athletes, and not uplift Black culture. You can’t separate the two. I’m a Black athlete. That’s what I am. So if you have an entire team of Black athletes and you don’t address Black Lives Matter and don’t address the racist statues on campus and don’t address the racist microaggressions, then how can you say you care about me? There is no confusion, there is no ‘I really care about you as my player and I want you to be great. I want you to do everything I want you to, but I’m going to ignore George Floyd. I’m not going to mention these things.’ No, that’s not how that works.