Taking the Pulse

The Caleb Campbell story has been cooking in the media Crock Pot for more than a week now, and initial reactions are coming in. In my scan of the web, it seems that the people writing about this can be split into two groups: sports writers/columnists, and everyone else. Among those whose primary focus is sports, the reaction has been mostly positive, with a couple of exceptions. That shouldn’t be a surprise; it’s expected that the natural inclination of those who cover sports for a living would be for a kid to be allowed to play sports. That’s fine, I guess. But I have a problem with a lot of the arguments and misconceptions that are being presented in some of these pieces. I’ll get to that in a minute. Among those whose primary function is not to cover sports, the reaction is much more mixed.

We’ll start with the admittedly unscientific USA Today poll, which at the moment sits at 53%-47% against Campbell going straight to the NFL. Again, it’s unscientific, but I think it demonstrates something important. The “USA! USA!” chants coming from the drunk Jets fans in the balcony at Radio City Music Hall at the tail end of the draft made for a nice scene, but it isn’t indicative of the general public. This poll might not be, either… but it at least demonstrates that once you get away from sports fans, people have questions about the merits of the Army policy. Campbell’s story isn’t necessarily the feel-good tale that ESPN is selling.

That brings me to the first thing that’s wrong with a lot of the stories & columns that support Campbell. Almost all of them call this a “feel-good story.” How, exactly, is that the case? What is there to feel good about? So he went to West Point. Who cares? Going to West Point is supposed to be the means to an end, not an end unto itself. Campbell’s ends do not match those that we associate with West Point graduates. His are no different than those of any other player in the draft. So he’ll wear a uniform and talk to high school kids aboutt he Army. Big deal. Scores of NFL players do community outreach. Hell, I was at the March of Dimes walk last week with Terry Cousin. Is his a “feel-good story?” And yes, Campbell will (supposedly) head back to the regular Army if he can’t catch on to an NFL team. Is that the “feel-good” part of all of this? To root for Campbell so he doesn’t have to do normal service? Actually, that probably is the appeal for some people. I don’t think that’s the message the Army wants to send, though.

It’s service that makes service* academies and the people who attend them special. Without that, they’re just regular colleges with uniforms and a lot of rules. And if he makes an NFL roster, that’s all it will have been for Caleb Campbell. He is no different than any other NFL hopeful. Other than the fact that the Army is making concessions on the terms of his active duty obligation, there is nothing special about this story. It’s “Guy Turns Down Other Jobs For Shot At NFL Glory And Money.” That’s the same story of everyone else in the draft. This isn’t a “feel-good” story. At best, it’s a “feels like everyone else” story.

Annoying misconception number two is the idea that Campbell will actually be a recruiter. I’m not talking about whether or not his “service” as a poster boy will drive people to enlist; we’ve already talked about that fallacy extensively. No, right now I’m talking about the actual work that Campbell will be doing for the Army– his “service.” One of the common themes you read is, to paraphrase: “Campbell will be a recruiter– and recruiting is service too!” I have serious doubts that the people who say this have any idea what real recruiting duty actually entails. Recruiting is difficult and time-consuming work. It can’t be accomplished working one day a week. Recruiting duty isn’t about shaking hands at events here & there, or maybe talking to kids at a high school or two. Recruiters have long hours, have quotas to meet, are constantly on the road in their assigned areas, and frequently work weekends. Campbell isn’t going to be doing any of this. Well, he’ll be working weekends, but it won’t be for the Army. So for all the people talking about how Campbell is still going to be serving, please stop. Campbell may be assigned to a recruiting command for administrative purposes, but he is most certainly not going to be a real recruiter. Real recruiters work more than one day a week. Saying this is “service” is nothing but spin.

Which brings me to annoying misconception number three, as illustrated in this piece in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “Service,” according to this author and others, can only be defined by those who have served:

Do you know the people who seem to have the biggest problem with this? Those who never served a day.

No, no, no, no. You do not need a connection to the military to have an opinion on this issue. You only need to be a taxpayer. The Army, like any other government agency, is supposed to answer to the people– not the other way around. If taxpayers don’t think they’re getting the return they would expect from their West Point investment, they have every right to voice their opinions about it. If this columnist (who presumably never served himself) is allowed to speak out in favor of the policy, then it’s just as appropriate for people who disagree with him to do the same.

