It’s a bye week for the Navy football team, which means that some of us have a bit more free time to take care of the things we’ve been neglecting on our weekends. Maybe you need a haircut. Perhaps the neighbors have started to make comments about the wildebeests migrating to that Serengeti plain that used to be your lawn. For the blog, the lack of a game to preview means that I have a chance to write about something else. I don’t really like taking requests, but after receiving a couple of e-mails about this blog post at the Naval Institute, I’m willing to make an exception.
I might be willing, but that doesn’t make me happy about it. The whole thing annoys me. I’m annoyed because the topic– why the Naval Academy plays Division I football– is one that I’ve already covered multiple times here and elsewhere. I’m also annoyed to be responding to the author of this particular piece; given his history on the subject, I don’t believe that he makes his argument in good faith. Indeed, this isn’t meant to be a response to him, because such a response would likely be a waste of effort. The author makes several appeals that people like reading about: to the idea of the pampered athlete, to anti-favoritism, and to anti-ring-knocker elitism. This post is for those that might read that piece and wonder if it makes a point.
The Naval Academy should be scrutinized like any other government institution. While I am not a fan of the post’s author, it isn’t wrong to ask why service academies participate in Division I athletics. To answer that question, one should start by asking why any school plays FBS football.
Intercollegiate athletics in this country dates back to the late 1850s, when student-organized crews from Harvard and Yale began meeting for annual regattas in New Hampshire. Soon other schools joined in, and competition expanded to baseball, track and field, and football. By the 1870s, these competitions were making national headlines, giving participating universities attention from audiences that had previously never thought about them. As historian Guy M. Lewis noted, “In many ways, sport contributed to the destruction of the isolated academic world and helped make the nation more conscious of its colleges.” Athletics helped to turn America’s colleges from reclusive to mainstream.
The same is true today. Based on the media coverage that FBS football receives, the cynic might think that colleges choose to participate in order to make money. That isn’t true; most FBS athletic departments lose money. When a school decides to play football at the FBS level, it’s part of a larger strategic vision. Athletics, especially football, are how regional schools gain a national profile. If not for football, how many of you would have even heard of Boise State? Georgia Southern? Notre Dame is one of about 200 Catholic colleges and universities in the U.S., but its football history has made it the flagship Catholic institution and a household name. Participation in Division I athletics conveys a sense of quality and mainstream legitimacy.
Athletics have often been described as being the “front porch” of a university. Utah State athletic director Scott Barnes (now at Pittsburgh) once noted, “It’s not the most important room in the house, but it is the most visible.” That is absolutely true; millions of people watch college football every Saturday. It’s not that students and parents choose a school because of football. It’s that when they look for options on who has a good math department, they’ll think, “hey, what about that school I saw on Saturday?” Football plants that seed. It puts these schools on the lists of applicants that might not have thought to consider them otherwise.
That is exactly the reason why service academies play FBS football.
Nothing– nothing— allows the Naval Academy to reach the American people like football. The ratings for last weekend’s Notre Dame game translate to about two million viewers. Two million. Some of those watching might be hearing about the Naval Academy for the first time. Some will hear about a player’s major and think, “hey, I didn’t know I could major in Economics at the Naval Academy!” They’ll see a sample of a midshipman’s daily schedule. After service selection, they’ll hear what kinds of things the seniors will be doing in the Fleet. And that’s just during the games; the football team receives a great deal of additional coverage as well. ESPN was on the Yard this week to profile Keenan Reynolds for SportsCenter, which averages 115 million viewers per month. And what will those viewers be seeing?
That is invaluable exposure, exactly the message the school wants to send, and something that would simply not be possible without football. The more people who see that message, the more people will consider the possibility that it’s something they want to pursue. And that’s the whole point.
There is no greater tool for outreach to potential admissions candidates. Hometown papers around the country, for example, highlight local football recruits that choose to come to Annapolis. That includes the article that the author of the USNI blog post chose to highlight as a “tragedy.”
