To the Class of 2015

On May 21, 2015, former NFLPA President and current NBPA Chief Operating Officer Domonique Foxworth was invited to speak at the commencement ceremony for his alma mater, The University of Maryland, the week before he graduated from Harvard Business School. You can watch a video of his remarks and read a full transcript of his speech below.

Dr. Loh, members of the Board of Trustees, administration and faculty, friends and family, and of course, the University of Maryland Class of 2015… Good morning, Terps.

It’s a great honor to be here today. It’s a great challenge, too. It’s a little nerve-wracking. And to be honest, I’m not used to that.

I remember coming through the tunnel, stepping on the field of a jam-packed Byrd Stadium, sprinting to the student section. Seeing folks like you — screaming, cheering, filled with Terrapin pride (and maybe a few other ingredients, too.) I was ready to go. This is different. Xfinity Center, at Commencement — it’s different.

The challenge is that I don’t see myself as the usual commencement speaker, and I have a hard time envisioning myself delivering the usual commencement speech. I read some articles about how to structure a good commencement speech. They said the first thing I needed to do was establish why I am worth listening to. I’m not sure I agree with that.

When I sat where you sit, in the spring of 2004, our commencement speaker was a cabinet secretary. That was only about 11 years ago. And that’s not me. I’m not the 60-year-old speaker who has lived a full life. I’m not a CEO or a politician. I don’t have it all figured out. I am actually a lot closer to being you than being that person.

It would be great to stand up here in full regalia and deliver not just a rousing speech, but a transcendent one — the speech that doesn’t only make you want to stand up and applaud at the end, but to march. To rethink your life’s trajectory.

But let’s face the facts. I’m sure it was a really good speech, but I don’t remember what the cabinet secretary said, what lessons he tried to impart. So while this honor is something I will never forget, I can’t expect the same from you.

And that suits me fine. Honors are great, but dangerous. It’s easy to believe the hype. To accept the accolades as fact. But even if I did, I have my friends and family, a wife and kids, who keep me grounded. Having two young children is far more humbling than getting beat on a post or a slant. Well, sometimes.

Among today’s graduates is Tori Pagano. Her dad Chuck was my defensive coordinator when I played for the Ravens, and he is now head coach of the Colts. He’d be quick to remind me that getting beat on a post in the playoffs is pretty humbling.

But the point is, I cannot tell you what to do or how to live your lives, and you wouldn’t remember that advice anyway.

If we are being completely honest, I am up here because at one point I ran really fast, and I was not afraid to slam my body into people bigger than me. Not exactly the most marketable skills. So, what can I offer you today?

It’s a fair question, and it goes exactly to what I do want to say, to what I genuinely can say, to what I’m qualified to say. I can’t offer life lessons…. well, actually maybe I can offer a couple.

You’re here because of someone. Tell that person, or those people, thank you, and that you love them. Say ‘I love you’ like you mean it. That goes for me too. Thanks, Mom and Dad, I love you. And to my wife who is always so supportive of me, and is also here supporting me with our daughter Avery and son Declan, thank you and I love you.

Second life lesson, and this comes from someone who has been doing a lot of hiring lately: When applying for a job, your email address and social media avatar should be bland. Trust me, BuffStud2015 is frowned upon, along with pics of your abs, unless you are applying to be Magic Mike. And same goes you Lexxx69 with three Xs. BobMarley420 is out too. I don’t care if you were born on April 20th and Marley is actually your first, last and middle name. Just don’t do it. You’d be surprised at the stuff I have seen.

While I can’t offer many more life lessons, I can tell you how I have tried to live my life. I can offer what, through a lot of trial and even more error, has worked for me. I can share the things that I am constantly working on, always trying to improve. From that, maybe you can find something interesting, or inspiring. And perhaps, there may even be a lesson to be learned.

In my life, there were always challenges far greater than anything that presented itself on a football field, and they’re what I’d like to talk about today. I’ve worked very hard at overcoming others’ preconceived notions, and relatedly, avoiding my own instinct to pre-judge, and instead being sure to appreciate the dignity in us all, and to value others and their perspectives.

From the very first day I set foot on this campus, to this moment right now, I feel like I have been working to overcome the notions that others have of me and to earn their respect.

Early in high school, I attended a summer football camp here at The University of Maryland. When I began, no one expected much from me. I was small for my position — for any position — and came from a small school that no one had heard of. I worked my butt off, and by the time camp was over, I was offered a scholarship to play here.

I graduated from high school early and arrived here in College Park in the spring of 2001, during what should have been my last semester in high school. I was taking classes, practicing with the football team, and doing poorly at both. Even though I’d proven myself on the field enough to land my scholarship, my just being here was a surprise to many.

