As a West Point graduate and faculty member, I find many of these arguments troubling. Academy leaders and alumni have often asserted that performance on the gridiron has a direct impact on our ability to win our nation’s wars and that we therefore have a moral imperative to win in football. But the facts do not support that assertion.
West Point admission standards are already relaxed for recruited athletes. Sixty-one percent of West Point’s current football players matriculated through the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School, where academic risk thresholds are significantly lower than for standard academy admissions, and virtually everyone who completes the coursework enters the academy.
Internal studies conducted in the past decade show that, once at West Point, recruited football players are more than twice as likely to fail courses, more likely to leave the Army early and less likely to be promoted to higher ranks in the Army compared with their non-recruited counterparts. There are exceptions, of course, and I have taught some outstanding football players. Yet the aggregate numbers demonstrate that loosening academic standards runs counter to the academy’s mission to prepare each graduate “for a career of professional excellence and service to the Nation as an officer in the United States Army.”
Certainly West Point has a legitimate interest in its teams being competitive. It has a far greater interest, however, in producing the best possible officers for long-term service in the Army. Does it really matter to America’s soldiers whether West Point had a winning football record? And why is football the only sport with this analogy to combat?
In 1940, West Point Superintendent Brig. Gen. Robert Eichelberger invoked almost the same argument to reverse Army football’s abysmal performance, which he saw as a harbinger of failure in World War II. Eichelberger allowed a new football coach, Earl Blaik, to recruit players of lesser academic ability, including transfers from other colleges. Blaik famously rallied his national championship squads of 1944 and 1945 under Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s dictum that “there is no substitute for victory.” (Today’s rallying cry, “nothing short of victory is acceptable,” is an intentional rewording of this phrase.)
In 1951, MacArthur learned that there was indeed a substitute for victory when he was fired for using the phrase to criticize President Harry Truman’s Korean war aims. Only a few weeks later, 37 of Blaik’s players were expelled for operating a cheating ring. An internal report concluded that the fundamental cause was “a misalignment of values in the implementation of the mission of the Military Academy,” specifically “an over-emphasis on football.”
West Point leaders often quote MacArthur to emphasize the value of competitive sports because, while superintendent from 1919 to 1922, he mandated intramural athletics for all cadets, seeking to provide “the undoubted advantages” of intercollegiate sports to the entire academy. This frequently overshadows the fact that MacArthur simultaneously oversaw reinstatement of a four-year academic curriculum, a far more important reform.
The true architect of athletic reforms at West Point was Capt. Herman Koehler, who oversaw cadet physical training from 1885 to 1923. Koehler believed that cadets should engage in competitive athletics “not for the sake of representing the Academy on any particular team, but for the good the individual gets out of them.” In his view, “if indulgence in athletics is to be confined to a limited few . . . and if winning is to be made the sole and only desideratum, then athletics fail of their object.”
In “Carved From Granite: West Point Since 1902,” historian Lance Betros demonstrated that Koehler’s warning went unheeded: Emphasis on intercollegiate athletics over the past decade has diverted scarce resources away from the military and physical training of other cadets. Betros also documented the “fervor” of alumni that makes constructive reform unlikely.
West Point’s academic reputation has fared better than many institutions that insist on competing at the top levels of college football. As the sport becomes increasingly professionalized, victory inevitably comes at a higher academic cost. Even if existing standards are preserved amid this pressure, questions remain about the appropriate emphasis placed on football at a service academy and whether West Point has already compromised too much in the pursuit of gridiron glory.