Update: In a statement, Rutgers president Robert Barchi says LeGrand "will speak at our commencement" and that "it was never our intention that Eric would be the only speaker." A previous school release identified former New Jersey governor Tom Kean as "the 2014 commencement speaker" who "will deliver the commencement address."
Rutgers University is having a graduation ceremony on May 18. This much we're sure of. What we do not know is how many more public figures connected to college football will be hired by the school as commencement speakers and then dismissed along the way.
First, the school parted ways with former Secretary of State (and current College Football Playoff selection committee member) Condoleezza Rice after faculty and students protested her record on war and torture:
About 50 Rutgers students staged a sit-in inside the campus administration building to protest the selection of Rice to speak. She was scheduled to receive $35,000 for her speech and an honorary Rutgers doctoral degree.
The students called for Rutgers to disinvite Rice, echoing the sentiments of several campus faculty organizations that said the former U.S. Secretary of State was an inappropriate choice because of her involvement in the Bush administration's support of the Iraq War, waterboarding and other controversies.
No matter how we feel about Rice's history, these sorts of things happen at universities. The school still had a chance to make it right on relatively short notice.
Rutgers had the good fortune to have a talented speaker and beloved soon-to-be alumnus on hand: former defensive tackle Eric LeGrand. The indomitable young man was paralyzed during a game in 2011, and went on to become a glowing motivational speaker and widely beloved inspirational figure. He is set to graduate from Rutgers with a labor relations degree, anyway. Surely RU wouldn't find a way to screw up this one. Right?
A Rutgers official asked Eric LeGrand on Saturday night to deliver the keynote speech at the university's May 18 commencement. Less than 48 hours later, another university official called LeGrand to inform him that the school had "decided to go in another direction for political reasons."
A blindsided LeGrand was left searching for answers on Monday night.
"I just want an explanation," LeGrand told NJ.com in a phone interview. "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."
LeGrand has made a number of appearances during Rutgers games over the years, and has been welcomed back warmly by teammates, coaches and fans. He has traveled the country to speak and participate in charity events. If he's not the school's most treasured representative, he's up there. And now he's not even sure if he'll go to receive his diploma, according to NJ.com.
To those asking why LeGrand went public: He tried to get a response last night and got nothing. Still hasn't heard from Rutgers.— Dan Duggan (@DDuggan21) May 6, 2014
The school eventually settled on former New Jersey governor Tom Kean. I can't find much of a record of him having a football career, so at least this part of the story no longer concerns us (but don't be surprised if some of those faculty and students protest this former George W. Bush appointee, as well).
While this episode isn't the fault of Rutgers' athletic department, it does tie into that part of the university's recent streak of mishaps and foibles. Since beginning its move to the Big Ten in late 2012, the school has suffered one athletics-related blunder after another. And if it can't even get Eric LeGrand's graduation ceremony right ... I don't even know.