True student-athlete takes center stage at La Salle

Softball player Emily Moran , with her parents, Charlene and Kevin, delivered La Salle's commencement address. CLEM MURRAY / Staff
Softball player Emily Moran , with her parents, Charlene and Kevin, delivered La Salle's commencement address. CLEM MURRAY / Staff
Posted: May 20, 2014

She had so many true and heartfelt things to say about her school, and Emily Moran's greatest worry, as she prepared to deliver the commencement address Sunday at La Salle University, was that the words would pour out of her into a shapeless pile, like jelly beans from a bag.

She has always talked fast, especially among those she knows best and loves most. "They keep telling me, 'You have to slow down,' " she said.

It's no wonder why. She has five siblings. Her father is one of 15, and from those 14 aunts and uncles Emily Moran has 86 cousins. Eighty-six. Just on her dad's side. She has so many family members that she grew up learning to slip her sentences into those rare slivers of quiet, to be heard amid the happy din, and that's what had her fretting most about her speech: How could she slow down?

After all, what was she doing Sunday - gazing out at her parents, her brothers and sisters, her classmates, her friends, her professors, her teammates on La Salle's softball team, all the other members of a university community to whom she'd grown so close - if not talking to family?

Sunday's was the 151st commencement at La Salle. In a tradition dating to the late 1960s, the university, with input from the student body, selects a graduating senior to be the ceremony's speaker. The process has its benefits. By allowing students to help choose one of their own to address them, La Salle has generally avoided the sorts of protests that have marred ceremonies at other colleges and universities around the country, including at Rutgers and Haverford this year. (Of course, that's not to say mistakes aren't made from time to time. In 1997, in the most egregious example of the process's fallibility, the selection committee picked me.)

Within that context and background, Emily Moran, a 5-foot-4 pepper pot from Drexel Hill and out of Archbishop Prendergast High School, made a small bit of history Sunday. She was, according to all available research, the first varsity athlete to serve as La Salle's commencement speaker.

This distinction also makes her something of an anomaly, vis-à-vis another subject that has become a lightning rod lately: the proper role of Division I athletics in the American university system - that is, if athletics should have any role at all.

Often, that discussion is framed around the two sports that generate revenue, attract attention, and warp our perspective: football and men's basketball. For many of those athletes, that first pro contract is their sheepskin. It is the primary reason, perhaps the only one, that they've enrolled at all, so why shouldn't they share in the profits that these schools reap? Why shouldn't they unionize? What alternatives do they have to pursue their livelihoods? These are important questions, and worth debating.

But there's another dimension to this debate, too, a side that's rarely examined unless a school cuts a few "secondary sports" in the name of complying with Title IX and chasing the big dollars that football and basketball bring. As a communication major, Emily Moran had been a Dean's List student each of her four years at La Salle, and she had played 153 softball games there, most of them as an infielder, and she knew, once Sunday came and went, that aside from the occasional rec-league game she would never play organized softball again.

So on Tuesday morning, as she sat in the lobby of Hayman Hall, the building that headquarters La Salle's athletic department, she scoffed at the notion that the term student-athlete had somehow developed into an oxymoron, that there had been no intrinsic value to her collegiate athletic career.

"That's the name we take on. We're students first. Then, we're athletes," she said. "You can be the best softball player on your team, but if you're not a good student, then those two will always clash. I'm such a head case that I couldn't perform well in the field if I had a paper that wasn't done or if I had a test I didn't study for. That would affect me on the field. You can definitely mix the two. It's just a matter of how much willpower you have.

"Softball taught me to become a better person. You may not be the best. Someone may be better than you. But that's no reason for you to be jealous or envious of them. It gives you a chance to do something else better than what they're doing, or I can help them do what they're doing. Everyone filters into the work force, and that's how it's going to be. You're not going to be the absolute best at everything. You're going to have to share some talents or give up some talents to other people."

The sun had emerged from behind a cloud bank and was now shining full and bright late Sunday morning on McCarthy Stadium, in the center of La Salle's campus, and Emily Moran's words did not tumble on top of one another. It was, she said, "the emotion of every single sentence" that kept her from racing through the speech.

She spoke of La Salle as a home, as a university where "understanding the syllabus was not nearly as important as coming to know the man or woman handing it out," as a place that gets its hooks in you and never really lets you go, as an experience that is unique and universal at the very same time. "It's amazing how fast it goes," she said after she had finished, and it wasn't entirely clear if she was talking about her commencement address, or something else.


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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