Today is football’s NLI Signing Day. Most schools participate in the National Letter of Intent program, and Signing Day is the first day that recruits can sign those binding letters and fax them off to the schools to which they’re committing. The service academies don’t participate in the NLI program, so their process is a little different. We won’t see the official list of Navy recruits until after I-Day, although Bill Wagner usually publishes a pretty extensive list by the end of the week. Even that isn’t comprehensive, though, since a lot of official visits to Navy come in the weekends after Signing Day. Sometimes guys hold out hope for offers that never come, and wait until then to visit. Of course, the opposite is true too; sometimes a last-minute switch by a recruit leaves a school short, and they offer a scholarship to guys who had given a verbal pledge to Navy. It’s just the way it goes. Hopefully we’re all well-adjusted enough not to take the life decisions of 18-year-olds personally, and aren’t surprised when they sometimes change their minds.
Even though Signing Day doesn’t have any kind of official significance at Navy, it’s still important. High schools around the country have Signing Day ceremonies to celebrate the scholarships earned by their students, and USNA sends certificates for recruits to sign so they can participate along with their teammates. It’s a symbolic gesture, but considering what these Navy recruits are committing to beyond just football, it’s good to make sure that they’re recognized.
That commitment, of course, is to become an officer in the Naval Service upon graduation. It’s a mature decision for someone coming out of high school, and some guys have second thoughts about why they are coming to Annapolis. Is it right to come to the Naval Academy when your primary reason is to play a sport? Critics of Division I athletics (especially football) at service academies are quick to ask that question too, claiming that athletes are admitted over other candidates that are more deserving or more dedicated to a career of service. It’s a reasonable question to ask. To find the answer, though, one needs to look no farther than the school’s mission statement:
To develop Midshipmen morally, mentally and physically and to imbue them with the highest ideals of duty, honor and loyalty in order to graduate leaders who are dedicated to a career of naval service and have potential for future development in mind and character to assume the highest responsibilities of command, citizenship and government.
(For those Navy recruits that end up reading this, do yourself a favor and memorize that now. Trust me. )
The school’s mission is not to admit candidates already dedicated to naval service. The mission is to imbue midshipmen with those ideals after they’ve arrived. Graduates need to be dedicated, not candidates. You might argue that those gung-ho about the Navy at age 18 might be more likely to end up as a career officer, but that isn’t true. They can’t be; nobody coming out of high school understands what being a naval officer even means. There’s a cliche at the Academy about how the guys who’d swear they would be in for life end up getting out as soon as their commitment is up, and the guys who’d swear they would get out as soon as possible end up becoming admirals. There’s some truth to that. You can’t know if it’s for you until you’ve experienced the life of a naval officer for yourself.
The truth is that there is no wrong reason to come to the Naval Academy. Coming to play a sport? Awesome. Like the academic reputation of the school? Sounds good. Chose USNA because it’s free? Welcome aboard. None of those are the same as saying that you’re ready to make a career out of the Navy, but I’d be willing to bet that a large percentage of the 1000+ plebes raising their right hands on I-Day will do so for one of those reasons, just like they do every year. Those reasons are as valid as any. What matters isn’t how freshmen feel on day one, but rather what they think after year four.
Some people will love the Navy or Marine Corps and serve for 30 years. Some will find that it’s not for them, and use their military experience to get ahead in a civilian career. That’s fine too. The important thing is that there are people out there willing to give this Navy thing a shot, and we should celebrate all those who took the first step today.