And that brings me to my next point, which needs to be made perfectly clear, etched in stone, and shouted from mountaintops:
There is no wrong reason to come to the Naval Academy.
The author takes issue with the fact that someone’s primary motivation for attending USNA would be to play football. There is a mindset among certain circles that espouses the belief that the only people who should be accepted into the Naval Academy are those dedicated to making a career out of the Navy or Marine Corps. Anyone who isn’t dead set on becoming a naval officer need not apply. This is nonsense.
There is a bit of a double standard at work here. A poll of midshipmen would reveal a variety of reasons why they chose to come to Annapolis. Most would probably say because it’s free. Others might point to the quality of the education. Some might point to a family legacy. None of these reasons are the same as saying “to be a Naval officer,” yet they aren’t met with the same derision as someone who is drawn to USNA primarily because of a sport.
Let’s say that there is some gung-ho 18-year old out there ready to put in their 20 years. Based on what? How on earth does this high schooler have the first clue about what it’s like to be an officer? He’s never stood a watch. He’s never deployed. For all he knows, he’ll get seasick the moment he hears one prolonged blast of the ship’s horn. Not only is it unrealistic to expect anyone straight out of high school to think this way, but it’s impossible to take seriously anyone who does. The oldest joke at the Naval Academy is that the people you think are ready to make a career out of the Navy are the first to get out, while the people you think will get out after five years end up becoming lifers. There is a measure of truth to that. Until you’ve experienced the life of a naval officer, you can’t know if it’s for you.
In fact, the school’s mission statement alludes to this:
The mission of the United States Naval Academy is to develop Midshipmen morally, mentally, and physically and 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.
Midshipmen are there to be developed. It isn’t the job of the admissions board to screen for applicants who want to make a career of service; it’s the job of the school to imbue midshipmen with those ideals. All that candidates need to have coming in is an understanding of the service commitment and a willingness to try. All 4,000 midshipmen in the Brigade, whether they came for the education, for football, or for the price, have that.
It is not an easy decision to accept an appointment to USNA. Few high school seniors are looking for a military lifestyle with a nine-year commitment. Just about everyone at the Naval Academy had opportunities elsewhere. Shame on anyone who would deride those willing to accept the challenge, regardless of his or her reasons.
With that, let’s examine some of the other points made in the post.
Well, check the Navy’s height-weight chart – at 75″ he will need to work on that neck to be in our Navy – your maximum weight is 217.
This is poorly worded. For those unaware of how body measurements work in the Navy, if he does “work on that neck,” then he can weigh more than 217. The height-weight chart is not the final word. The Navy also takes body type into account by measuring the difference between circumference of the abdomen and the circumference of the neck. If it’s 22″ or less, he’s still within standards. This isn’t exactly unusual, either.
Catch that. Just another “school.”
Here, the author is taking this kid to task for the words of the reporter who wrote the story.
“Schools” must be careful that they define who they are. Football is, rightfully, seen as an important part of the collegiate experience for all, and the desire to play is strong with young men. But, it is also seen as a supporting activity to what is the real purpose of the college/university/academy – education. For the service academies – it is also producing officers to lead Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Soldiers in to combat.
It is ironic that the author sneers at someone calling the Naval Academy “just another school” while simultaneously saying that the “real purpose” of USNA is the same as other colleges and universities. The real purpose of the Naval Academy isn’t “also” to produce officers; it is only to produce officers. Education, then, is not the purpose of the school. It is a means to an end.
It is essential to keep that in mind when discussing standards and whether or not they are being compromised. In order to make that claim, one must first define the standard. That never happens, though, because the standard isn’t what the critics would have you believe.
