For the most part, the news that Navy will be joining the Big East in 2015 was met with a collective “meh” by most of the media. When I said that John Feinstein’s comments carry weight because he cares, I wasn’t kidding; there aren’t too many others voicing an opinion on the move. We did have this flaming bag of dog poo left on our collective front porch by Dan Wolken back in December, though. Feinstein’s comments at least came from someone who has a genuine concern for USNA and its football program; Wolken’s column sounds more like someone who never thought twice about either Army or Navy. Unfortunately, articles like this shape the opinion of casual fans that don’t know any better, so I should probably respond to it now that the move is official.
The premise of the column is that West Point is some virtuous entity above the fray, unwilling to compromise who they are just to compete in the greed-driven world of major college football. Wolken’s canonization of Army is misplaced on multiple levels.
(Again, I apologize for the fisking. It’s a tool of the lazy. Which I am.)
“We are extremely comfortable in our current status,” Corrigan said. “We are a national institution with a constitutional mandate to recruit nationally. Our independent status allows us to develop the type of schedule that helps us showcase our program around the country. Joining any conference would certainly limit those options.”
“It’s very important that we focus on being the best West Point we can be.”
For once, somebody in college athletics has it exactly right.
The “somebody” Wolken refers to is the same West Point that only a few years ago fought for the Alternative Service Option as a way to boost their football recruiting by allowing graduates to dodge their service obligation and go directly to the NFL. They did so while knowingly in direct violation of Department of Defensive directives. To top it all off, once their scam was shut down, they failed to hold themselves accountable for their mistakes and instead blamed the Naval Academy.
Service is what defines a service academy. Service is the actual “mandate.” Yet Army had no problem compromising that for the sake of football. Nobody wants to pick at the ASO scab for the millionth time, but if you’re going to start making grandiose claims about the “last remaining scrap of honor in college athletics,” you had better look at a hell of a lot more than simply whether or not the school chooses to join the Big East.
Air Force is so excited about the possibility, it’s willing to leave behind a conference it helped create — the Mountain West — and play road games 1,500 miles from its campus in Colorado Springs.
Despite how things looked in December, Air Force has decided not to join the Big East. Instead, they’ve decided to leave behind a conference it helped create — the Mountain West — and play road games 1,500 miles from its campus in Colorado Springs.
Football is part of the West Point experience, but at what point does playing heavyweights week in and week out start to conflict with the development of military officers? Army would have two choices in the Big East: Lose a lot of games or lower standards to get better players. How much integrity is worth sacrificing to compete for a conference title against South Florida and Cincinnati?
How many American institutions have a worse reputation right now than big-time college athletics? The eagerness of Navy and Air Force to dive even deeper into that sewer pit is frightening proof of priorities going further astray.
Well, let’s answer that with a different question: at what point does relegation to a second-rate level of football start to conflict with the development of military officers?
Service academies play Division I-A football not to develop future military officers, but to attract them. That’s not to say that football players don’t learn lessons on the field that apply to military life; it’s just that it’s more of a fringe benefit. The real benefit comes from the mainstream exposure that major college football provides. Boo Corrigan is right when he says that Army (like Navy and Air Force) is a national institution with a mandate to recruit nationally. But that’s true of the school, not the football program. The best way for the school to ensure that it carries out that mandate– by getting its message out in front of as many potential admissions candidates as possible– is to play major college football. The problem, as USNA leadership sees it, is that the growing divide between the so-called “haves” and “have-nots” will ultimately lead to a change in what is considered “major college football.” Maybe Army doesn’t see it as a concern. So be it; everyone is just reading the tea leaves and trying to position themselves as best they can. It certainly isn’t a matter of “honor” either way.
Wolken, as a graduate of Vanderbilt, should know all of this better than anyone. When it comes to losing a lot of games vs. lowering standards in order to compete in the SEC, the Commodores chose the former long ago. Even though the football team would undoubtedly win more games if Vandy joined a less demanding conference, there is also no doubt that the school as a whole has reaped enormous rewards from its SEC membership. Winning football games might be the first priority of the coach and the athletic director, but it isn’t the first priority of the university president. Or in this case, the superintendent.
That assumes, of course, that Navy is destined to lose in the Big East. It’s possible — and maybe even likely — but it’s hardly a given. We’ve heard from so many people over the last several years about how terrible the Big East is, but now that Navy is joining, it’s too much to handle? They can’t both be true.
And yet when government agencies audit the service academies, they consistently find that there’s too much emphasis placed on intercollegiate athletics. The hunger for success leads to too many abuses, too many compromises, coaches with too much power at schools that are supposed to be run by generals. Most disturbing of all, they find that the kids being recruited to play football are less academically qualified than their fellow cadets to get those taxpayer-funded, $400,000 educations and more likely to drop out.
Wolken used write for the Colorado Springs Gazette, and his experience covering Air Force has led him to extrapolate that the same holds true at all three service academies. While he worked at the Gazette, a report ordered by then Secretary of the Air Force James Roche found that USAFA was allowing too many academic waivers for recruited athletes. This was also around the time that the Air Force athletic department was reorganized in the wake of their sexual assault scandal, which I assume is where the “coaches with too much power” line is coming from. Wolken himself wrote about the Air Force prep school, including comments from critics alleging preferential treatment for athletes.
The same cannot be said for Army and Navy. Which “government agencies” have made these claims against USNA and USMA? And not just made them, but made them consistently? It hasn’t happened. Maybe Bruce Fleming is now his own agency. The Department of Self-Promotion?
One school that isn’t clawing over the competition to grab the last dollar it can make on the backs of teenage athletes.
It’s pretty easy to ignore millions of dollars when one-third of of your operating revenue comes from the federal government. Specifically, Army uses appropriated funds for:
(1) Athletic supplies and equipment, including services, rental, and repairs.
(2) Admissions support (similar to that provided prospective candidates who are not athletes).
(3) Mission-related travel expenses of teams, coaches, IAP, and AAA staff personnel to various sporting events and association meetings. This includes admission fees.
(4) Membership dues in sports associations (for example, NCAA, Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference, and Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference).
(5) Office and medical supplies and equipment.
(6) Maintenance, repairs, and improvement of athletic fields, grounds, and buildings. This includes the field house, stadium, and multi-purpose sports complex.
(7) Staffing of military and civilian IAP positions (contract coaches and support personnel).
No matter how you feel about using taxpayer money to help fund a service academy’s athletic department, there is no doubt that it insulates Army (and Air Force) from some of the financial worries that other schools (like Navy) face. We can all lament the escalating costs of competing in intercollegiate athletics, but at the end of the day the mission of the school is better served by adapting to the situation rather than taking some quixotic stand. And no, “adapting” is not synonymous with “lowering standards.”
I respect Army’s position to remain independent, but there isn’t anything inherently noble about their decision. It’s a gamble either way.