College Fight Songs Stir Up Controversy

Colleges are deciding whether to alter, ban, or keep unchanged controversial fight songs and chants that remain popular at sporting events.
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  • College fight songs can energize sports fans, but they are also stirring up controversy.
  • Some fight songs are not inclusive and have racist ties or origins.
  • Researchers say colleges need to modernize their songs to improve their brands.

Fight songs have been a longtime fixture at college sporting events. The songs played by school bands and the chants shouted by fans are revered by some and loathed by others. They can fire up a crowd, but they also can stir up controversy.

At the University of Texas, some have objected to "The Eyes of Texas," the school's unofficial fight song, which can be heard before and after every game. In June 2020 after the killing of George Floyd, a group of athletes at UT Austin called for the song to be replaced because of its racial undertones.

The song had been played at minstrel shows that were held on the Texas campus decades ago. And the song's title is thought to be a reference to something said by Robert E. Lee. Others soon joined in protest, and the university formed a special committee in October 2020 to study the issue.

On March 9, 2021, the special committee released its report, concluding the song was not overtly racist. The committee also said that it found no documentary proof linking the song to Lee and the Confederacy. Some, however, continue to question the report and its findings.

Shortly after the report was released, the university's Butler School of Music announced that all members of the Texas Longhorn Band will be required to perform "The Eyes of Texas" beginning in fall 2022. The school also announced the formation of a new, "to be named" marching band whose members will not be required to play "The Eyes of Texas" or the school's official fight song, "Texas Fight."

"We need to celebrate and nurture what makes UT special, and the Longhorn Band is one of those great organizations that shapes our campus culture, elevates school spirit and provides amazing opportunities for our students," said University of Texas at Austin president Jay Hartzell in a news release issued by Butler School of Music.

Colleges Have Updated Songs to Be More Inclusive

While UT is the most recent university to deal with issues related to its fight song, it is not the only one. Seven years ago, the University of Utah responded to controversy over its fight song by changing the song's name from "Utah Man" to "Utah Fan."

Some of the lyrics also were changed to make it more inclusive. For instance, the line "our coeds are the fairest" was changed to "our students are the finest." Also the line "no other gang of college men" was changed to "no rival band of college fans."

Other schools that have changed male-gendered school songs in a nod to gender equality include Dartmouth College, Princeton University, Davidson College, West Point, and Penn State.

Meanwhile, the University of Notre Dame, which began admitting women in 1972, has opted to keep its song unchanged. The song's opening line is "Rally sons of Notre Dame," and its final line is "while her loyal sons are marching onward to victory."

Universities Ban Popular Chants and Cheers

In addition to traditional fight songs, many chants, cheers, and other songs have stirred controversies on campuses across the country.

At the University of Alabama, a new song was introduced in 1983. Fans began singing "Dixieland Delight" during the fourth quarter of football games. The song was banned in 2015 because students added profane language to the lyrics. But three years later, the song was brought back, along with a promise that the profanity would be eliminated.

Alabama also has received some criticism over its "Roll Tide!" phrase and the fight song "Yea Alabama." Both the phrase and song are said to have their roots in the Confederacy, although their history is not clearly known.

At Louisiana State University, the song "Neck" was banned in 2010 because of profane lyrics, although it continues to be played occasionally.

More recently, University of Florida president Kent Fuchs banned the Gator Bait cheer at sporting events because of "the horrific racist imagery" linked to it. In the early 20th century, young Black children were referred to as "alligator bait." Fuchs announced his decision on June 18, 2020.

Creating Better, More Modern Fight Songs

Two researchers, Yongjin Hwang and Khalid Ballouli, have studied college fight songs and published their findings in a 2019 article in the Journal of Contemporary Athletics. While noting both the positive and negative aspects of traditional fight songs, the two researchers said colleges are missing a golden opportunity to develop new, modern fight songs that better brand their athletic programs.

But many of the songs "are still very much dominated with masculine music and militaristic images," which can be a turnoff for some. The songs also lack "brand-specific characteristics," say the researchers, most having been written before the age of sonic branding.

A sonic brand is a jingle, a song, or a sound that readily identifies a product or organization. An example of a sonic brand is the McDonald's "I'm Lovin' It" song, which Forbes rated as the top sonic brand in the world.

Hwang and Ballouli pointed to the 2010 FIFA World Cup as proof that a good fight song can promote a sports brand. The song for that World Cup was "Waka Waka" by Shakira, which topped music charts around the world.

For universities and colleges interested in creating new fight songs, the researchers offered some advice. They said a new fight song should "include the name of the university, mention of its mascot, iconic places, and other words or phrases that symbolize the university or students. Such symbolic representation of the university through lyrics can help build or enhance identity and loyalty with their teams."

They pointed to Ohio State University and the University of Florida as two schools that have tried in recent years to broaden their appeal and capitalize on the opportunities provided by their athletic programs through new songs. Ohio State produced an album with the help of local artists. Florida also created an album of new fight songs.

"These two universities not only sought out new fight songs with tailored lyrics, but they also collaborated with local musicians to make a more pronounced effort to brand the game day experience with local representation," they wrote.

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