An article this week by Childs Walker of The Baltimore Sun described how the service academies are making it easier for graduates to go directly from a service academy into the NFL. An exception to the policy of requiring graduates to serve at least two years of active duty before applying to go into the reserves was made for Keenan Reynolds, the Naval Academy graduate now on the Ravens’ practice squad who was allowed to go into the Navy Reserve immediately after graduation.
The policy has been changed, and in the future all academy athletes will be allowed to apply to go directly from the academies into the reserves in order to pursue careers in professional sports. Decisions on the applications will be made on a case-by-case basis and presumably will continue to be based on the existing standard, which is “a strong expectation their professional sports activity will provide the DoD with significant favorable media exposure likely to enhance national recruiting or public affairs.”
I bit my lip on this issue when it was announced in May that the policy had been changed for Reynolds, out of concern that I did not want my comments to appear to be personal to Reynolds, who by every measure is a remarkable young man with his head and his heart in the right places. Of course, now that I think about it many academy graduates are remarkable people in their own rights, but there is a bigger issue.
The bigger issue is the matter of misplaced values. The new policy elevates the value of major collegiate and professional sports over the value of service to country and fulfillment of contractual commitments. It also elevates the importance of professional sports over the importance of other professional and occupational pursuits.
First of all, let’s sort out the bullshit: Opening this pathway to a professional sports career and making it public is all about recruiting standout male high school football and basketball players to the service academies, period. To star athletes for whom playing in the NFL or NBA is their dream the prospect of waiting two or more years after graduation before trying out for a professional team can end any thoughts they have of attending service academies.
Moreover, the appeal of attracting standout football and basketball players to the academies lies mainly in the desire of alumnae to bask in the reflected glory of successful academy football and basketball teams. They also enjoy the cachet of having fellow alumnae playing in the NFL and NBA. Graduates of the service academies dominate the halls of the Pentagon, and exert an enormous influence on academy policies. They want their alma maters to win football and basketball games (especially football), and that is what is driving the policy change.
Any other claim is window dressing. The statement by Secretary of Navy Ray Mabus that increasing the number of academy graduates playing in the NFL and NBA helps recruiting in general is unprovable, and dubious. For one thing, any enlisted man or woman (or officer, for that matter) who joins the service because of the success of an academy football or basketball team is misguided, and enlisting for the wrong reason. Join the Navy and go to war because “our” football team had a winning season? In other words, any claim that the new policy has to do with anything other than winning more football and basketball games is smoke headed right up your arse.
Also, put out of your mind that this has anything to do with recruiting high school athletes who play minor sports or with recruiting female athletes in general. Do you think the brass care about recruiting women to academies who hope after graduation to play in the WNSL (that’s the Women’s National Soccer League for you non-soccer fans) or the WNBA? The new policy will have to be administered in a non-discriminatory manner, so there will women allowed to pursue their dreams of playing in the WNSL or the WNBA, but that is not what this policy is about. This is about football and men’s basketball.
Before I go any further I should disclose facts that may influence my point of view. I owe my college education to the fact that I received a four-year ROTC scholarship, which came with an obligation to serve four years on active duty with the Army. I served that time plus three more years on active duty, and an additional 18 years in the reserves.
My grandfather, father, both uncles, brother, son and son-in-law all served in the military, with all branches covered – Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. There is no anti-military bias in my family, and I do not begrudge any veteran any benefit or advantage to which he or she is entitled.
I also am a college and professional football fan, with loyalties to the University of Pittsburgh and the Ravens, respectively. I am trying to downsize, and came across a scrapbook in which I have newspaper clippings of college football games going back to 1957. (No, I didn’t throw it away.) College football has changed considerably since then and not all for the better.
Money is of course the big factor behind the changes to the revenue-producing college sports and it dominates all other considerations. Players at football factories such as Alabama and Ohio State live lives that are only superficially similar to the college experiences of other students. It is fair to say that teams from those schools play on behalf of the schools without really being part of the schools, and football certainly is not part of the core academic missions of the schools. If anything the teams are part of the fundraising side of the institutions rather than the educational side.
What has become of college football is a story in itself, but suffice it to say that no other country uses its universities as the training grounds for major professional sports. The NFL, with its enormous profits, benefits directly from the training provided to its future players by these schools but returns none of those profits to the schools. That also is quite different from many European countries, where professional soccer teams have their own “academies” and pay youth teams and training programs for the costs of developing players. Of course the NCAA itself needs no financial help from the NFL, given that it has plenty of money of its own. Both the NFL and NCAA have pretty sweet deals, and there is a lot of money in a relatively few hands.
Someday things may change, but it won’t be any time soon. In the meantime I do not believe it is necessary to elevate major collegiate and professional sports to an even higher plane in our society. Playing on the Ravens’ taxi squad does not equate to military service and should not be treated as such for purposes of fulfilling a commitment made at the time of entering a service academy. And I don’t accept for one minute the argument that serving a military commitment in the reserves is the same as serving it on active duty.
Roger Staubach graduated from the Naval Academy in 1965 and served four years on active duty, including one year in Vietnam. He subsequently played ten years for the Dallas Cowboys, winning two Super Bowls. He repaid the Navy for his education by serving out his full active duty commitment before going on to play professional football.
Staubach’s career reflected the principles of commitment and sacrifice. So did the career of Napoleon McCallum. After McCallum graduated from the Naval Academy in 1985 he was able to play one year of professional football with the Los Angeles Raiders in 1986 because he was stationed in Long Beach, and the Navy did not prohibit secondary employment that did not interfere with duty requirements. He was reassigned to sea duty in 1987, however, and missed the next three seasons of professional football while fulfilling the remainder of his service commitment.
McCallum’s interrupted pro football career, which ended because of a severe leg injury in 1994, never picked up where it left off when he went to sea in 1987. McCallum made sacrifices because of the commitment he made to the Navy, and those sacrifices were based on the principle that service to his country came first.
At some point when you start making “exceptions” to fundamental principles they no longer are fundamental principles – they become sort of like guidelines that can be ignored if expedient to do so. Repaying a four year education with five years of active military service to your country is the deal, and making exceptions to the deal to allow graduates to play professional sports (at salaries generally exceeding those paid to second lieutenants and ensigns, by the way) is contrary to the principle that a deal is a deal, and to the value properly placed on service to the country.
Finally, why isn’t the same policy applied to academy graduates who aspire to pursue careers in the private sector in business, medicine, science, engineering, music or, heaven forbid, law? Is a graduate who displayed exceptional scientific aptitude and who wants to pursue a career in research without going on active duty less deserving of the chance to go directly into the reserves? Apparently yes, because it is unlikely that a career spent in a laboratory “will provide the DoD with significant favorable media exposure likely to enhance national recruiting or public affairs.” Do we have to measure everything in this country by its value in gaining “media exposure”?
In my opinion the policy change is misguided and points the ethos of the service academies in the wrong direction. Yes, I understand why well-intended football fans wanted to see a wonderful young man like Keenan Reynolds be able to pursue a professional football career without making the sacrifices that Staubach and McCallum made. On the other hand, sacrifice sometimes is the consequence of adhering to principles, and academies should be embracing that fact rather than shying away from it.
Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, 2016