The very mission of any service academy, in particular the United States Military Academy, is “to provide the Nation with leaders of character who serve the common defense.”
And that defense is not the 4-3 with two deep safeties, either.
There is a surge of stories in the national media this week criticizing the Department of Defense “rescinding” its policy of allowing top athletes to defer their active duty to play professional sports. Now, and in the future, academy graduates will do what they have always been meant to do since the 19th century. What they went there to do. What Roger Staubach, Chad Hennings, even David Robinson (in a more unique way) did. First serve their commitments as active-duty officers in our military before any careers in sports.
There have been stories like this from the Washington Post. Or this from Pro Football Talk. Plus other, similar shouts that student-athletes at the three service academies should be allowed to go directly into pro leagues if they are good enough on the field to do so.
They are misguided. They are ignorant of the purposes of the U.S. Military Academy, the Naval Academy and Air Force Academy.
And they are just plain wrong.
There’s not bait-and-switch going on here. Not to those who attending the academies and are affecting by the policies.
Let’s go beyond the fact that even under the “new” policy of last summer, players at the academies still had to apply to the DoD for Ready Reserve status (a status customarily only granted after an officer serves his active-duty time) immediately after graduation to participate in pro sports. Had to apply. It was still an exception to policy, for approval at levels those in the military like to call “echelons above God,” on a case-by-case basis.
Mike Florio is the writer and Pro Football Talk and analyst for NBC Sports who typed this and put it out nationally this week:
“Then there’s the question of whether it’s fair, as a practical matter, to pull the FieldTurf out from under the students who were recruited under the previous policy. At a minimum, anyone who signed up with the understanding that an instant pro career was possible should be allowed to leave without serving two years.
“Apart from the pros and cons of the changing policy, the decision will have one clear consequence: Kids who want a possible path to the NFL definitely will go elsewhere, which will cause the quality of the Army, Navy, and Air Force football programs to diminish from ‘not necessarily the best’ to far from it.”
Drop and give me 10, Mike.
The quality of the Army, Navy and Air Force football programs always has always been about how well our nation’s future military officers play football -- not how well blue-chip football players might somehow manage to fit in training to become our nation’s future military officers.
Guys don’t pick Navy when Nick Saban is also offering them a scholarship to play football at Alabama.
If Army goes 2-10 or even if we lose to Navy for 14 consecutive years -- don’t even remind me, streak’s over, Beat Navy! -- because West Point is first attracting leaders of character who serve the common defense, our country is better off for it. If USMA continues to refuse to relax its height-weight requirement to graduate, and Army thus continues to have football linemen who are outweighed by 50 pounds at every position by its opponents on Saturdays, then keep running the triple-option. And keep exquisitely leading platoons, companies, battalions, brigades and corps after graduation. Thank you, sir and ma’am, for your service.
Even more to the point: Those that attend West Point, Annapolis and the AFA absolutely are not freshman, sophomores, like they are at USC and Ohio State and Oklahoma training to make it to the NFL. They are cadets and midshipmen training to lead men and women in serving our nation’s military. There is intense pride, duty, responsibility and belief inherent in those differences. West Point’s student-housing complexes aren’t “dorms.” They are “barracks.”
These young men and women at the service academies have not been studying for and taking four-hour electrical-engineering finals while thinking, as Florio wrote, they had “signed up with the understanding that an instant pro career was possible” -- even if it, by policy, may have been.
Not one -- not a single one, zero -- athletes with which I attended West Point and that I’ve met from an academy in the 24 years since chose to attend one to become a professional athlete.
They went to get a challenging, top-class college experience, to get the bonus of being able to play at the top level of college football -- and above all to serve our nation, to defend its honor and its freedoms.
Yes, some 18-year olds actually still think this way -- 3,608 of them across the country in the last year, in fact. That is the number of new cadets and midshipmen that entered the three service academies in 2016.
Jalen Robinette thinks this way, too.
The Air Force wide receiver is at the center of this national debate over whether our nation’s military should allow top academy athletes to go straight into the pros. He is the career receiving leader at Air Force. Many expected him to go in the middle rounds of last weekend’s NFL draft. Then last week, before the draft, the Air Force let every team in the league know it wasn’t letting Robinette out of his commitment to serve as an active-duty officer..
While I’m sure he is disappointed to get so close to being drafted then not getting selected last weekend, he gets why he went to Air Force. He gets what it means and what he should do next.
I found that out at the league’s annual scouting combine in Indianapolis in March.
I sought him out there. I listened to him answer five minutes of questions about his 40 time, his offense at Air Force, inane ones such as whether the Eagles have talked to him. When the handful of other reporters left and he and I were alone at the small table inside the Indiana Convention Center, I asked him, “Why did you go to the Academy?”
“The opportunities,” he said. “To get a great education, along with getting to play Division-I football -- and then to get to serve my country.”
When I asked him if he still had yet to apply for his exception to his active-duty commitment to play in the NFL, Robinette said he would be indeed be doing that after the draft. He knew in March the possibility he would not be granted the exception, that he would be becoming an Air Force officer instead.
That, plus the pride in Robinette’s eyes as he described his unique opportunity to serve, told me he gets it.
Herbie Teope gets it, too.
Teope is a beat writer covering the New Orleans Saints for The Times-Picayune. He’s a good friend. And not just because he is a 20-year veteran of service as an Army enlisted solider, non-commissioned officer and bad-a** drill sergeant, either.
But that helps.
Teope wrote this on Monday:
The lack of understanding between our nation’s writers and the purpose of our nation’s services academies is, well, understandable. No nation on the globe spends so heavily on its military or is defended so thoroughly and effectively by it while its society has such an extensive lack of basic understanding of that military defending it. (No, before you tweet your nasty responses, I didn’t say lack of appreciation, just understanding). And that’s fine. It’s the way our diverse society has been for a century. Those I know in the military are OK with that. It’s not our duty or place to judge the people and principles we defend.
But, please, let’s keep the purposes of our service academies in the proper context, in the proper place within our society. Those institutions are extraordinary.
Let’s keep the pervasive influence of and our insatiable craving for professional sports out of at least that part of our nation.