Harrison Butker’s commencement speech almost made a good point

Harrison Butker can tell something is off about how we think about work. He just thinks it's all women's fault.

Kansas City Chiefs’ kicker Harrison Butker delivers the Benedictine College commencement address on May 11, 2024, in Atchison, Kansas. (Video screen grab)

(RNS) — Last week, a football player gave a commencement speech that made a lot of people pretty upset. I’m sure you’ve heard about it. 

Commencement speeches are pretty minor skirmishes in the grand scheme of culture wars. All of the media punditry hair-pulling about these poor college students walking out on Jerry Seinfeld or missing their big graduation commencement speech strikes me as very stupid.

I do not remember a single word of my graduation commencement speech, nor do I remember who gave it. I asked my wife if she remembered who gave her commencement speech and she did, because it was Paul Ryan. I asked if she remembered what he said, and she did not, because she left in the middle to go get a hot dog. 

But there’s been a weird pattern in these agro Christian guys’ “we must take back culture for cool tough men like me” speeches lately. I noted a few weeks ago that Mark Driscoll of all people was in the orbit of a good point in his own recent infamous speech, but his views on gender kept him from landing the plane. Something similar is happening with this football guy’s commencement speech. 

He told the women in Benedictine College’s graduating class that, despite their newly minted and very expensive college degrees, while “some of you may go on to lead successful careers in the world,” he would “venture to guess that the majority of you are most excited about your marriage and the children you will bring into this world.”

He went on:

I can tell you that my beautiful wife Isabelle would be the first to say that her life truly started when she began living her vocation as a wife and as a mother. I’m on this stage today and able to be the man I am because I have a wife who leans into her vocation. I am beyond blessed with the many talents God has given me. But it cannot be overstated, that all of my success is made possible because the girl I met in class back in middle school would convert to the faith, become my wife and embrace one of the most important titles of all: homemaker.

We’ll have to take his word for it, since his beautiful wife Isabelle was not and will never be asked to share her thoughts on stage.

Look. This all might very well be true. Maybe Isabelle does love being a wife and a mom more than anything in the world. None of us know her, and I doubt any of us are in a place to speculate. Lots of people find raising a family to be all the personal fulfillment they need, and for all I know, Isabelle is one of those people. More power to her, if that’s true.

But what I do know is that this guy needs it to be true. Because he knows if it’s not true — if his wife has professional dreams and ambitions that she’s sidelining for the sake of her husband’s football career — then he’s a real jackass. Like he says: What he’s doing “is made possible” because his wife has “embraced” the “important” title of homemaker.

If she doesn’t embrace that title, then his busy, demanding life of professional football isn’t possible anymore. If raising kids isn’t Isabelle’s one true passion in life — if she finds it occasionally annoying or frustrating or irritating or anything other than entirely fulfilling — then it becomes a responsibility that both parents have to divide equally. He’d have to start making career sacrifices and turning down professional opportunities. “Homemaker” doesn’t seem quite as important when it’s the man who has to embrace it, does it? 

Basically, Christians of this particular stripe need for women, as a whole, to feel divinely called and entirely fulfilled by raising kids. That way, men can go do all the cool, badass jobs and don’t feel like they’re sentencing their wives to a life of unfulfilling labor at home. Women want to do this! This is all they could ever ask for! And if they don’t want to do this — if they would like their husbands to actually help out a little more because they also have career ambitions — well, that’s just because of cultural lies and feminism and all that.

But here’s the thing, and this is where I think the football guy is actually circling a decent point. Americans work too much. We spend too much of our one, wild, precious life on our professional careers. This is a problem. We were not created to work. We were especially not created to do the kind of work most of us end up doing, which is really just enriching our bosses and gobbling up the leftovers. That is a rough way to live. We were created to be in meaningful community with people we love and who love us back! 

The football guy directed this line — “some of you may go on to lead successful careers in the world, but I would venture to guess that the majority of you are most excited about your marriage and the children you will bring into this world” — specifically to the women. Why? Why is that one just for the ladies? Should men also not be more excited about their actual human relationships than their careers?

My hunch is that this guy, like Driscoll, correctly sorta kinda intuits that something is off about the way we think about work in our culture. He was raised with weird ideas about gender and culture war stuff, so he blames feminism and women who work too much. Maybe he’s half right. But by not looking inward and reflecting on how he and men like him are also failing to embrace the most important work they can do, he ends up missing the mark entirely. 

Nobody will or should ever ask me to give a commencement speech. But if they did, maybe I’d say something like this: 

Some of you may go on to lead successful careers in the world. But I hope the majority of you are more excited about all the people you’re about to meet. Some of them will challenge you. Some of them will inspire you. Some of them will be so similar to you that, after five minutes, you’ll feel like you’ve known them all your life. Some of them will be so different that they’ll scare you, though usually that just means they’re expanding your idea of what a person can be, which can be scary but isn’t bad. You will fall in love with some of them and, who knows? You might even create a new person together, and that person will grow up to challenge and inspire you, too. 

And what is so important to remember is that all of these people were created by God, in God’s own image. That is an incredible thing to think about, and it means we have to take everyone we meet very seriously. In fact, we should probably take everyone we meet quite a bit more seriously than we take our jobs. 

I am sure that there are people sitting in this room whose work will change the world in remarkable ways, and we are all so excited to see what’s in store for you. But I also hope we always remember that no professional achievement can equal the miraculous force of loving and being loved. Those bonds are more valuable than any career. And when we invest in them with courage, humility, creativity and kindness, we are changing the world in ways we can never imagine.

If anything, according to Bronnie Ware’s “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying,” it’s really men who should be focusing less on their careers and more on being homemakers. Ware, a palliative nurse who started cataloging the biggest regrets of dying patients, noted that “all of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”

(Tyler Huckabee is a writer living in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife and dogs. This article was originally published at his Substack, where you can read more of his writing. This column does not necessarily reflect the views of Religion News Service.)

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