By Hannan Adely, The Record (Hackensack, NJ)
HACKENSACK, NJ—In a span of less than 20 hours, Rutgers tried to quell a firestorm about its choice of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as commencement speaker by replacing her with a widely respected former governor of New Jersey, only to find it had created an even bigger, national uproar when former football player Eric LeGrand said his invitation to speak had been withdrawn.
“Rutgers offered me the commencement speech this weekend and I was going to accept but they decided to go other ways for political reasons,” LeGrand wrote Monday evening on Twitter, shortly after the university announced that former Gov. Thomas Kean Sr. would be the speaker.
Public outrage against Rutgers was swift.
“Could this get any more embarrassing for Rutgers?” the actor James Woods wrote on Twitter.
By 1 p.m. Tuesday, Rutgers President Robert Barchi announced that Kean and LeGrand, a Rutgers defensive tackle who was paralyzed in a game four years ago and whose perseverance has made him a national role model, would be speaking at graduation.
“It was never our intention that Eric would be the only speaker,” Barchi said in a written statement. “We have resolved that miscommunication and are delighted to have him participate.”
LeGrand said Tuesday that he accepted Barchi’s explanation and has agreed to be a speaker at the graduation, where he plans to talk about his personal story, his Rutgers experience, and the support he has been given.
“I do believe his apology is very sincere, and I am very glad I get to speak to the crowd,” LeGrand said.
The graduation blunder was the latest in a string of controversies for the school, which has faced criticism over its handling of a coach’s treatment of basketball players that many viewed as abusive and the withdrawal of the original commencement speaker, Rice, following student protests.
But it was a trying weekend for LeGrand, who said he was thrilled to be asked then felt down and disrespected when he was told the school had chosen someone else. He said he accepted the explanation that it was poor communication.
LeGrand said Barchi’s chief of staff reached out to him Saturday to be the new commencement speaker, after Rice backed out after protest from students over her involvement in the Iraq war. Meanwhile Barchi extended an invitation to Kean and announced Kean’s selection Monday.
Rutgers’ news release announcing Kean’s selection made no mention of LeGrand as an additional speaker.
LeGrand said he did not hear back from school officials and got a voicemail from Athletic Director Julie Hermann on Monday evening telling him the school was going “in the opposite direction” due to “political reasons.”
Greg Trevor, the university director of media relations, said LeGrand had misunderstood what he was offered. He was invited to speak, but not as the official commencement speaker — a billing that would go instead to Kean, the former Republican governor.
“During a conversation, the words commencement and speech were used in the same sentence,” Trevor said. “The misunderstanding was that it was the commencement speech was being discussed.”
Kean will be the commencement speaker, he said, and LeGrand will speak as a special representative for the Class of 2014. LeGrand, he said, will speak first.
“Eric holds a special place in the hearts of the Class of 2014 and the entire university community,” Barchi said. “We are thrilled that he will be joining us on stage to make this special occasion ever more memorable.”
LeGrand suffered a spinal injury in 2010 when he was tackled in a game against Army. It left him paralyzed from the neck down. He has since regained movement in his shoulders and sensation in his body.
He became a symbol of hope because of his optimism and strength as he continued his studies, went through demanding physical therapy, and spoke to organizations about overcoming obstacles. In January, LeGrand said on Twitter he had finished his degree in labor studies.
Although LeGrand accepted the school’s apology, members of the public may not be so willing to forgive.
Students, sports fans and journalists expressed outrage Tuesday morning over how LeGrand had been treated and later voiced skepticism over the explanations provided by Rutgers officials.
“C’mon, this school, you can’t believe anything they say,” Paul Finebaum said on his ESPN Radio show Tuesday afternoon before interviewing the former football player.
LeGrand said he was happy that he would be speaking at the commencement but admitted that some critics had called him a “spoiled brat” for making the commencement speaker controversy public.
“I would like people to live one day in my shoes and say I’m a spoiled brat again,” LeGrand said. “Just take one day of my life and see if they can go through it.”
Others said Rutgers had a public relations problem and a weakness in leadership under Barchi, who has weathered a national athletics scandal, calls for his resignation and a massive reorganization in just under two years as president.
Scandal erupted over men’s basketball coach Mike Rice after a video showed his abuse of players. Barchi also ousted a popular athletic director, and his pick for athletic director had also been accused of player abuse while she was a coach. Despite Barchi’s pledge to cut university support for athletic spending, the sports subsidy soared under his watch in large part to pay for the fallout from the scandal and a move to the Big Ten Athletic Conference.