Update: Rutgers announces that LeGrand will speak at commencement
In a bit of a bind after Condoleezza Rice canceled as its commencement speaker on Saturday, Rutgers turned to Eric LeGrand, their former football player who was paralyzed during a game in 2010.
LeGrand was thrilled when he got the call from Gregory Jackson, chief of staff for Rutgers President Robert L. Barchi, later Saturday inviting him to speak. LeGrand was in Florida for the “Wings for Life” race to raise money for spinal cord research and he immediately began to think of what he would say.
“I was just going to tell them my story, about the whole process,” LeGrand said (via USA Today). “Starting in 2005, being recruited by Rutgers and what it meant to me to play here and go to school here. And then the way everybody supported me through my injury, I was just going to give inspirational words about how they should attack life. All the things I’ve learned so far. All the [graduates], they’re my age so I was going to try to [say] words they could remember, words that would inspire them to do great things in life.”
Then, Rutgers changed its mind, picking up bad press with its decision to go with former Gov. Tom Kean as keynote speaker. The news was delivered to LeGrand by Athletics Director Julie Hermann, who left a message on his voicemail. LeGrand announced the change to his 129,000 Twitter followers on Monday night.
Rutgers offered me the commencement speech this weekend and I was going to accept but they decided to go other ways for political reasons— Eric LeGrand (@EricLeGrand52) May 6, 2014
“I just want an explanation,” LeGrand told NJ.com. “I wish somebody would have given me a call tonight and explained to me why. Then I can understand, but don’t just leave me hanging.”
Rice decided not to deliver the address because of protests over her role as national security adviser to former President George W. Bush during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In announcing her replacement, Barchi said in a statement: “Gov. Kean’s career as a public servant, educator and statesman speaks to the civility, integrity and vision that we hope will guide our graduates as they pursue their careers or further their studies. Gov. Kean is a national role model as a statesman who built bridges across partisan, racial, ethnic and ideological divides for the sole purpose of improving the quality of life for the people he served. We are honored that he has accepted our invitation to address our graduates.”
The news about LeGrand was poorly received in New Jersey, where Rutgers and Hermann have been under fire for a number of controversies, especially the dismissal of Mike Rice, over the last few years and LeGrand remains an enormously popular and inspirational figure. He was paralyzed Oct. 16, 2010, as he made a tackle in a game against Army at MetLife Stadium. In January, he finished his degree in labor studies.
LeGrand, who has given motivational speeches across the country since his injury, spent his time on the flight thinking about what he would say to his fellow graduates.
“You have no idea how much I’ve been thinking about it,” LeGrand said. “I was thinking all weekend long about what I could share with the students, my experiences. I was going to take them back before when I was getting recruited by Rutgers, what made me come here, and the things I learned here, and, of course, my injury and how great it’s been since then.”
LeGrand learned at 5:30 p.m. Monday that Kean would speak. “[Hermann] told me, ‘I was pushing for you, but President Barchi decided to go in another direction for political reasons. But he wants you to come to the ceremony. He wants to personally give you your degree,’ ” LeGrand said. “I just didn’t know how to feel. I was hurt. They offered me this on Saturday and then they take it back on Monday. I was like, ‘Why?’ ”
He may want an explanation, but Steve Politi of NJ.com thinks he deserves a lot more. From Politi’s scathing column:
He needs an apology, from Barchi and Jackson and Hermann and anyone else involved in this awful decision. He needs to have that offer to speak reinstated, and Rutgers can only hope LeGrand is gracious enough to accept and give that speech on May 18.
Barchi, the empty suit who didn’t bother to watch the Mike Rice tape until it was too late, has another whopper of a self-inflicted wound on his hands. But this one, while it is almost more inexplicable, is at least fixable.
Kean has survived in New Jersey politics for decades, so he’ll know enough to step aside – or, even better yet, to share the podium with LeGrand. Let them both speak. But if the leadership at Rutgers is too tone deaf to solve this mess – one that, as usual, is of its creation – then we’ll know it is forever hopeless.
LeGrand deserves better. Rutgers deserves better. No one in years has given back to that university community more than Eric LeGrand, the embodiment of that Scarlet R. And this is how they treat him?
By early afternoon, Rutgers had reversed course, announcing that LeGrand would speak and that the whole thing had been “a miscommunication.” Barchi said in a statement released by the school:
Eric LeGrand will speak at our Commencement and personally receive his degree from me as a representative of the Class of 2014.
It was never our intention that Eric would be the only speaker. We have resolved that miscommunication and are delighted to have him participate.
Eric holds a special place in the hearts of the Class of 2014 and the entire university community. We are thrilled that he will be joining us on stage to make this special occasion ever more memorable.
LeGrand spoke with Politi after the re-reversal and LeGrand noted: “I’d better leave one hell of a mark after all this.” He is moving on and focusing on that speech now. “Do I agree with everything? Absolutely not. But I’m always going to be part of Rutgers. This is who I am.”
H/T David Farenthold