Before high school, I remember my parents had put away enough money to send me to Art Monk’s football camp for a week. At the end of the week, the camp staff gave us all a report card. Lots of kids said that they’d likely have college or NFL careers. Mine said some nice things and concluded with, “He’ll make a fine high school player.” And that proved true.

I also did okay in class in high school. Yet, I still recall a teacher whom I respected being upset that I got a scholarship to Maryland, as she didn’t think I deserved it, or that I’d thrive academically. If the opinions of the Art Monk camp staff or that teacher were all someone knew of me, or believed of me, my first few weeks as a Terrapin would have confirmed it. I would not have been the first high school hot shot to fizzle under brighter lights.

But I wasn’t only judged by an early impression. Many people at this university — from coaches to classmates to professors — supported me and gave me a chance to prove that I could thrive as a student and an athlete here. That support made possible what came next: a career in the NFL.

Drafted by the Broncos. Traded to the Falcons. Signed as a free agent to a four-year deal with the Baltimore Ravens. It was my dream coming true. I could see it: playing for my hometown team. Late in the fourth quarter, we’re holding on to a slim lead. Time’s running out. The game is on the line, and I intercept the (possibly underinflated) ball. We win the game, and then the Super Bowl. A nice story arc, don’t you think?

It turns out that preconceived notions of careers can be as wrong as preconceived notions of people. Things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes you tear your ACL. That’s what happened to me, and I was never the same player. But I was as determined as ever to defy preconceived notions.

I went from people assuming I could never make it as football player to people thinking, though I might’ve been kinda smart for a jock, I was still just an athlete. And that was what I found myself having to defy then. I wanted to prove myself as someone who wasn’t just a football player, but someone who could offer more.

When I was in elementary school, we had to create a self-portrait. My parents still have mine. I said I wanted to be in the NFL, and a part-time pediatrician. I loved being a football player, but I always thought of myself as more. And luckily I found more to do.

The season I tore up my knee was the same year my daughter Avery was born. And my wife was finishing law school. I put my energies into being a full-time dad.

It was also the year the players union — of which I was first a team representative, then a member of the executive committee, and finally its president — started negotiations with the NFL.

Talk about preconceived notions, first in the NFL and now in my role heading the day-to-day operations of the National Basketball Players Association. I’ve encountered more than a few who ask why athletes making millions need a union at all. I understand where the question comes from. As professional athletes, we’re extremely fortunate. But we’re not immune to being taken advantage of either. Workers’ compensation, rights for gay athletes, protection from corrupt agents and advisors — the issues are still ones of respect and fundamental fairness.

Dignity is a right for everyone, and sometimes it has to be fought for. The power of a union — or any group, for that matter — to demand those things comes from the cohesion of its members. That’s something I believe, and it drove my work in the NFLPA and now with the NBPA.

When injury first kept me off the field, I poured my competitiveness into my duties as a negotiator for the NFLPA. I would stay up late, and in between baby feedings, I’d study aspects of the collective bargaining agreement. I quizzed myself on general business terms so I could negotiate with the likes of Robert Kraft, Jerry Jones and Roger Goodell.

During those negotiations, I learned that I enjoyed business, And I learned something else, too. Not only did I have to overcome the preconceived notions that others had about me, I had to overcome my instinct to pre-judge. I had preconceived notions both about myself and my abilities, and about those on the other side of the table.

But they didn’t reveal truths — only insecurities. I was just as smart as the owners. Before then, I thought that billionaire CEOs were all geniuses. Maybe some of them are, but not all… not most. For the most part, they’ve benefitted from the same mix of serendipity and skill, of luck and hard work, as I have.

I think of my path to this stage. Had my dad not taught me about goal setting at six years old, or had my mom not sent me to a different high school than my local school, I would not have made it to University of Maryland. Had I not torn my ACL, I would not have been as involved in collective bargaining. Had I not met my wife at UMD, I would not have had the confidence to apply to Harvard Business School. Had there not been changes at the NBPA, I would not be the Chief Operating Officer. Had none of that happened, where would I be?

I don’t know.

I do know that I would likely not have had the success that makes me a suitable commencement speaker. But although I don’t know where I’d be, I do know who I’d be.

The same person.

I would be just as smart. Just as hard working. Just as insightful. And just as handsome. (That wasn’t a joke.)

The same is true of NFL and NBA owners, billionaire CEOs, and even that cabinet secretary who spoke at my commencement years ago. They are all the beneficiaries of luck and hard work.

