Days after the controversy over former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaking at commencement, Rutgers University now finds itself in another mess: A school official apparently asked Eric LeGrand, the Rutgers football player paralyzed during a 2010 game, to make the keynote speech, but then another official let him know two days later that the school had chosen former Governor Tom Kean for "political reasons."Update: Rutgers has now announced LeGrand WILL speak at commencement; see below.
LeGrand told the Star-Ledger that he knew Rice had backed out of speaking at commencement:
LeGrand...was in Sunrise, Fla., over the weekend for the "Wings for Life" race, a fundraiser for spinal cord research. While out to dinner with friends on Saturday night, LeGrand received a phone call from Greg Jackson, the chief of staff for Rutgers President Robert Barchi...
"(Jackson) asked if I could do Rutgers a favor and give the commencement speech," said LeGrand, who is graduating after taking classes throughout his rehabilitation process. "I was like, 'Wow, thank you for offering.' He goes, 'Yeah, absolutely. Talk it over with your family this weekend. Let's touch base again Monday.' I was all amped all weekend. I was like, 'This is perfect. I'm going to have to give a speech to everybody.' "
But on Monday, athletic director (and Star-Ledger hater) Julie Hermann called him; according to LeGrand, "She 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.' 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?'" Well, in NJ, politics is a big deal.
LeGrand, who is due to get his degree (he majored in labor relations) on May 17, was named 2011's most inspiring moment by Sports Illustrated when he returned to the football field. He frequently gives motivational speeches, and adds, "I just feel like I was offered something and it was taken back and I don't know the reasons why. I wasn't told the reasons why. I thought I was a good fit for the position to do it. I thought I could do the job, but I guess they thought different."
The Star-Ledger's Steve Politi writes, "[LeGrand] is the best representative of that entire university. So he was a brilliant choice as commencement speaker, especially given how the choice of Condoleezza Rice had divided the campus... Who could possibly protest Eric LeGrand? Who wouldn’t want to listen to his inspirational message on a day that is supposed to be about the graduates charging into a new life and meeting those challenges? Well, of course, we know the answer: Rutgers."
Update: Now Rutgers President Robert Barchi says that LeGrand will be speaking at commencement. In a statement, he said, "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."
Barchi continued, "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."
After speaking with Pres. Barchi I will join Gov. Kean speaking at @RutgersU graduating class of 2014. Lets keep the focus on the graduates
— Eric LeGrand (@EricLeGrand52) May 6, 2014