Update

Statements from the Navy and a Pentagon spokeswoman have been added to this story.

Cameron Kinley stood in front of the 2021 graduating class of Naval Midshipmen less than two weeks ago and gave his final speech as class president despite being emotionally torn inside. This was one of the biggest moments of his life, with Vice President Harris in attendance, but the excitement he previously felt wasn’t there.

Three days earlier, Navy had informed Kinley that his application to delay his five-year service commitment for the opportunity to play in the NFL had been denied. He had signed a free agent contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and played well during rookie minicamp, but that dream would end before it got started. Kinley is “hoping for a miracle” with a reversal of the ruling, but there is no appeal process.

So Kinley celebrated the lead-up to graduation with his classmates, listening to the congrats of many for getting the chance to play professional football while knowing the institution he loves wouldn’t permit him to do so.

“I’m just going along with everything, trying to keep a smile on my face,” Kinley said. “ … Graduation was a day I looked forward to all four years at the academy. But when I woke up that morning, that same sense of excitement wasn’t there.

“It’s not because I wasn’t excited to graduate and to commission and to serve the country, because it’s been one of my dreams and one of my goals. But I felt like somebody had snatched away a piece of me because it goes back to just all the hard work and all the adversity I had to overcome to get to that point. And for somebody to just be able to take that opportunity away from me, it just didn’t sit well, especially with no explanation.”

Capt. Jereal Dorsey, special assistant for public affairs, said the Navy is declining all recent requests.

“Admission to the Naval Academy is an extensive and competitive process,” Dorsey said in an emailed statement. "The mission of the Naval Academy is to develop young men and women to commission as officers in the Navy or Marine Corps. When students accept admission and continue their education in this program, there is an understanding and acknowledgement that they will upon graduation be commissioned. Every Midshipman attends on the same terms and each has the same responsibility to serve. Exceptions to that commitment to serve have been rightfully rare.

“Following discussions with senior Department of Navy leadership and in accordance with existing Department of Defense policy, acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas W. Harker, declined to forward requests from recent Naval Academy graduates to the Secretary of Defense, seeking to delay their commissions.”

President Donald Trump directed the Pentagon in 2019 to draft guidelines that gave service academy graduates a path to delay their service requirements to capitalize on the opportunity to play professional sports. Malcolm Perry, Navy’s record-setting quarterback in 2019, was approved and played nine games last season for the Miami Dolphins.

Pentagon spokeswoman Lisa Lawrence emailed a statement placing the decision-making process with the individual service secretaries.

“Under existing guidance, each Service Secretary concerned has the ability to determine what process and factors they will consider in advancing athlete requests to the Secretary of Defense,” the statement read. “We defer all questions regarding that process to the Service concerned.”

Army’s Jon Rhattigan (Seattle Seahawks) and Air Force’s Nolan Laufenberg (Denver Broncos) and George Silvanic (Los Angeles Rams) were approved to delay their service, according to Ryan Williams-Jenkins, co-founder of Kinley’s agency, Divine Sports and Entertainment.

Kinley has every intention of fulfilling his obligations, and his ultimate goal is to run for president, but there is a limited window to chase an NFL dream.

“It was definitely a quick turn of events,” Kinley said, “given at three days to graduation my whole course of life kind of changed unexpectedly. I pretty much didn’t get any explanation, any specific reasoning. [Commandant Thomas R. Buchanan] denied it, and then he informed me that there’s no appeal process. So you kind of go from there, which is the part that I guess is troubling to me the most. I don’t really know why I was denied other than the fact that he wants me to serve immediately, I guess.”

Kinley served as captain of the football team and was the first football player to be class president since at least 1991. Barring a reversal, the political science major will return to Annapolis on June 28 and remain there until October. He then heads to Virginia for school for intelligence officers.

Kinley receiving a contract from the Buccaneers already was unexpected, so time away from the team hurts his chances of making the roster. The Bucs begin a three-day mandatory minicamp Tuesday.

Then-Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper signed the memo that outlined the guidelines for delayed service in 2019. The memo states military service secretaries can nominate a graduate for a waiver if there “is a strong expectation that a Military Service Academy cadet or midshipman’s future professional sports employment will provide the [Department of Defense] with significant favorable media exposure likely to enhance national level recruiting or public affairs missions.”

That aligns with Kinley’s plans, which included wanting to show it’s possible to attend Navy, serve the country and develop leadership skills without having to give up on NFL aspirations.

“I tried to play my cards right,” Kinley said. “This is simply just wanting to set that example, and I felt like this next phase and this next platform was going to be an even better chance to represent the Naval Academy. I mean, being a young Black man, the inspiration that that does for so many young African Americans in this country where hope is small. And I feel like that’s what’s hurting me most is I won’t have that opportunity in this way.”

Kinley said he won’t hold any grudges and he still looks forward to being an officer. One goal doesn’t cancel out another. At a minimum, he would like an explanation of why he was denied when others were not. Kinley was adamant that his frustration and decision to go public were not an attempt to get out of serving.

“It was never me trying to get out of my service commitment or trying to avoid my service commitment,” Kinley said. “When I came to the Naval Academy, I was well aware that I would have to serve five years. And truth be told, when I came to the Naval Academy … my focus was becoming the best leader I can be to serve our country. But the package was to delay my commission, so that I could fulfill this dream while I’m still young, still able, still healthy. And then whenever I got done playing, I was going to commission and fulfill my service for at least five years and maybe even beyond that, who knows how long.”

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