The University of Michigan will have a speaker at its spring commencement ceremony this year, the University announced in a press release Monday, and that speaker is alum Charles Woodson.
Woodson, a student-athlete on the University’s football team from 1995 to 1997, received the Heisman Trophy in 1997. He is the only primarily defensive player to win the award to date. That same year, Woodson led the team to an undefeated season and national championship, then went on to an 18-season career in the N.F.L., playing for the Oakland Raiders and Green Bay Packers.
Central Student Government President Anushka Sarkar, an LSA senior, said the announcement excited and surprised her.
“I heard a lot of rumors about who the commencement speaker was going to be, and I think this is kind of coming out of left field,” Sarkar said. “They were pretty informal rumors — people kept saying Michelle Obama, Oprah. But I think they were pretty uninformed rumors.”
The University angered seniors last year when, in honor of the University’s bicentennial, the administration opted to produce a video of faculty reading the text of former commencement speeches instead of inviting a live speaker.
Sarkar noted the significance of the University’s pick in the context of recent attention to professional athletes’ platform on political issues, which some have said is undeserved. In 2016, Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers football team at the time, began sitting and then kneeling during the national anthem before games in protest of police violence against Black Americans. Since leaving the team in 2016, Kaepernick has remained a free agent, which many have attributed to his political activism.
“I think this a good pick, particularly because in the last year especially, we’ve seen a lot in the national media about athletes who’ve been empowered to use the platform that they have to talk about issues off of their field or court, whatever it might be,” Sarkar said. “I think Charles Woodson is the perfect example of someone who’s done that throughout his career.”
Woodson now works as an analyst for ESPN and runs the Charles Woodson Foundation, an organization dedicated to supporting pediatric medicine research. Through his foundation, Woodson created multiple scholarships for University students, and in 2009, Woodson donated $2 million to C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.
LSA senior Cole Zingas agreed the voices of athletes were important in the current national context, regardless of whether he agreed with them.
“Athletes are people too. And I think their opinions — obviously they’re not involved in making political decisions or things like that — but they can influence a lot of people with what they say,” Zingas said. “They should say what they want to be heard.”
The University also announced alum David Walt, a scientist widely known for his advancements in the field of genetic analysis, would be the main speaker at the Rackham Graduate Exercises for graduate students receiving master’s or doctoral degrees. Walt is currently a professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School.
In a statement from his office, University President Mark Schlissel expressed his pleasure with this year’s speakers.
“Charles Woodson and David Walt have built on their experiences at University of Michigan to make positive impacts in our society,” Schlissel said. “They are outstanding leaders in their fields, and I am pleased that they have agreed to share their inspirational stories with our graduates this spring.”
Zingas said he was also happy with the announcement, noting the rare level of success Woodson had enjoyed in his respective profession.
“But it’s hard to find a guy who’s more respected in his profession than Charles Woodson. It takes a lot of grit, and a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication, and I think that’s true for a lot of professions, so I think his words of wisdom will resonate hopefully as well as anybody else they could’ve gotten,” Zingas said. “Anything is better than last year.”