Another flawed argument that you see in defense of the Army’s policy is that it will only affect one or two cadets per year. As Jim Litke wrote for the AP:

No matter how Campbell or Viti’s NFL stints go, there is no chance a parade of topflight prep athletes will enroll in the service academies seeking a path to pro sports. The odds are too long, too many other schools already offer a more established and much more comfortable route and that’s before you factor in the risk.

It’s true that few service* academy players get looks from the NFL; that’s why some people say it won’t affect more than a player or two each year. But that’s all based on the assumption that nothing will change under the new policy. Isn’t the whole point of all this to be able to attract better players? Of course it is:

It’s no coincidence that when Army’s plan was introduced in 2005, then coach Bobby Ross drafted a memo to NFL player personnel directors, informing them of the new policy. It was time to get the word out.

To the NFL, to potential recruits.

Because back then, and now, it was all about recruiting.

Recruiting football players.

And now that Army has what appears could be, at least, a slight edge in recruiting over its service academy rivals, they better start closing the gap on them.

After all, that’s why the policy was instituted in the first place.

How can anyone assume that the number of players that’ll have a shot at the NFL will remain the same under the new policy as it was under the old? People like Litke and others make the argument that West Point still isn’t the easiest path to the NFL, and recruits won’t be turning down Michigan and Texas to go there. True, but that misses the point. Army doesn’t have to out-recruit BCS schools. They only have to out-recruit Navy and Air Force. If each service* academy produces 2 players a year that might be capable of playing in the NFL, the Army wants to get all six of them going to West Point. You can’t assume that only a player or two per year will be affected by this based on past performance.

Colonel Bryan Hilferty, speaking on behalf of West Point, sought to clear up some misconceptions about the policy for the Detroit News. He pretty much does the opposite.

Hilferty cleared up some misconceptions about the program:

• It is a Dept. of Defense program and does not apply only to West Point. (The Naval and Air Force academies have not implemented it.)

• The perception other cadets will head to Iraq immediately after graduation is wrong. They face another year of training.

• Campbell is not giving up his military obligation. He owes the army eight years of service. After two years with a pro sports team, he can buy out the next three years of active service for about $120,000 — the cost of three years of his education.

• Campbell would then have a six-year obligation of active reserve duty.

On the first point, I am going to assume that whoever wrote this is just making a mistake and that the Colonel isn’t telling a blatant lie. The “Alternative Service Option” is very much the Army’s alone. It is not a Department of Defense program, as you already know since I posted a link to the DOD policy. (In case you haven’t seen it, you can read it here.) As for the other points, it doesn’t matter what kind of an obligation Campbell has if he makes the team, because he won’t be qualified to do anything. West Point seems desperate to portray all this as business as usual, but it really isn’t.

You can tell by the way that they are using talking points and questionable arguments in defense of the policy. Mike Viti, who is getting a lookfrom the Buffalo Bills, is quoted in that Litke column:

“I think a lot of people have the misconception that if you’re not getting bullets slung by your head, that you’re not serving your nation in a time of war,” Viti said.

“There are service support branches in the Army for a reason. Combat arms is what I decided to do, but that doesn’t mean my service is going to be any less,” he added, “because when you start to split hairs on it, you start to demean some of the other branches of the U.S. Army.”

This is almost embarrassing; I very seriously doubt that Viti came up with this clack himself (Caleb Campbell said almost the exact same thing word-for-word here, which tells me that they’ve been told exactly what to say). Hiding behind other branches of the Army in order to defend this policy? Making people feel guilty for thinking that this policy is wrong?  It’s the Animal House logic:

The issue here is not whether we broke a few rules, or took a few liberties with our female party guests – we did. But you can’t hold a whole fraternity responsible for the behavior of a few, sick twisted individuals. For if you do, then shouldn’t we blame the whole fraternity system? And if the whole fraternity system is guilty, then isn’t this an indictment of our educational institutions in general? I put it to you, Greg – isn’t this an indictment of our entire American society? Well, you can do whatever you want to us, but we’re not going to sit here and listen to you badmouth the United States of America! Gentlemen!

