This is a blog about Navy sports, not general Naval Academy policy. It’s inevitable that the two subjects will collide occasionally, and when they do it’s usually bad news. Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be an exception.
It’s always a nervous time for Navy sports fans when a new Superintendent comes on board. Like everywhere in the Navy, the CO sets the tone for the whole command; at USNA, that includes athletics. No one person has quite the same ability to set Navy teams up for success or failure. Some Supes recognize the value of intercollegiate athletics in fulfilling the Naval Academy’s mission. Others pull out the word that keeps me awake at night: “de-emphasize.” And while I haven’t heard him say that word (yet), the new Supe, VADM Jeffrey Fowler, looks like he’s ready to de-emphasize just about everything. Or as he puts it, “minimize distractions.”
It’s apparent that when VADM Fowler arrived at USNA, he didn’t like what he saw and decided that changes had to be made. It’s hard sometimes to separate rumor from fact, especially living in Florida and not Annapolis. I’m extremely reluctant to discuss rumors as if they are facts on this blog, but a few changes have been reported widely enough that I think they’re worth addressing. These changes will have greater consequences than I think (and hope) were originally intended: mandatory study time each night (preventing mids from attending sporting events), and an end to movement orders to football games.
Last week the Superintendent wrote a letter to USNA alumni to share his vision of what the Naval Academy needs to be. He outlined three main ideas, including this:
Face of the Navy. The Naval Academy is a showplace. Every year millions of Americans view the Brigade in Annapolis or on television and walk away believing they have just seen the best of the United States Navy. We must remember that our midshipmen represent Sailors and Marines who have made the ultimate sacrifice as well as those who are forward deployed in harm’s way. Our behavior as an institution must reflect a commitment to excellence in everything we do.
In this, VADM Fowler is absolutely right. The question, then, is why he would want to lock the “Face of the Navy” behind closed doors where the American people will never see it. Navy sports are the single best recruiting tool that the Naval Academy has. Kids see midshipmen in the stands cheering for their team and want to be part of that camaraderie. I should know; I was one of those kids. Midshipmen attending sporting events are the cheapest, easiest way for the Naval Academy to reach the most people, whether it’s on the Yard or on the road. Tens of thousands of people will be at each football away game. Millions more will be watching on television. When people come to see a game at Navy, in any sport, midshipmen in the stands are what they want to see. When recruits make a visit to the Yard to watch a Navy game and see empty stands with no student support, what are they going to think? There are many ways to become a Naval officer; one of the things that set the Naval Academy apart from the others is the esprit de corps of the Brigade. When you keep midshipmen from attending sporting events, you take away the one way the American people– and potential midshipmen– can witness that esprit de corps for themselves. Want to crack down on appearance and behavior at games? Fine. Want to make sure that midshipmen who are struggling academically are focused on their studies and not the big soccer game? OK. But don’t keep the Brigade as a whole from supporting their friends and classmates on the field. Our sports teams will suffer for it, and the school in general will suffer for it. These two things should be unacceptable to an institution committed to “excellence in everything we do.”
When announcing these and other policy changes to the Brigade, VADM Fowler used the example of the Eisenhower Battle Group, which recently had a 7-month deployment with only 15 days of liberty. “Our midshipmen need to understand that’s what our Sailors are going through, and that’s who they’re going to lead,” he told reporters. I’m sure that VADM Fowler has been on enough deployments like that to understand what they do to people. They are draining, to say the least. I remember standing watch in CIC on my last deployment while my ship was pulling into Bahrain. Like several other ships, we had a telescopic video camera (with a monitor in CIC) that we used to help ID contacts and as a navigation aid. While making my way from station to station to make sure that everyone was doing their jobs, I noticed that the camera operator had locked the camera on something in the distance. It was a tree. I told him, “FC3, I don’t think that staring at that palm tree is going to keep us from hitting a fishing boat in the channel.” His response? “Sorry sir, I just forgot what a tree looked like.” I chuckled to myself because after 62 straight days underway, I think I had, too. That’s what a long deployment will do to you. The Sailors and Marines returning from cruise are exhausted. If you try to turn the Naval Academy into a 4-year deployment simulation, then the Ensigns and 2nd Lieutenants that you send to the Fleet will be exhausted too. That’s the last thing that our Sailors need. They need junior officers who are focused, excited to be there, chomping at the bit to get qualified, and injecting some energy into the Fleet. This doesn’t mean that USNA needs to be a “country club,” but it does mean that locking down the Brigade just to make them feel like they’re on a deployment probably isn’t the best approach.
Among the other changes that VADM Fowler is reportedly making is limiting what extracurricular activities are available to midshipmen. I’ve heard rumors about what ECAs might be on the chopping block, but as they’re only rumors at this point I won’t pass them on. I will say this, though: I hope the Supe is very, very careful about what ECAs are deemed as too “distracting” from Naval training. There’s a familiar quote that has been the basis for the training curriculum received by every Naval officer in this country’s history. Every plebe commits this quote to memory in order to remember what he or she is to become at the end of 4 years in Annapolis. As many of you already know, it begins like this:
It is by no means enough that an officer of the Navy should be a capable mariner. He must be that, of course, but also a great deal more. He should be as well a gentleman of liberal education, refined manners, punctilious courtesy, and the nicest sense of personal honor.
Naval officers that have served this country for generations were trained according to this philosophy, including the Superintendent himself. What VADM Fowler may consider “distracting” now could just as easily have been considered essential for over two centuries, through peace and war. Saying that “we are a nation at war” is no excuse to limit opportunities for midshipmen to grow and develop themselves in all kinds of endeavors. Naval officers are supposed to be renaissance men. They are expected to try new things and be exposed to the world around them. ECAs are as much a part of the shaping of Naval officers as their EE class. To tamper with that philosophy is to tamper with success.
There’s a lot more to this than just changing liberty policy. Those things come and go. This is a more fundamental shift in the idea of what a Naval officer should be, and I am afraid that it isn’t for the better. “Minimizing distractions” is one thing. Tunnel vision is another.