KELLY: The descent of Manning
The selection of Peyton Manning as valedictory speaker sends a message that the University does not prioritize academics
“Peyton Manning” — the crowd roared as soon as it heard the name.
I take issue with the selection of Peyton Manning as this year’s valedictory speaker. I have no personal qualms with Manning as a person; he is an inspiring man and will likely give a fine address. As a New Jersey native, I may have preferred Eli Manning, but this is beside the point. I am not entirely opposed to the decision. However, to my knowledge, a major sports figure has never been invited to give a valediction address in the University’s history. In this light, this year’s selection seems inconsistent both with the University’s past and with its vision. We have invited academics, governors, senators, poets, journalists, professors — you get the idea — yet not a professional athlete. There has been ample opportunity in the past to invite athletes; the reasons for not doing so, seemingly, were self-evident. These reasons, strangely lost, are worth reconsideration.
Choosing a professional sports star to give an academic address at a premier university creates the wrong impression. To those observing the University from afar, it suggests that the University does not have its priorities set straight. In the long run, sports are inconsequential. The moment of graduation, in a sense, signifies a transition into a new environment, one in which trivial matters such as sports do not play a large role. As such, the valedictory address should recognize this distinct shift. The decision to invite a professional athlete, an individual who ultimately plays a trivial role in society, suggests that the University is not primarily concerned with academics. Surely, this reasoning formed at least part of the deliberations with which previous addresses were considered. A highly visible choice can draw unnecessary attention and potential ire.
The University has a celebrated history of valedictory speakers, ranging from such figures as Ted Kennedy and John Warner to last year’s Stephen Colbert. In light of the University’s history, this year’s selection seems inconsistent and rather inappropriate. The prominence of sports in American life has dramatically increased over the past century. As a result, sporting figures have become social icons. Consequently, Manning himself has become a fixture of American culture. He has publicly demonstrated his integrity, commitment and professionalism throughout his career. In a sense, the selection of Manning is understandable because he is both an admirable and relatable figure. Yet the inflated standing of sports in American society and Manning’s own established steadfastness do not make this an appropriate selection. Despite their embellished standing in society, professional athletes are marginal figures — they exist within a different societal structure, where their expectations and goals are fundamentally different than those of the rest of the public.
I fear that this will be a speech remembered for the orator, not the content. Ideally, a valedictory address should be provocative; it should challenge the outgoing class in new ways. This does not require the selection of a popular figure. The selection system, in this case, has failed many students who were hoping for a more academically invigorating speaker — for those seeking to remember the address for its substance. Moreover, I would argue that the fourth-year trustees made this selection in an attempt to further the excitement surrounding the address generated in the wake of Stephen Colbert’s speech last year. This is an understandable sentiment, but the speech is not a spectacle and should not be treated as one. It is a serious matter and for all of Mr. Colbert’s anticipated satire, his closing remarks on University students as Jefferson’s “intellectual heirs” were quite profound. Though Manning might be capable of providing a profound address, his area of expertise is extremely limited. He may have broad experience with success and defeat, but not in an environment remotely applicable to what most students face upon graduating. Admittedly, the individuals involved in this process face significant pressure over their potential choices. Nevertheless, I think their decision this year is ill-advised. The trials of Manning’s career are hardly relatable to a broad audience.
The University’s enviable distinction provides it with the ability to attract some of the country’s most noteworthy individuals. Selecting a professional athlete is improper in this regard. A NFL quarterback such as Manning possesses many skills, such as a fierce work ethic, but his field of experience is severely limited. Furthermore, inviting an athlete to give the valedictory address conflates the distinction between academia and athletics. In the excitement of requisitioning a speaker of Manning’s stature, the appropriateness of the selection has been overlooked. Imagine, as a parting thought, if Oxford University were to invite Wayne Roone, a premier English soccer star, to give its valedictory address. Rooney, I must admit, is a more controversial figure than Manning, but the fundamental scenario remains the same. I submit that such a scenario would be met with tremendous contention at Oxford. Foreign universities lack the enormous stadiums that are the hallmark of American colleges. Academia is their absolute focus. The University must remain true to its fundamental purpose as an academic institution in all of its affairs; inviting a football player to speak at the final exercises is not a step in the right direction.