WOOD: Manning up

Sports figures such as Peyton Manning contribute to society in meaningful ways

In his Oct. 16 column, “The descent of Manning,” Conor Kelly objects to Peyton Manning’s serving as the valedictory speaker for the Class of 2014. Kelly argues that “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.”

First, Kelly has his facts wrong. In 2009, the year I graduated from the College, the valedictory speaker was Dawn Staley, a former star in the WNBA just as Manning is in the NFL. Kelly also conveniently omits the profession of last year’s speaker, Stephen Colbert, who is “just” a comedian, after all.

Kelly’s errors do not end there. Successful athletes should not be valedictory speakers, Kelly claims, because “[i]n the long run, sports are inconsequential” and athletes like Manning (and Staley) “ultimately play a trivial role in society.”

Far from trivial, sports in fact play a large and valuable role in society. Sports are part of our social fabric, serving as a common ground for building relationships and a meritocracy for disproving prejudices. Visit any basketball court at the University and you will see individuals of different ages, races, and economic backgrounds interacting and forming friendships as they never would without sports.

Over the past half-century, athletes played a major role in struggles for racial integration and reconciliation, from Jackie Robinson in the United States to the Springbok rugby team in South Africa. Sports figures, colleagues of Manning and Staley, have brought to light many issues of societal importance, from HIV in 1991 (Magic Johnson) to gay rights today (Jason Collins).

Most disturbing is the elitist implication of Kelly’s argument. Should we discount some ideas because of the speaker’s profession? Are the views of individuals in the English Department more valuable than the perspectives of those in the Athletic Department or Facilities Management?

As Mr. Jefferson charged, the University “will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind, to explore and to expose every subject susceptible of it’s [sic] contemplation.” Selecting Manning as the 2014 valedictory speaker reinforces the University’s commitment to exploring “every subject” and to “illimitable” freedom of inquiry.

Isaac Wood is a 2009 graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences and a third-year Law student. Wood is a former Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily.

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