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ESPN President Skipper calls his Tuskegee commencement address a ‘profound’ experience

The band played the SportsCenter theme during the ceremony

When John Skipper was invited by Tuskegee University President Brian Johnson to give the commencement speech to the school’s 2017 graduating class, the president of ESPN wanted his first visit to the campus to include some of the pomp and circumstance of the renowned historically black university.

“I asked for some Ball and Parlay,” Skipper said, referring to the popular hype song that has been played at Tuskegee football games and events since the mid-1980s.

Skipper got his wish when Brandon Burroughs, drum major of Tuskegee’s Marching Crimson Pipers Band, stood up in the middle of the seated graduates May 13 and blew his whistle, bringing Chappie James Arena to its feet.

“The band immediately started to play some SportsCenter da-da-da-da-da-da, and a little Ball and Parlay. The energy was great,” said Skipper.

Skipper shared anecdotes about his early career, lessons learned and graduating from the University of North Carolina with dreams of becoming a big-time writer in New York. He also said how impressed he was by the graduating seniors, who numbered more than 500.

“Brandon Burroughs … is a rocket scientist,” said Skipper. “He is going to work at NASA. He’s just one example. Sixty-eight percent of the graduates are first-generation. So the fact that you had all these kids, over half of them from Georgia and Alabama, as the first people in their family to go to college, and they’re coming out with engineering degrees and opportunities to work at Proctor & Gamble and Boeing. … I was blown away. It was profound.”

The longtime ESPN executive has supported historically black colleges and universities with coverage of games and special events, including the MEAC/SWAC Challenge and Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl. He was also instrumental in the launch of The Undefeated, an ESPN website dedicated to coverage of the intersection of sports, race and culture.

“Tuskegee was also very gracious about The Undefeated, and about ESPN’s efforts to examine race, culture and sports,” Skipper said. “So this experience was cool on a number of levels.”