By far the longest-running debate among service academy sports fans is whether or not players from USNA, USMA, and USAFA should be allowed to pursue professional sports careers after graduation. That scab is getting picked once again as Army safety Caleb Campbell and punter Owen Tolson participate in the NFL Scouting Combine, hoping to catch the eyes of NFL scouts and general managers. Campbell and Tolson, if they are indeed drafted, will be eligible to play right away. That little nugget is thanks to the Army’s “Alternative Service Option,” which went into effect in March of 2005. A recommendation from one of the panels that USMA put together to figure out a way to resurrect its football program, West Point describes the Alternative Service Option like so:
ALTERNATIVE PROFESSIONAL OPTIONS: Army cadet-athletes now have options to pursue professional athletic opportunities thanks to the U.S. Army’s Alternative Service Option program. If cadet-athletes are accepted into the program, they will owe two years of active service in the Army, during which time they will be allowed to play their sport in the player development systems of their respective organizations and assigned to recruiting stations. If they remain in professional sports following those two years, they will be provided the option of “buying out” the remaining three years of their active-duty commitment in exchange for six years of reserve time.
This reminds me of an episode of The Simpsons in which Bart has a vision of the future. In this vision, Lisa has been elected President and needs to raise taxes due to a budget emergency. Fearing the unpopularity of a tax increase, she decides to call it a “refund adjustment.” “Alternative service” is the same kind of euphemism. Let’s be real, here; playing ball full-time for two years while shaking hands at a couple of recruiting events isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind when people think “service.” It’s apparently good enough for West Point, though, which strangely has the most lax policy of the three Division I service academies despite the Army’s much-publicized manning challenges. How they are making this work after the new Department of Defense policy for all three schools took effect, I have no idea. But it’s clear that Owen Tolson believes that he’ll be playing pro ball if he gets drafted:
When Caleb and I make an NFL roster it will be the result of the work the West Point administration has gone through to ensure that Army Football, West Point, and the United States Army are represented in professional football…
…I hope that Caleb and I can pave the way for future Army football players and other service academy football players seeking to accomplish their goals; the same goals we all have growing up as kids: playing professional sports.
Army has already had a couple of baseball players take advantage of this opportunity. Like it or not, it appears that Army is now firing up their pro football pipeline. And with that, the old debate begins anew. I’m sure you can already tell by my tone where I stand on the issue.
The argument in favor of allowing service academy athletes to turn pro is simple: good publicity. Professional sports, people say, offer tremendous exposure. Even the DoD policy talks about the “potential recruiting or public affairs benefits for the Department.” But how much exposure are we really talking about? Everyone points to the David Robinson example, but Robinson was one of the greatest players in the history of his sport. Before Robinson ever set foot on an NBA court he was already a world champion, Olympic medalist, Wooden Award winner, and winner of the US Basketball Writers’ Association and Naismith College Player of the Year awards. Robinson would go on to be a 10-time NBA All-Star, league MVP, 1990 Rookie of the Year, 1992 Defensive Player of the Year, 2-time NBA champion, Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year, Olympic Dream Team member and 2-time gold medalist, and 2001 NBA Sportsmanship Award winner. In 1996 he was named by the NBA as one of the 50 greatest players in league history. He even had a video game named after him. Now that’s exposure, and a far cry from being some anonymous punter or a pitcher for the Everett Aqua Sox. No comparison to David Robinson is even close to being valid until we see copies of Owen Tolson’s Hang Time Punting for Playstation showing up at your local Circuit City. Service academies have actually had quite a few players in the pros over the years, but you never hear of them unless they get arrested (Bryce Fisher) or have a classmate smear them in the newspaper (Kyle Eckel). And even then some of you who aren’t die-hard service academy fans probably don’t know what I’m talking about with those two. The only player in recent memory who remotely approximates Robinson’s level of exposure is Air Force’s Chad Hennings.
Hennings won the Outland Trophy as college football’s most outstanding interior lineman in 1987, and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2006. He would go on to earn three Super Bowl rings as a member of the Dallas Cowboys after spending four years on active duty flying A-10s. He was a definite favorite of television broadcast teams, who loved to talk about Hennings’ experience flying Warthogs over Iraq. There is no doubt that Hennings’ time in the NFL was a tremendous boost for Air Force recruiting and public relations.
But there’s the rub. Hennings wasn’t praised for simply attending the Air Force Academy. He gained attention for what he spent four years doing on active duty. That’s why he had credibility as a recruiting tool– his experience reflected what Air Force officers actually do. How can someone who has done nothing but play baseball have any value as a recruiter? What good is it to be seen when you aren’t doing anything that resembles the work that recruiters are trying to sell to potential candidates? Without the exceptional athletic achievement of Robinson or the military achievement of Hennings, “exposure” benefits from pro athletes are just a myth.
|Not recruiting duty.|
Not only that, but the Department of Defense policy linked above requires two years of active duty service prior to joining the reserves for a reason. Service academy graduates aren’t exactly polished fighting machines the moment they throw their caps in the air at graduation. They usually attend a follow-on school to train for their chosen specialty, then move on to their first duty station to carry out what they’ve learned. Except for flight school (which takes longer), this process usually takes about two years. If you put someone into the reserves before then, or if they’ve done nothing but play football for their two years of active duty time, then they won’t be qualified to actually do anything if they get called up. That’s what the reserves are supposed to be ready to do, right? Provide trained citizens ready to fight when called upon? It’s that whole “trained” part that suffers when a player turns pro.
I’m not so sure that all of the exposure would be positive, either. If you think about it, what the Army is doing is really the opposite of the Pat Tillman story. Tillman left the life of an NFL athlete to join the Army because he wanted to make a difference after 9/11. When compared to this example, the idea that there’s good exposure to be had from service academy graduates trading their active duty obligation for NFL fame is extremely questionable. Someone is going to contrast the two situations, and it isn’t going to look good.
The coaches want to allow players to pursue pro careers because it would make their recruiting jobs easier. Very few college recruits will move on to the NFL, but most of them think they have a chance. Coaches would love to be able to tell them that they can have their shot even if they come to a service academy. But there could be some unforseen consequences in that sales pitch. Do we really want to convince kids to come to a service academy based on the ways they have to avoid active duty? Yeah, no problems there. Talk about a recipe for bad attitudes.
Make no mistake– winning is important. It increases coverage of the school, brings in money to the athletic department through increased attandance and television, and projects an overall image of excellence. But as important as it is to win, some costs are just too high.