It’s been quite the spring season for Naval Academy athletics. Baseball, track, men’s and women’s lacrosse, men’s and women’s tennis… All of them had very good campaigns. The women’s rowing team captured the Patriot League championship in exciting fashion, and in doing so clinched the conference’s all-sports Presidents’ Cup for Navy for the third time in four years. It’s boom times for the Blue and Gold, yet on-field success might not even be the biggest Navy sports story so far in 2015. Big news came off the field as well, as two Naval Academy athletes were drafted by professional leagues. Joeseph Greenspan was selected by the Colorado Rapids in the second round of January’s MLS SuperDraft, while the New England Patriots picked Joe Cardona in the fifth round of the NFL draft. Their selections re-ignite one of the oldest debates in service academy sports: under what conditions should athletes be allowed to turn pro?
It’s not unprecedented for Navy athletes to draw professional interest, with the most notable recent example being Mitch Harris, now with the St. Louis Cardinals. Billy Hurley III has become a regular on the PGA Tour. Several football players have spent some time in NFL camps, and a couple managed to stick around the league a bit. It happens, although it’s still rare enough to be noteworthy when it does. It isn’t a lack of talent that makes Navy athletes such a rarity in the professional ranks; it’s the post-graduation service obligation.
Despite having the most famous pro athlete alumni of the service academies (Roger Staubach and David Robinson), the Naval Academy– or more accurately, the Navy– has in recent years been the least willing to make compromises on the service obligation for the sake of its athletes. The official position of the Navy has been that with the country at war, it was inappropriate to allow athletes to reduce active duty time in order to play professionally. As the U.S. footprint in Iraq and Afghanistan is reduced, should the Navy revisit that policy? Both Greenspan and Cardona are fully capable of taking advantage if it happens.
The stereotypical Navy athlete is a scrappy, undersized overachiever that didn’t get many other Division I offers but wanted to prove that he could play at that level. Joe Greenspan is none of those things. A 6-6 central defender that chose Navy over ACC powerhouses Maryland and Virginia, Greenspan began his college career as a forward before switching to defense. The skills he developed as an attacking player made him more than just a big body on the back line, and that combination of size and ability made him a two-time All-American at USNA. Even knowing that his service obligation made it unclear when or if he’d ever be able to play, the Colorado Rapids felt that Greenspan was talented enough to merit a second-round pick in the MLS SuperDraft.
As a long snapper, Joe Cardona is far more specialized, but no less talented at what he does. Widely considered the best long snapper in the country, Cardona was the only player at his position invited to the NFL combine. The Patriots surprised some observers by selecting him in the fifth round, but the team felt that Cardona was so good that they didn’t want to risk losing him to another team as an undrafted free agent. Said Bill Belichick:
If he can’t play this year, then he plays next year. If he can’t play that year, then he’ll play the year after. He’s a good player. [We] felt like he was the best long snapper in the draft. So, we have his rights. Whenever he plays hopefully he’ll be able to contribute and play well.
A good long snapper can be a fixture on an NFL roster for a decade or more.
In the short term, there isn’t much controversy about either player’s future. It’s typical for newly-minted ensigns and 2nd lieutenants to spend a few months on temporary duty at USNA or NAPS while they wait for slots to open up at their follow-on service schools (flight school, TBS, etc.). Because handing out basketballs and teaching plebes how to sail over the summer isn’t the the service’s most pressing need, the Navy has in the past allowed football players to attend NFL training camps during this time. If Cardona (and perhaps Parrish Gaines) is allowed to do the same thing, I doubt anyone would have a problem with it. Greenspan’s situation is a little bit different. He has been given permission to train with the Rapids this year, and since the MLS season runs from March through October, he could theoretically be able to play out the rest of the regular season in a timeframe that’s normal for ensigns to be stashed at USNA. Both scenarios are reasonable and wouldn’t have any effect on either officer’s potential Navy career. However, because of the post-graduation service commitment, the long-term prospects for both are less clear.
Well-informed service academy fans were familiar with Army’s so-called “Alternative Service Option,” the defunct program that made it possible for West Point athletes to skip active duty service and proceed straight to the pros and “recruiting duty.” If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you are probably also aware of my enthusiastic opposition to the ASO. Creating an official pipeline for athletes to skirt active duty service sets a horrible precedent, and limits the oversight that comes with each service’s secretary reviewing individual cases. Fortunately, there’s no indication that the Navy is attempting to implement their own version of the ASO; each situation is being handled based on their individual merits. Nevertheless, as the future of these athletes is being determined, there are some lessons from the Army’s folly that also apply here and should not be forgotten.
The most common justification offered for allowing service academy athletes to turn pro is that it would be good publicity for the school, good publicity for the service, and help recruiting efforts for both. It’s a specious argument, especially if used in favor of allowing athletes to turn pro immediately rather than after two years in accordance with current DOD guidelines. It’s true that both Mitch Harris and Billy Hurley have received a lot of positive coverage, but what makes both of their stories so exceptional is that they both served on active duty. Putting the glamour and glory of professional sports on hold for the sake of military service brings esteem to the idea of serving, and attention to the kind of work they did while serving. Contrast that with an athlete that did not serve on active duty. What message could he possibly send other than, “Do as I say, not as I do?” How is someone who is receiving special treatment to avoid active duty supposed to sell others on the value of serving on active duty? They can’t. Actions speak louder than words. A service academy graduate that goes straight into professional sports is no more credible as a spokesman for service than any other athlete you could hire to do the job.
In fact, he might be worse. What happens when a service academy graduate gets cut by his team and has to return to service? When the Department of Defense shut down the ASO once and for all, story after story was written about Caleb Campbell being forced to leave Lions training camp and return to Army service. The prevailing tone of these articles was almost universally one of dread and disappointment. You could add “Oh no!” to each of those headlines and it would fit perfectly within the story’s context. All of a sudden, service is being portrayed as a letdown. Instead of recruiting efforts being enhanced, they were actually damaged. The same could potentially happen any time a player is cut from a team.
A component of every proposal to allow service academy athletes to play professionally is the suggestion that they can carry out their service in the reserves. While it seems like a convenient solution, it doesn’t consider what the role of the reserves actually is. The mission of the Naval Reserve is “to provide strategic depth and deliver operational capabilities to the Navy and Marine Corps team and Joint forces, in times of peace or war.” That “operational capabilities” part is the key here. It takes time and training for an officer to acquire those capabilities. That’s why the Department of Defense policy requires two years of active duty service before allowing an athlete to request for a transfer to the reserves. It takes about that long to learn how to do anything. Without those two years of active duty to get warfare qualifications, an athlete wouldn’t be of much use in the event of a recall.
It isn’t hard to understand the sentiment of wanting to see service academy players make it in the pros. We’re sports fans. We enjoy cheering for these guys, and when there’s a chance to keep cheering for them even longer, the fan in all of us wants it to happen. As much as we believe in the value of sports, though, we cannot lose sight of the mission of the school. It’s service that makes service academies what they are, and it’s service that sets our athletes apart. Without it, then what’s the point?