Special advisor to the West Point Public Affairs Office.

What a horrible, cowardly argument to make. Nobody– nobody— has claimed that you aren’t serving if you aren’t being shot at. Saying that a one-day-a-week faux “recruiter” isn’t truly serving doesn’t demean the service of non-combat branches of the Army in the least. Quite the opposite… What’s demeaning is saying that Viti’s part-time boondoggle is no different than the vital work that Quartermasters, AGs, or doctors– or even real recruiters– do. That’s the whole point of the argument. This isn’t an indictment of non-combat branches of the Army. Not even close. The whole point of the argument is that playing in the NFL and spending one day a week shaking hands doesn’t measure up to the work that those branches do. This is spin of the worst kind.

Viti isn’t the only player to have made dumb remarks. Caleb Campbell is quoted in the New York Times:

“I’ve heard stories about what’s gone on in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Campbell said. “In another sense, the N.F.L. is just as much pressure. You’re out there to take somebody’s job. In terms of coaches can’t cut me? We’re talking about the N.F.L. here. This is a cutthroat business.”

In the NFL, “cutthroat” is a metaphor. In Iraq, “cutthroat” is literal. If you fail in the NFL, you’re released and pursue a more conventional career like everyone else in America. If you fail in Iraq or Afghanistan, you die. The pressure isn’t even close to the same. If anyone other than Caleb Campbell said this, half of the Army fans supporting this policy would be up in arms about how much of an insult it was, and how out of touch the person who said it must be. This is “good PR?” Hardly. Maybe these are young guys, and putting them in front of a microphone enough times will eventually yield dumb comments like Campbell’s and Viti’s. Maybe… but does it matter? This is all about PR, right? Maybe it isn’t the best idea to trot out Mike Viti to tell everyone that they’re “fools” if they disagree with him.

(By the way… Criticizing the policy is not the same as attacking the players personally. That’s another strawman that some policy supporters like to whip out. And once these players open their mouths, their words should come under the same scrutiny as anyone else’s. Just making a pre-emptive strike here for the inevitable comments about how I’m being mean to the players.)

Dave Ausiello, writing for GoMids.com, got Army coach Stan Brock’s take on the policy.

Specifically, when asked if he felt the policy, from the recruiting aspect makes the playing field uneven amongst the three academies, Brock responded:

I guess it would be.  I don’t think about it that much, but it sounds like it would be.”

Either Stan Brock is the stupidest man in football, or he is lying through his teeth. There is no way that you can spend so much time recruiting players and not understand what kind of a recruiting advantage this policy gives you. Especially since later in the interview, he seems to know all about the kind of benefits the policy is supposed to bring:

We understand at West Point that west of the Mississippi…we are challenged a little bit in getting information out about [the academy] and all that it stands for.  And so to have the national exposure like we had in the last 24 hours with Caleb Campbell – a seventh round draft choice…is very, very positive for a lot of reasons,” said Stan Brock.

A lot of reasons, but he just doesn’t think much about the reasons that help him do his job? Riiiight. Brock said something else in that interview that I found disturbing:

“We’re recruiting for West Point.  You have to be a special kid – you have to have something special about you to come to West Point.  It does not change our recruiting whatsoever.  We still have the academic and physical standards.  This will always be West Point.”

As if it’s academic and physical standards, not providing the core of the nation’s career Army officers, that makes West Point what it is.

 

Perhaps the most perplexing comment of all came from the Department of Defense, who, when questioned by Bill Wagner about Army’s policy, delivered this shipment of wisdom:

Eileen M. Lainez, spokesperson for the Department of Defense, issued a statement that read: an applicant for early release to pursue professional sports must meet certain requirements to include serving a minimum of 24 months of the original active duty service obligation in addition to any further requirements as determined by the appropriate secretary of the military department concerned.

“It is up to the military departments to interpret and apply that policy. Therefore, you must ask Army about its interpretation and application (or why it may differ from other services),” Lainez wrote in an e-mail.