Yet despite that, and knowing that, we are all still prone to valuing opinions and advice based on the wrong criteria, and I’m guilty, too. I don’t always fight my urge to pre-judge others or to prematurely and inaccurately assess their worth. I don’t want to conform to the metrics of conventional society. I’d like to be measured by something more noble than money or fame, and I know that I should not measure others by such superficial things.

But hey, it’s hard for me to not look up at the scoreboard sometimes. When I do, I try to remind myself that it really doesn’t tell you who’s winning, or better, it presents a limited, decontextualized glimpse into a brief moment and doesn’t tell you who really prevails in the end. And it doesn’t speak to anything that really matters.

How many passes I defended or even intercepted, or how many degrees I may accumulate, or my title — none of that makes me any more valuable as a person than anyone else. Everyone’s perspective has value.

And someone’s value to you should be measured not by the number of comas in their salary, and not even by the number of followers they have on the latest social media craze. When we’re not pre-judging people and are appreciating the dignity that is inherent in us all, we can appreciate the value of everyone’s opinions and seek to understand why their opinions are what they are.

For me, though I believe that everyone inherently has equal value, and I strive — but sometimes struggle — to align my actions with that belief, I have found two groups of people’s opinions to be most valuable to me: those whose experiences, and therefore opinions, contrast most with mine, and those whose opinions, as a result of their life experiences, are often undervalued, or worse, not given the chance to be heard at all. And today, it’s more important than ever that we all strive to understand others.

This was made clear just a few weeks ago in Baltimore. Like it is for many of you, Baltimore is home; it’s where I grew up. As an adult, I have been involved in community efforts in the area where Freddie Gray was arrested, and as a child I shopped at Mondawmin Mall, where the riots all started. I know those streets. Watching those scenes wasn’t just hard. It was devastating. But what also frustrated me was people’s reaction. Some might see footage of rioters and conclude, “those people are crazy.” And some, might lambaste the officers who were doing difficult work, perhaps in the only way they learned how.

But many commentators, really, are basing their opinions on underinformed beliefs, often founded in pre-conceived notions of people the likes of whom they’ve never met. Those who believe the rioters are crazy, for example, don’t seek to look past what notions one might have about someone desperate enough to riot in his or her own community to really try to understand that person’s experience. How can that lead to true resolution?

We tend to see problems and solutions only from our particular angle. And if people don’t agree with us, we reject their opinions and actions as irrational or stupid. But why should any of us believe that our angle will produce the best solution?

I’m one man. How can my experience and perspective be adequate? What if instead, in the search for value and understanding, we all asked, what would make me do that? What confluence of experience would cause me to think or act that way? Can I value the perspective even if I couldn’t disagree more with the behavior, with how they expressed themselves?

What went through that young man’s mind as he and his friends burned a cop car, broke windows, and looted? What would my future prospects or life experience have to have been for me to decide to engage in similar behavior? How would I feel if I was a young officer, with a wife and kids to get home to trying to protect a city that I too love?

Many of us would have a hard time imagining ourselves taking the risks associated with either position. But, can we understand? Can we see value? Particularly in a world where some people’s experiences are devalued and those same people’s opinions are at best not provided a vehicle to be shared, and at worst actively muffled, how do we make sure that we are hearing the weak?

W.E.B. Du Bois said, “Not by guarding the weak in weakness do we gain strength, but by making weakness free and strong.”

That quote resonates with me. In our world, so many assign value based on letters after names and accomplishments. Well, you have letters after your name now and no doubt will go on to accomplish great things. You are strong. You have the ability to change the world. You have power.

Will you share your power, although it will mean losing some of it? Will you refuse to let your prejudices prevent you from learning from and valuing those who are different from you? Will you allow yourself to hear the voiceless, and listen to them and take action with them just as much as you would with the privileged? Where so many others hear them less, will you hear them more?

I never lacked the confidence to speak up. But, I have recently gained a higher level of confidence — the confidence to be quiet and invite others to speak up. With value comes respect. Only with empathy can we have equality. And those are all prerequisites if we are to move from apathy to action, if we are to make progress in any aspect of our own lives or society.

Overcoming any and all preconceived notions, rejecting the urge and pressure to pre-judge, respecting and valuing everyone, especially those least like you and least heard — that’s the challenge. That’s my message. That’s the path I try to walk down.

As an undersized kid in Baltimore, to UMD, to the NFL, to Harvard Business School, to the NBPA, and to an unlikely, but extremely grateful commencement speaker.

So, to the University of Maryland community, and especially to the Class of 2015, thank you for having me here. And thank you, graduates, for all that you will accomplish with respect and empathy, with the understanding that dignity is a basic right, and with valuing other perspectives and all that you’ve learned at this great university.

You’re not only going out into the world. You’ll change it.