Tom Slear is a retired Army lieutenant colonel who served five years on active duty and 23 years in the Reserves. He formerly covered service academy football for the Army, Navy and Air Force Times.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter made it official during his commencement address at the U.S Naval Academy last week. Keenan Reynolds, Navy’s star quarterback and a sixth-round draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens, will have to serve none of his five-year active-duty commitment. He will get what many football players at the service academies have salivated over for decades: a chance to jump directly to the National Football League.
Initially such athletes were told “no deal”; they had to fulfill their commitment first. A dozen or so tried, but only Navy’s Roger Staubach and Air Force’s Chad Hennings had staying power. Starting in the 1990s, players were let go after serving a fraction of their obligation. And now, with Reynolds as the lodestar, such athletes will make no payback at all other than serving as a ready reservist, which only generously can be called light duty.
You would think this steady march to a zero commitment at institutions funded entirely by taxpayers, including the salaries paid to midshipmen and cadets while they earn bachelor’s degrees and military commissions, would have prompted a public debate. Yet the progressive leniency has been questioned seriously only once that I’m aware of, in 1999, when then-Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.) spoke up after hearing about an ROTC graduate seeking early release from active duty so that he could accept a lucrative job offer. The Air Force turned the lieutenant down despite recently excusing three former Air Force Academy football players from most of their active-duty obligations so that they could attempt to play in the NFL. This glaring inconsistency galled McInnis, but his concerns gained little traction either in Washington or the media.
The services contend that academy graduates who play in the NFL boost recruiting, though they could supply no supporting data to McInnis, and they can’t supply any today. That’s because with few exceptions, academy graduates have been NFL busts. Over the past 10 years, only three, all with their five-year active-duty obligations shortened, have had any appreciable playing time: Bryce Fisher, Joe Cardona and Alejandro Villanueva. You’re not alone if you don’t recognize those names. How many men or women do you think they enticed to enlist?
After those three, the marketing value of service academy players with NFL experience drops from marginal to minuscule. Two examples are Caleb Campbell, who served two years on active duty in the Army before playing in parts of three games in the NFL, and Eric Kettani, who spent five seasons on three different NFL practice squads after three years of active Navy duty.
Reynolds was a 5-foot-11, 195-pound option quarterback at Navy. The Ravens see him as a receiver in the NFL. The outcome for him will probably be no different. Why do the services persist in accepting such long odds? More important, why should the taxpayers continue to fund these bets?
Meanwhile, the academies suffer a subtle erosion of their ethos. They exist to instill young men and women with a mind-set of selfless service to the country. There is no other justification for the significant public expense that supports them.
Professional football, on the other hand, is about service to oneself. It has its place, but not for academy graduates who haven’t fulfilled their obligations to their fellow citizens. Each time one of them leaves early, the ethos diminishes a bit, and the taxpayers are cheated.