Anyone that decides to become a service academy football blogger had better be prepared to discuss topics that have nothing to do with what happens on the field. I suppose the same could be said about those who write about other teams as well, but the public, mission-driven nature of service academies gives a much different context to off-field issues than those at State U. The effects of these situations are usually more far-reaching than a simple reshuffling of the depth chart. Such is the case this weekend as it is being reported that starting slotback Marcus Curry tested positive for marijuana on a random drug test, was processed for separation, and retained by Naval Academy Superintendent VADM Jeffrey Fowler.
With Privacy Act restrictions making actual facts in the case difficult to come by–technically, as a conduct matter we shouldn’t know anything about it– many people have turned to assumption and rumor to fill the void. The reaction to this amalgam of information and misinformation has been nothing if not predictable. Blogs and message boards have boiled over with outrage. The Navy Times, never a publication overly concerned with the veracity of its reports, picked up on the discontent and ran a story citing these dubious sources. The animus stems from the perceived preferential treatment given to a football player with a policy that is supposed to be one of “zero tolerance.”
It is expected, and not altogether wrong, that your first reaction would be to question the Superintendent’s decision. Athletics are a means to an end at the Naval Academy, not an end unto themselves. It is right for anyone who cares about the Naval Academy and its mission to guard against policies that would appear to compromise that mission. On the other hand, there are also people who refuse to acknowledge that Division I football plays any role in fulfilling that mission, and many of them are eager to take advantage of instances like this to further their agenda of abolishing major college athletics at USNA. It is important to avoid being so overwhelmed by populist indignation that it corrupts your own ability to reason. As you wade through the acrimony, there are a few other points you should consider.
First and foremost, it is necessary to clarify what exactly the Navy’s policy is regarding drug testing. “Zero tolerance” is a catch phrase designed to be easy for service members to remember, but it isn’t policy. While many people incorrectly assume that “zero tolerance” means that a positive drug test automatically means separation from the Navy, that isn’t true. The actual policy is outlined in MILPERSMAN 1910-146, which reads:
a. Processing is mandatory for the following:
(1) Positive urinalysis that was tested and confirmed positive at a Navy Drug Screening Lab (NAVDRUGLAB) or other DOD-approved lab. If the commanding officer (CO) determines the urinalysis result was caused by administrative errors (e.g., faulty local chain of custody, evidence of tampering) or the drug use was not wrongful (e.g., prescribed medication, unknowing ingestion), then the member shall not be identified as a drug abuser and the positive urinalysis is not a drug abuse incident. When this determination is made the command shall notify, via official correspondence, Navy Personnel Command (NAVPERSCOM), Fleet Support Department (PERS-6) and the command’s immediate senior in command (ISIC) of the circumstances that warranted such a determination.
A positive drug test means that the administrative process for separation must begin. However, it is the commanding officer’s responsibility to determine the outcome of the process based on whether or not there are circumstances that would indicate that the urinalysis results were caused by wrongful use. Contrary to the impression you might have been given, the Navy does not seek to create policies that take tough decisions out of the hands of its commanding officers. Instead, the Navy expects men and women who have shown an aptitude for command to be able to make decisions like this in the best interests of their command and the Navy. On top of that, there is oversight; if the Superintendent decides that retention is warranted, he is required to disclose his reasoning to the Navy Personnel Command as well as his own chain of command (in this case, the CNO). While some may try to convince you that VADM Fowler’s decision is a violation of Navy policy, it isn’t. It is also extremely unlikely that the Superintendent sent a memo to the CNO saying, “I retained him because he’s a football player.” Common sense would lead any reasonable person to conclude that there is simply more to the story than that.
If common sense doesn’t give you pause for thought, the Supe’s own track record should. This is, of course, the same man that resolved to “remove the distraction” of those activities he deemed “secondary, optional, and conditional.” Fowler enacted strict new regulations on midshipmen upon assuming his post, in part because of the negative press the school received following high-profile conduct cases involving football players. The Superintendent has a history of not only cracking down on misconduct, but showing disdain– not favoritism– toward any extracurricular activity that doesn’t directly relate to warfare training. He has also demonstrated that he is keenly aware of the damage caused to the Academy’s reputation by negative press. Despite all of this, he still made the decision to retain the accused midshipman. If he acted on such negativity in the past, why would he make a decision like this– which was sure to create the same adverse reaction– without legitimate cause? It would have been much, much easier for VADM Fowler to have kicked Curry out of school and avoid this maelstrom. Where was this alleged favoritism when Nate Frazier, arguably the most important player on the team going into the season, was separated from the Academy in August? The belief that special consideration was given to a football player makes little sense in the context of Fowler’s past decisions. Again, one must consider that there is probably more to the story than anonymous leaks are choosing to reveal.
The truth is that we don’t know anything. Nobody wants to admit that, because that would make it harder to advance their agenda. Nevertheless, we do not know the evidence, sworn statements, and other considerations that the Superintendent used to make his decision. We are also looking at this decision in a vacuum; even if some of us have anecdotal evidence of a particular case or two, we do not know how the Superintendent has ruled in all of them. Without these things, it is simply impossible to responsibly make a claim of favoritism. You can’t say that Curry’s case is an exception to the norm without knowing the norm. Then again, nobody cares to leak any information about cases that don’t involve football players. That’s the problem faced by athletes, women, and (to a lesser extent) minorities at USNA. Detractors don’t consider them as individuals; only as representatives of the particular demographic they want to criticize, and never receiving the benefit of the doubt. Curry could explain himself to the public, but the kind of classy individual who’d go digging around his MySpace page looking for ways to slander him won’t believe what he says anyway. The Superintendent is legally unable to explain the details that led to his decision. That means only one side has a voice in situations like this, a fact that less scrupulous types are more than happy to take advantage of.
Something that is largely being overlooked in all the furor over the Supe’s decision on Curry is the fact that so many midshipmen have not only commented on the ruling on blogs and message boards, but actually contacted the media about it. This is the second time in the last three years that this has happened. If there’s anything that should give you concern about the future of the Naval Academy, it’s this. The very first lesson that midshipmen are taught is that before you can lead, you have to learn how to follow. It is a lesson that apparently was completely lost on some of them. This was a decision that was the Superintendent’s to make, and midshipmen’s to live with. That didn’t stop a few coddled, Generation-Y douchebags that have spent a lifetime getting trophies for finishing in last place and being told how special they are from contacting blogs and newspapers to spread rumors about Curry, denying him the anonymity he is legally entitled to– anonymity that these cowards are unwilling to give up themselves. The irony lost on these tools while they pass judgment on Curry’s fitness to serve is that no CO in the fleet wants to fill his or her wardroom with self-righteous jackasses that would run to the media whenever they disagreed with a command decision. In deciding for themselves which regulations just don’t apply to them, these people violate everything they pretend to stand for.
This is not a defense of Curry’s actions. I have no knowledge of the situation with which to build one. I am also not necessarily the biggest fan of VADM Fowler, and have written as much. This is instead an appeal to reason; to admit to the limits of your own knowledge of the case as presented to the Superintendent, to consider the context of his past decisions, and to avoid passing judgment in the lowest-common-denominator court of uninformed public opinion.