Given the choice of sending your kid to Rutgers University or having him stay in the basement and work at Taco Bell, you may want to think about it.
Rutgers is the place where the screaming coach, Mike Rice, heaved basketballs at his players’ heads and mentally battered them before a smoking videotape led to his dismissal. Rutgers is the place where the athletic director, Tim Pernetti, was fired because his leniency toward Rice seemed to enable the behavior. Rutgers is the place where Pernetti’s successor, Julie Hermann, was hired after allegations that she verbally abused players in her University of Tennessee women’s volleyball program and fired an assistant coach because she was pregnant. Rutgers is the place where a defiant Hermann told a journalism class last month that it would be “great” if the Newark Star-Ledger, which has pressured her to reign, went out of business. Rutgers is the place where the football defensive coordinator, Dave Cohen, was accused in November by a transferring defensive back of bullying him, calling him a “p—y” and threatening to head-butt him during — wait for it — study hall.
Now, Rutgers is the place that asked Eric LeGrand to deliver a commencement speech, only to renege when school president Robert L. Barchi and the Board of Governors decided an ex-New Jersey governor was a better idea. LeGrand, of course, is one of the towering inspirational figures in sports today, the former Rutgers football player who was paralyzed after suffering a neck injury in a 2010 game. It would have been a popular choice among a student body torn about the original invited speaker, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, because of her role in the Iraq War as a member of the George W. Bush administration. But after getting the call from a Barchi aide Saturday and immediately accepting the offer, LeGrand was informed two days later that Rutgers had opted for Thomas H. Kean as its keynote speaker.
Is this an institution of higher learning? Or an institution of a less stable sort?
“I’m very upset it,’’ LeGrand told the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, via USA Today. “I was all excited all weekend thinking about what I was going to say. It’s rough.’’
Later, LeGrand wrote on his Twitter account: “Rutgers offered me the commencement speech this weekend and I was going to accept, but they decided to go other ways for political reasons.’’
Political reasons? That was putting it mildly. “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,’’ Barchi said in a university statement. “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.’’
I speak for the graduating class in saying Eric LeGrand, on a successful mission of survival and perseverance, can teach them much more about life than a recycled politician. “I was just going to tell them my story, about the whole process,’’ LeGrand told the newspaper. “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 Ive learned so far. All the (graduates), they’re my age, so I was going to try words they could remember, words that would inspire them to do great things in life.’’
Thankfully, in the latest turn Tuesday, LeGrand will be allowed to speak. Thanks to pressure in the mainstream and social media, Barchi relented and will have LeGrand and Kean speak. Now why was that so difficult?
“After speaking with Pres. Barchi I will join Gov. Kean speaking at @RutgersU graduating class of 2014. Les keep the focus on the graduates,” LeGrand tweeted.
“Eric holds a special place in the hearts of the Class of 2014 and the entire university community,” Barchi said in a statement. “We are thrilled that he will be joining us on stage to make this special occasion ever more memorable.”
The Rutgers kids now can hear a rich, everlasting human tale and then tune out the old fart, perhaps wondering what led them to such a clumsy, reckless university in the first place.