Don't underestimate Beast Mode: What Princeton students could learn from Marshawn Lynch

HONOLULU, HAWAII - AUGUST 17: Retired NFL footballer Marshawn Lynch is all smiles before the preseason game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Los Angeles Rams at Aloha Stadium on August 17, 2019 in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)
Princeton announced Marshawn Lynch would be Class Day speaker, a decision met with criticism from some students. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

It’s not a conventional choice, we’ll admit that.

And it’s certainly not a choice that’s in line with its predecessors — a sort of “one of these things is not like the others” for the Ivy League set.

But is that really a bad thing?

Last week, Princeton University announced Marshawn Lynch as the 2020 Class Day speaker, a longtime event that’s part of lead-up programming to graduation ceremonies.

Not long after the announcement, an open letter landed on the website of the student newspaper, the Daily Princetonian, complaining of the lack of transparency of the process. But if there’s anything that’s transparent reading the letter, it’s that Lynch isn’t good enough to the group of seniors who wrote it.

The Class Day speaker is chosen by the seniors who organize the event; in a statement, the committee members wrote:

“When we began the process of preparing for Class Day, our goal was to invite a speaker who embodies the various experiences we have shared as a community during our Princeton tenure; someone whose professional and personal passions speak to the service-focused and intellectually rigorous interests core to the University. We are cognizant of the platform that Princeton and similar educational and cultural institutions provide, and are mindful of those who have been historically excluded from sharing their experiences and perspectives in these places.”

Lynch has no real tie to Princeton, which doesn’t seem to be a requirement for selection: recent Class Day speakers include Australian-born movie director Baz Luhrmann, British filmmaker Christopher Nolan and comedian Steve Carell, none of whom attended the university, and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who attended Stanford and Yale. Last year’s speaker was actress Ellie Kemper, who is an alumna.

The open letter to the Class Day co-chairs was put together by four students and other members of the senior class who wanted to remain anonymous, and said they were disappointed that Lynch had been selected.

It stressed that the process that led to Lynch as speaker was “too opaque” and was posed as a call for the selection process to have stated guidelines, guidelines which never seemed necessary until this year, when an Oakland-born football player with gold grills and a refusal to speak The King’s English was the pick.

The authors noted at one point that while Booker isn’t a Princeton grad, he “has dedicated his life to giving voice to the people of his community.” In the next paragraph they said that while learning more about Lynch’s “identity and relevance to our Class Day ceremony” they found articles praising “his NFL career and philanthropic contributions,” and also that Lynch was fined by the league for his reticence with media.

Unless you’re one of the media members who was so deeply and performatively bothered by Lynch’s “I’m just here so I won’t get fined” act before Super Bowl XLIX, why is that a reason he shouldn’t be Class Day speaker? If the announcement has been made, Lynch has clearly accepted the invitation.

(And if you were really looking for something to hang your complaint on, Lynch does have a 2008 hit-and-run and 2010 DUI on his record.)

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 23:  Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch plays in Water For Life Charity Softball Game at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on June 23, 2018 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images)
Marshawn Lynch plays in a 2018 Water For Life Charity Softball Game at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. (Photo by Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images)

Marshawn Lynch’s behind-the-scenes philanthropy

If the students had looked a little deeper, they might see that while Lynch doesn’t look like the typical Class Day speaker — nine of the last 10 were white, and certainly none have the impeccable dreadlocks Lynch does — he has a lot to offer and, like Booker, has done what he can for the people of his community.

To start, Lynch attended and played at Cal-Berkeley, considered one of the best public universities in the country, and has taken graduate-level classes. As an NFL player, he was a five-time Pro Bowler, one-time first-team All-Pro, a Super Bowl champion and one of just 31 men in league history with more than 10,000 rushing yards.

He’s not just a philanthropist but an entrepreneur as well, though his reticence to speak publicly about much of what he does means we may never fully know all the things Lynch has or will do. Here’s a sampling:

  • He’s buying real estate in his native Oakland, determined to keep it affordable and slow the gentrification that has pushed out generations of families.

  • He bought a beloved soul food restaurant rather than see it close.

  • His Beast Mode clothing line employs community members at brick-and-mortar locations.

  • His partnership with a wireless carrier will lead to at least 3,000 homeless individuals getting cellphones and free service to stay in touch with family, and also helps service groups keep track of those who might need help.

  • His Fam1st Foundation has a litany of programs for minority children, offering homework assistance and teaching them about architecture and design, how to code, how to become musicians and music producers, and how to take an idea and create a business.

Those are in addition to the numerous stories of small kindnesses by Lynch, from giving a young teammate the literal backpack off his back to helping another teammate build a needed school in Haiti, to free haircuts and football camps for kids in Oakland.

No, his name doesn’t carry the marquee in Hollywood that Luhrmann’s or Nolan’s does, and he isn’t a Princeton alum.

But if his on-field success, entrepreneurship and philanthropy aren’t good enough, maybe his parting advice to younger players a few weeks ago — “Take care of y’all bread” — would resonate with Princeton seniors.

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