By John Feinstein
I wrote a CBS Sports Minute for this morning on the defense department’s decision—apparently made last week—to rescind a rule-change made last year that allowed athletes from the three military academies—Army, Navy and Air Force—to defer their active duty if they have an opportunity to play their sport professionally.
Note the word, ‘deferred.’
The rule did not release anyone from their military obligation, just allowed them to push it back during those years when—in most cases—they had the best chance to succeed at the top levels of their sport.
The longest one of those aforementioned CBS Sports Minutes can be (they’re actually 56 seconds) is 175 words. Anything longer and the producers who put them together have a problem. When I finished writing 174 words, I realized I had a lot more to say on this issue.
I was angry.
Why? Because the decision to reverse what was done a year ago is selfish, self-righteous, a PR stunt and, frankly, stupid in every possible way.
Let me first present the case made by a Pentagon spokesman named Dana W. White. He claimed that the purpose of the academies is to train officers to serve in the armed forces and increase the ‘lethality,’ of our military. Seriously, he said lethality. He went on to talk about the extraordinary education athletes receive at taxpayer expense.
First, every student at the academies has his or her education paid for by the government. At civilian schools, athletes receive athletic scholarships and, when they graduate (or don’t graduate) they owe the university nothing. Their scholarship is given to them in return for their performance as athletes. Period.
And, let’s remember that no one is asking that the athletes be allowed to skip out on their military obligations. They’re simply asking to defer it for a few years.
As for the ‘lethality,’ depending on the country’s status vis-à-vis being at war or not, many, if not most who serve never pick up a weapon. Roger Staubach did go to Vietnam in the 1960s but, as he always points out, he was behind the lines, working as a logistics officer. David Robinson graduated during peace time (1987) and spent most of his two years in the Navy stationed at a submarine base in Georgia.
Each went on to become a Hall of Famer in his respective sport. By doing so and by being great MEN in addition to being sublime athletes, they became human recruiting posters not only for the academies but for the entire military. Keenan Reynolds and Joe Carbona, both ex-Navy football players, were in the NFL last year: Carbona as the Patriots’ long snapper; Reynolds on the Ravens’ practice squad—until the last game of the season when he was activated.
Neither is going to have the career Staubach did or the career Napoleon McCallum did in the 1980s before a gruesome leg injury ended his time in the NFL. But, even though they are hardly key players, they are constantly the subject of media stories about how much it meant to them to graduate from Navy and represent the academy in the NFL and how they plan to complete their military obligations.
How can that possibly be bad for the military? Does anyone in the Pentagon really think the fact that they aren’t battle-ready at this moment is weakening our military? Please do not make the argument that athletes don’t deserve exceptions.
They already get them—at every school in the country including, yes, The Ivy League. Academic standards are always lowered for athletes—including at the academies. Most graduate and many go on to distinguished careers as officers.
Andrew Thompson was captain of the Navy football team in 1995. He would be the first to tell you there was no way he would have qualified academically to go there had he not been a recruited football player. He served in the marines for 20 years; deployed to Iraq and retired as a colonel. The Marines thought enough of him when his first opportunity to retire came up that it paid for him to go to graduate school in return for staying in the marines.
Thompson is more typical than a-typical of what happens to athletes—in all sports—who attend the academies. To survive at an academy militarily and academically AND put in the hours required of a varsity athlete, you have to be exceptionally disciplined. Very few academy athletes will get the chance to play their sport professionally. Almost all of them will begin serving the day they graduate.
But to somehow claim that the military is weakened by giving the rare athlete who might have a chance to succeed a fair shot at following his or her dream, is remarkably short-sighted. The easy crutch—“they’re training to be officers,”—is just dumb.
Sure they are, but if one of them can help raise the profile of Army, Navy or Air Force in a positive way, why not let them do that? Every time one of them opens his mouth to speak, he makes his academy look good. Not a lot of grads from those three schools start sentences with, “well, you know, I just wanted to, you know, step and give, you know, 110 percent.”
In giving athletes the long-shot chance to pursue their dreams, not only do you do the right thing by young men or women who have given back to their school in a way that most can’t, you make the academies more welcoming to those who are gifted athletes.
Keenan Reynolds did a lot more for the Naval Academy in his four years there than Admiral Walter E. (Ted) Carter, the current academy superintendent, could possibly do for the school in the next 100 years. It wasn’t just the games Reynolds helped Navy win; the money he made for the Naval Academy Athletic Association by helping Navy get to bowl games and the mountains of positive publicity he brought to the Academy. It was more than that.
Reynolds was Navy’s best recruiter, just as Staubach and Robinson have been recruiters for the entire military for years. To act as if Reynolds was just another Midshipmen is ludicrous.
Carter’s incredible lack of compassion or vision was never more evident than this past October when he refused to give quarterback Tago Smith an extra year of eligibility. Playing behind Reynolds, Smith had waited three years for his chance to be the starting quarterback. When that chance finally came, it lasted little more than a quarter. After rushing for more than 100 yards in the season-opener against Fordham, Smith tore an ACL in his knee early in the second quarter, ending his season.
At a non-military academy, a redshirt year would be automatic. Not at an academy. Carter refused to grant Smith the chance to play next fall in part because—his words—Smith was on schedule to graduate. If, like Napoleon McCallum, who was granted a fifth season in 1985, he’d been struggling academically, he might have had a chance to play again because he needed the extra semester in the classroom.
But Carter chose to buy into the old military curmudgeon’s argument that, Midshipmen are preparing to serve their country—period! He turned Smith down even though—EVER YEAR–a number of football graduates spend the fall semester working as graduate assistant football coaches before being assigned permanent duty.
THAT’S the kind of thing that makes me angry. Then, as superintendent, Carter went into the locker room after each game to tell the players how proud he was of them and how they stand for all that’s right in America.
He’s right about that—just as the generals at Army and Air Force are right when they say that to their players. But when the time comes to show real gratitude, these guys and some blowhard spokesman at the Pentagon spout self-righteous babble about ‘lethability.’
Fifteen years ago, Kevin Norman one of the Army players I got to know while researching ‘A Civil War,’ the book I wrote in 1996 on the Army-Navy rivalry, was killed in Korea when something went horribly wrong with his plane and it crashed. According to the official report, Kevin kept the plane aloft long enough to crash it in an empty field instead of in a populated area—saving countless lives in the moments before he died.
I got the call about Kevin from Jim Cantelupe, who had been his roommate and Army’s defensive captain when both were seniors. Needless to say, I was shocked and babbled something about Kevin dying a hero because he was defending his country overseas.
“No John,” Jim corrected me. “Kevin wasn’t a hero because he died for his country. He was a hero because he was WILLING to die for his country.”
He was, of course, right. Every one of the 12,000 cadets or midshipmen at Army, Air Force and Navy has volunteered to die for his or her country. To grant a handful of them the chance to do something that is almost impossibly difficult to achieve after four years at an academy, is, quite simply, the right thing to do.
It is a shame the selfish and self-righteous leaders of the military have decided to go out of their way to NOT do the right thing. Those cadets and midshipment deserve better. A lot better.
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The Legends Club—Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano and the story of an epic college basketball rivalry,” is still on The New York Times sports bestseller list in paperback. It was on the hardcover list for six months. “The First Major,” his book on last year’s Ryder Cup will be published in October and can be pre-ordered on line now. He is also the author of, “Last Shot,” which won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for mystery writing in the Young Adult category.