Major League Soccer (MLS) Commissioner Don Garber was officially announced today as Montclair State’s 2016 commencement speaker, a piece of information that graduating students have been anticipating for months.
Garber, a long-time resident of Montclair who has ranked in SportsBusiness Journal’s 50 Most Influential People in Sports for the past 10 years and was recently nominated for the 2016 U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame class, will not only send off the graduating seniors with his speech on the stage of the Prudential Center in Newark on May 25, but will also receive an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Montclair State at the ceremony.
Since 1999 when he assumed his role as MLS commissioner, Garber has been a leader in the growth of the league, both on a local and a international level.
Being a resident of Montclair for over 20 years, his impact hits close to home for many students at Montclair State, as several of the changes reflecting Garber’s influence are visible in New Jersey and New York. For example, in 2010, the New York Red Bulls moved to a new $200 million arena in Harrison, New Jersey, which is only one of the 15 soccer-specific stadiums which Garber has established in the U.S. and Canada. Additionally, in 2015, the first MLS club in New York was established under Garber’s leadership.
“I think it’s very interesting to choose a figure like that, especially a sports figure,” said Kareem Yaghnam, a senior communication major who is looking forward to closing up his undergraduate career in just a few weeks. “I don’t think we’re a huge sports school. We’re division three, so I wouldn’t expect them to pick the commissioner for Major League Soccer. It’s pretty shocking.”
Yaghnam admitted that he was hoping comedian and late-night host Stephen Colbert would speak at Commencement, as he is also a Montclair resident. “It’s still cool, though,” he said.
“Don Garber’s personal and professional accomplishments make him a very worthy candidate for this recognition,” said President Susan A. Cole in the university’s press release about the speaker. “Our region has felt the positive economic and societal effects of the advancements made by our Major League Soccer clubs, and Don’s vision has been at the heart of those developments. I am pleased that Montclair State is able to recognize his impact on the fabric of New Jersey with this honor.”
Recently, soccer in the United States has especially been in the spotlight, with five of the biggest stars on the women’s national soccer team filing a federal complaint against the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) due to pay discrimination between men’s and women’s soccer players. Garber, who is on the USSF’s board of directors, commented on the recent controversy. “Our goal is to raise the overall perception of professional soccer in this country–both men’s and women’s, our leagues and others,” he told Sports Illustrated. “I think as the women’s game gets more and more popular, it just makes sense for teams that have the infrastructure to add NWSL [National Women’s Soccer League] teams.”
Although he said that he does have an opinion on the issue of equal pay among men and women athletes, he only commented, “I’m confident we will do the right thing. We need to be on the right side of history here.”
In Garber’s 17 years as commissioner, he’s added 13 new teams to the league, and, according to an interview with Sport Illustrated, he plans to add five more by the mid-2020’s, bringing the league total to 28 teams. In the realm of sports media, Garber has overseen significant advancements, including long-term broadcast agreements with ESPN, FOX Sports and Univision.
Garber also serves as CEO of Soccer United Marketing (SUM), the primary soccer marketing and advertising company in North America, and the founder of MLS WORKS, a community outreach initiative which addresses social issues on a national and international level. He has also made a difference locally as a member of the Board of Directors of the FC Harlem Youth Soccer Club and a founding board member of the Hope and Heroes Children’s Cancer Fund at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York.
Regardless of his many accomplishments, many students fail to see the relevance of a MLS commissioner at a commencement ceremony.
“I think it’s a little random for them to choose the head of [Major League] Soccer,” said Nalanie Mercado, a freshman psychology major. “We don’t even have a D-I soccer team to make it relevant. If you’re into soccer, then cool. You’re going to get a kick out of that, but he’s not even academically known for anything. It’s random.”
“I feel that it should have been somebody that represents academics, maybe a professor,” said Shameza Katideen, a senior biology major. “You want someone to motivate you—to tell you, ‘Oh yeah, you may not have a plan now, but there’s always plan C, D, E, whatever.’ Compared to Rutgers, they got Obama. How awesome is that?”
Garber said in the press release that he was “honored to receive this very special recognition from Montclair State University.” He continued, “As a Montclair resident for more than 20 years, I have witnessed the tremendous growth of the University and the positive impact it is having on many young people in New Jersey. I am pleased to accept this honor from an institution that is truly committed to providing life-changing educational opportunities for so many students.”