It’s up to the Army to interpret DoD orders? Is that how it works? That’s the most stupid, spineless thing I’ve ever heard. It’s basically the OSD’s way of saying, “we don’t want to go through the trouble of telling the Army it’s wrong.” What kind of nonsense is it to say that the Army gets to interpret DoD rules as they see fit? Imagine if everything worked that way. I would get to interpret this:

to mean this:

Because clearly, the first sign says I can’t go any less than 55. And who’s to say otherwise? It’s up to me to interpret it! Way to step up to the plate, OSD.

It doesn’t take long to find commentary against the policy, too. One college paper took a stab at it:

Whether or not they intended to do so, the army’s actions have made military service something to be avoided and even abandoned. The army can’t be taking cadets such as Campbell away from his military duty in hopes that he’ll attract some kids that, in regards to joining, were on the fence. Because if kids do end up looking up to him, they might be jumping right back over it.

Some think of the Army as “selling out,” and today’s editorial in the Examiner agrees: 

This has nothing to do with anything so shallow as West Point’s newfound recruiting advantage over the Naval and Air Force academies.

What it has to do with is Army leadership seeming to go soft and weak in their institutional leadership, losing their core values and will.

That says more in two sentences than I’ve said in all of my voluminous ranting on the subject, which is probably why writers at the Examiner get paid while I deposit my scribblings on the electronic equivalent of a bar napkin.

But the best comment so far probably comes from Adam Ballard, which is no surprise:

“I don’t know if I would be able to look myself in the mirror everyday, making six digits [in salary] and playing football for a living while [my classmates] are defending our country. It’s a lot of guys’ dreams to go play in the NFL, but once you come here and sign your papers, you are getting a free education. As a man, you hold up your end of the bargain.”

And that includes the Army holding up its end of its bargain to taxpayers, too. West Point is there for a reason. That reason has nothing to do with the NFL.

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7 Responses

  1. still no comments? wonder is the army guys are trying to get their jaws off the floor and come up with a good retort

    spot on

  2. I don’t know that they’re internet-savvy enough to find this blog.

  3. Yesterday my son’s permit to report packet came in the mail with a letter telling him he was one of 1,200 chosen from 10,476 applicants for the class of 2012. Since the class of 2011 had 12,003 applicants this represents a 13% decrease in a year when, according to USA today, universities across the nation experienced a surge in applications – some setting record highs – over any previous year.

    Then, out of curiousity, I looked up West Point. From 12,440 applications for the class of 2002 (that’s as far back as it goes) to 10,276 applications for the class of 2010 (that’s the most recent) there has been a similar decline.

    I just thought I would share this with you as it might be relevant to the discussion of recruiting benefits relating to West Point’s new policy.

    Also, Dave Ausiello at GoMids.com has written another excellent piece on this subject (although he disagrees with your assessement of Adam Ballard’s remarks,)

    Lastly, thanks for all the time and effort you put into this website. You care very deeply about your subject matter and it shows. This website and the NAAA-FOOTBALL e-mailings are valuable sources of information for “newcomers” like me.

  4. It isn’t a linear progression from the class of 2002 to the class of 2010. Applications have fluctuated from year to year. The class of 2004 had 10,890 applicants. The class of 2006 had 10,844. After 9/11, there was a surge of applications for a year or two. West Point’s class of 2011 had 10,838, which is in line with other pre-9/11 classes.

    Dave is entitled to his opinion.

    And you’re welcome! But I’m only in it for the money, and because chicks dig it when they hear you have a blog on the internet.

  5. The compliment was heartfelt! There’s alot to consider while I sit on the fence regarding this issue but so far the only two statements I’ve read that I can completely agree with 100% are these:

    “Caleb Campbell is the most complicated sotry I’ve ever seen in sports.”

    “College football would be a lot better with the likes of Army, Navy and Air Force contending in the Top 25.”

    But now I forget who said them!

  6. The first one sounds like the Doyel piece on CBS Sportsline. The second quote came from the In The Bleachers blog, a link to which you can find in my “friends of The Birddog” section. While I agree with that sentiment, the welfare of college football isn’t the Naval Academy’s concern.

  7. […] the Army attempted to sell the ASO, they fed lines to their players that came across very poorly. To their credit, neither Swain nor Reynolds have said anything but […]

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