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On J.J. Watt, commencement addresses, and the “Wisconsin Idea”

Watt is the second Badger football player in four years to speak at commencement

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It is that time of year on campus again—the ramp-up to finals week and graduation. When I am on campus, I feel the nerves of thousands of soon-to-be graduates gripping my chest as they crawl to the finish line. Compounding those nerves is the uncertainty of after-college life in the “real world,” which I become less and less confident exists every year.

At the moment this transition is realized, Wisconsin football legend J.J. Watt will be there to encourage students to be brave in the face of their upcoming challenges. UW announced on Feb. 6 that Watt would be the commencement speaker on May 11 inside Camp Randall Stadium.

In a lot of ways, this is an excellent choice for a commencement address. Watt invested in himself and paid the dividends forward. It is hard to find a better metaphor for the Wisconsin Idea—that “ should influence people’s lives beyond the boundaries of the classroom.”

First, Watt is a symbol of grit, an invaluable attribute for graduates heading into their respective vocations. After playing a year at Central Michigan in 2007, he transferred to UW-Madison to walk on to the football program (Hey, there’s a good book about Wisconsin’s walk-on tradition).

From there, he worked his way to being one of the most dominant defensive players in college football, was drafted No. 11 overall by the Houston Texans in the 2011 NFL Draft, and has earned defensive player of the year honors three times in his eight-year career at the next level.

Next, Watt’s legacy as a leading philanthropist is a great reason to select him. In 2010 while a student at UW-Madison, Watt formed the Justin J. Watt Foundation. The organization has been a success for nearly a decade, and in 2017, Watt’s altruistic nature helped raise $41.6 million for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. This included $100,000 personally donated by Watt himself.

According to the foundation’s release, the funds supported the rehabilitation of over homes, childcare centers, and schools. It also served tens of millions of survivors through providing meals, medicine, and physical/mental health services. That year, he was also named the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year.

Watt also contributed $10,000 to the late Sun Prairie firefighter Captain Cory Barr’s family, who tragically died during the Sun Prairie explosion last year.

I am going to admit something to you, dear B5Q reader: I began writing this post being rather critical of the Watt’s selection as the commencement speaker. While I have warmed up to the idea, I was initially turned off by a few aspects of his selection.

Upon learning of the announcement, I remembered that quarterback Russell Wilson was the 2016 commencement speaker, which means as of Sunday two of the last four speakers were former UW athletes (the other two speakers were David Muir in 2018 and Steven Levitan in 2017). The two athletes chosen to speak at commencement were Wisconsin football players. Even further, they both did not earn their undergraduate degree at UW. I worry about the implicit message this sends about the value of a UW-Madison degree and the value the university places on sports versus academics.

This is not to impeach Watt’s academic ability, academic achievement, or intelligence. You cannot be an Academic All-Big Ten honoree at Wisconsin for two seasons (2009 and 2010) without being a stellar student.

Next, since Watt is such a star and has such a unique career trajectory, I was unsure how he could relate to the common experiences of the class of 2019. Can he relate to graduates who do not care about sports? Can he relate to some of the issues our graduates may be facing, such as mounting student debt or economic fears?

Then there was the ESPN story by Sarah Barshop from mid-April that prompted me to explore this issue a bit, as Watt admitted he did not anticipate preparing a speech.

According to Barshop’s article, Watt was surprised that he was asked to send a copy of his speech ahead of time:

“I said, ‘What do you mean?’” Watt said. “‘I don’t write speeches. I’m just going to go up there and talk.’

”That was my full plan. I did not know that you had to write it all out. I’m dead serious. I didn’t know. He was like, ‘They have a teleprompter for you. What do you want on it?’

”I said, ‘Nothing. Just give me a black screen and tell me when to stop talking.’ That was literally my plan. But I found out you have to write some stuff down. So I have about a month to figure it out.”

I think in a positive way this cute story speaks to Watt’s confidence, and it speaks to the clash of culture that regales higher education. Conversely, I know for a fact that Watt would never head into an NFL game without fully preparing in practice an film study, so at first it struck me as a put-off that he was going to wing this speech. That said, the Barshop story indicated that Watt does take the address seriously, but that did not get as much media attention:

“I grew up 45 minutes from Camp Randall, so being invited to go back [and] have the opportunity to go back to a school and a team that I watched growing up and idolized, walked on and eventually got a scholarship from [and] now to be able to speak at their commencement, it’s an unbelievable honor. I take it very seriously. Even though I said I wasn’t going to write a speech, I take it very seriously. I’m humbled.”

While I think these critiques remain valid, they are rather insignificant compared to the high quality message Watt could deliver to the class of 2019. After reflecting on Watt’s journey more, I don’t care as much about whether or not he earned his degree. It’s a piece of paper, after all, what matters most is his growth and impact. Further, it sounds like there was some miscommunication that lead to Watt’s confusion over expectations; the Barshop interview no longer holds much grip over my opinion of the choice.

I believe Watt will deliver a meaningful address that communicates the Wisconsin Idea to our spring graduates and their loved ones. I also hope he takes some time to encourage graduates to continue to invest in themselves and live that Wisconsin Idea no matter what hand life deals them.