Campbell Should Be Allowed to Pursue His Dream

By John Feinstein
Special to
Monday, July 28, 2008; 11:53 PM

In case those of you who attacked Army graduate Caleb Campbell for wanting to play in the National Football League missed it, here's another target for you: Oliver Drake. Until last week he was a midshipman at the United States Naval Academy who happened to be a talented pitcher.

Now, he's a minor league pitcher in the Baltimore Orioles system, having been selected by the Orioles in the 43d round of the June draft.

Let's rev up all the flag-waving, all the screaming about Drake shirking his duty and deserting his country, all the talk of him being a coward who is leaving his comrades-in-arms just so he can be a professional athlete.

Oh wait, what Drake is doing is okay because he chose to drop out of Navy before the start of his junior year, which any midshipman -- and any cadet at Army or Air Force -- can do without penalty. That's what Drake did: he saw a chance to live out a dream and he made the decision to go for it.

Guess what folks -- that's exactly what Caleb Campbell did.

Campbell didn't drop out of West Point after his sophomore year when he would have been free and clear of any military obligation. He stayed all four years, graduated and was commissioned as a second lieutenant along with the rest of his classmates. In 2005, the Army passed a rule which said, essentially, that if a cadet was an exceptional enough athlete to be signed by a professional team, he or she could pursue that career while serving as a recruiter for the Army.

Campbell was one of a handful of athletes -- there were already two baseball players and two hockey players in the program prior to him -- who appeared to benefit from that rule. This spring he was drafted in the seventh round by the Detroit Lions, who took Campbell with the understanding that he would be given a chance by the Army to make the team

As soon as Campbell was drafted, the screaming began. People at Navy and Air Force began complaining that Army might have a recruiting advantage if athletes knew they would be given a chance to play pro ball after graduating. "All we want is a level playing field," Navy Coach Ken Niamatalolu said.

A fair argument. Perhaps the Navy and the Air Force should have reconsidered their positions rather than complain about the Army trying a program that might benefit its graduates in a number of ways.

Far worse though was all the self-righteous screaming that Campbell was letting down his country because he happened to be a pretty good football player. In truth, Campbell didn't do anything different than Oliver Drake: He did what the rules allowed him to do. If you want to disagree with the rule, that's fine, but those who attacked Campbell were completely unfair to him in every possible way.

Even more unfair, though, was the Army's decision last week not only to end the program but to tell Campbell he had to report for active duty immediately. Basically, the Department of Defense bowed to pressure from people who have no understanding of why the program existed or what kind of people the young men in the program really are. When the initial decision was made in May to abandon the program because of public pressure, Campbell was going to be grandfathered in, the feeling being a commitment had been made to him -- and the Lions -- and the Army should not renege on that commitment.

Now, the Army has reneged on that commitment. As you might expect, Campbell took the news last week with grace and dignity -- and without complaining that the Army had been unfair to him. This is exactly what you would expect from an academy graduate. The number of men and women who survive four years at those schools who are not first-class people can probably be counted on one hand.

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