Welcome, ALL of you, to this special graduation weekend. I am honored to deliver the traditional commencement address that no one listens to, following the traditional baccalaureate ceremony that no one stayed awake for. I will try to make my remarks brief, but remember, it could've been worse—the second choice for speaker was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose favorite subject is the World Court.
We have assembled a very special group of graduates, but I guess you know that, judging by how many of you are tugging at Emmitt Smith's gown. We'd like all of you to let go and take your seats, including the dean of students. Thank you.
I think I can dispense with some of the obligatory platitudes, the ones about, let's see, this ceremony marking a beginning, not an end, and how you should reach for the stars and be true to yourselves. We are gathered here today because of the news that Mr. Smith—he of the $3.4 million-a-year NFL salary, several million more in endorsement income, the three Super Bowl rings and the three successful companies—was returning to the University of Florida to receive his degree, six years after he left Gainesville as the Dallas Cowboys' first-round draft choice. A long time ago Mr. Smith promised his mother that he would earn his degree, and from where we sit that's as worthy a reason as any. We can see Mary Smith right now, in fact, waving a white sign that reads PROUD MOM. You should be, Mrs. Smith. And we'd also like to acknowledge the award that Emmitt has received from his classmates: Most Likely to Have Already Succeeded.
But Mr. Smith isn't the only graduate being honored today. We did some checking and discovered that this going-back-for-the-sheepskin thing isn't as rare as you might think among pro athletes. True, the headlines over the past few weeks have been about young men such as Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury, who have left college early to play pro basketball, and about Kobe Bryant, the lad from Lower Merion [Pa.] High, who no sooner finished his Montessori training than he declared himself ready to dunk on Michael Jordan. Those stories have made us a bit more cynical about athletes' interest in education, but when we introduce some of the grads in the audience, perhaps that cynicism will begin to dissipate.
Toward the back of this grand hall is Michael Jordan, who two years after leaving North Carolina to turn pro in 1984 earned his degree in geography. I'm sure Dean Smith's carping at him about Carolina's graduation rate had something to do with Michael's decision, but lots of collegians need motivating to finish their studies. Right next to His Air-ness is Isiah Thomas, who produced another proud Mary in 1987 when he got his degree in criminal justice from Indiana, thus fulfilling a promise to his mother. By the way, it's nice to see you guys sitting together, but your trash talking is a bit distracting. And there's Bo Jackson—can I call you Bo? Congratulations on getting that Auburn degree in family and child development last year.
There's another familiar face, the Washington Bullets' Juwan Howard, who left Michigan a year early but still graduated with the class of '95—a degree in communications, wasn't it, Juwan?—with the help of a load of correspondence courses. I see lots of others in the NBA section too. There's a Tar Heel with a degree in communications—Coach Smith get to you, too, Mr. J.R. Reid? And stand up, Avery Johnson. Oh, you are standing? Sorry. You still should be proud of that degree in psychology from Southern. I see you're chatting with Doc Rivers, who went back to Marquette for his prelaw degree in 1985, and Terry Porter, who earned his communications degree from Wisconsin-Stevens Point 10 years after he left in '85. John Salley, kudos on your return to Georgia Tech for an industrial management degree in '88. Perhaps you could have a word with young Stephon?
I'm not surprised to see one of pro sports' most intelligent men, Buck Williams, who got a business administration degree from Maryland in '88, but I must confess that Dale Ellis's appearance here surprises me. Nevertheless, Mr. Ellis, who once had a reputation as something of a bad boy, finished his degree in sociology from Tennessee in 1985, two years after he left.
Let's take a look at the pro football section. There's Rocket Ismail, fast with the ball, slow to get his degree from Notre Dame. Nevertheless he got it, in 1994, three years after he bolted to Canada. There's Jimbo Covert—not often you get to use the word jimbo in a commencement address—who got his English literature degree from Pitt in '92 after eight seasons with the Chicago Bears. Our best, Mr. Covert, and would you please unstrap the dean of students from the blocking sled. And though we're honored to have former Pro Bowl receiver Ahmad Rashad, who earned his sheepskin in sociology in 1995, 24 years after he left the University of Oregon as Bobby Moore, we wish he'd put down that microphone and conduct his interviews after the ceremony.
In the NFL Class of '96 section, the gentleman sitting with Emmitt Smith is the Arizona Cardinals' Clyde Simmons, who picked up his industrial distribution degree from Western Carolina 10 years after he left. Next to them is a special section for the NFLers scheduled to graduate this summer, Eric Zeier of the Baltimore Ravens and Dan Saleaumua of the Kansas City Chiefs among them.
The number of NFL players who return to graduate has swelled greatly since 1991, when the league contracted with the National Consortium for Academics and Sports, an alliance of more than 100 colleges dedicated to continuing education. There may be more than 350 NFLers pursuing degrees by the end of this year, about 25% of the league's players. It makes a lot of sense. The average NFL career lasts less than four years, and many players actually have to work for a living when they hang up the pads. That so many football players are making progress toward degrees sends an important message to all those young people who pin their hopes and dreams on the slim chance of making it in pro sports: Even if you do make it, you had better be prepared for a second career, because sports offer no guarantee of long-term security.