The mission of the Naval Academy is to produce naval officers. The admissions board, then, is tasked with determining what makes for a good one. It would be easy if there was one archetype that all applicants could be measured against, but that is not the case. Who would make for the better officer: the nerd with the perfect SAT scores, or the jock capable of playing his or her sport at the highest level? The answer, quite possibly, is both. If there is a common trait exhibited by successful officers, it’s drive and work ethic. Through their achievements, both of these candidates have demonstrated that sort of determination.
This is why critics claiming that athletes are being admitted over “more qualified” candidates are wrong. “More qualified” is not synonymous with “has better grades.” The straight-A student doesn’t also have to be a world-class athlete; he or she just has to be capable of fulfilling the physical mission. Along those same lines, the athlete doesn’t have to have perfect grades; he or she only needs to have the ability to handle USNA’s academics with a passing grade. High-level athletes are exceptional people and should be sought after, not disparaged.
The author is correct when he says that schools should be careful that they define what they are. The Naval Academy has. The breadth of a Naval Academy education compares favorably to those received at any undergraduate institution in the world. However, USNA is not an Ivy League school, and we shouldn’t want it to act like one.
Why not another division? Even D-III? What is wrong with D-III? Nothing. Good enough for MIT – why not USNA?
Again, after mocking someone for calling the Naval Academy “just another ‘school,'” the author argues that USNA should act like another school. MIT is obviously an excellent institution. However, MIT does not share the same mission as USNA. MIT does not have the same obligation to reach the mainstream public, and NCAA Division III would not serve USNA’s needs in that regard. To prove my point…
All of our service academies are D-1 FBS (nee 1-A) schools – the top level.
This is not true. The Coast Guard Academy and the Merchant Marine Academy also play football, but perhaps the author didn’t think of them because they both play Division III.
Sure, the highest paid person that works for the Navy is the football coach – paid for by alumni, of course … and there you go.
The author is being intentionally dishonest with this statement.
One cannot simultaneously “work for the Navy” while being “paid for by alumni.” One or the other can be true, or in this case, neither. Critics of football at the Naval Academy like to tap into the outrage machine by arguing that coaches’ salaries come from Pentagon coffers. The author even linked to an article that made such an allegation. It is not true. The coaches are paid by the Naval Academy Athletic Association, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. The author knows this, but probably became so accustomed to using this talking point that he didn’t want to give it up. That’s why he added the “paid for alumni” line, only that isn’t true, either. Donations– from more than just alumni- only make up about 15% of NAAA’s income. The bulk of it comes from ticket sales, television, corporate sponsorships, facility rentals, merchandise licensing, and camps.
This isn’t about the best interests of USNA, the MIDN, or the Navy as a whole. If it were, then you wouldn’t need outside funds to pay for the quality coach you need.
While this could be a non sequitur, I believe what the author is saying is that if football was so essential, then football coaches would be paid for by the government. Well, he gets his wish at Army and Air Force, as their coaches are paid with non-appropriated government funds. I can’t imagine how the Naval Academy being able to pay coaches without government money is a bad thing, but I encourage the author to continue making that argument. Let’s see how far it goes.
As a result, is he positioned to compete in the highly competitive profession of being a Navy or Marine Corps officer? Even though this wasn’t a desire that brought him to think about USNA, after a few years, he may decide he does.
Once he joins the fleet, will he be able to make a physical standard that, as an officer, he will have to enforce on his Sailors? The years of special treatment will be over; he will just be one more ENS or 2LT.
Every year he has company making that challenge work – and I saw it in my career. Right now on the Naval Academy team we have a 6’3″ 300# MIDN, 5’11” 277#, 6’2″ 293#, 6’2″ 315#, 6’1″ 310# … and so on.
Yes, let’s go back to height and weight standards again for a minute.
First, let’s make sure we all understand what “special treatment” exists. Football players are allowed to exceed height and weight standards while they are playing football. However, they are required to be within standards prior to commissioning. The author calls this “special treatment” because he is trying make it sound as if football players have it easier. They do not. The people receiving this alleged perk are also part of a Division I-caliber strength and conditioning program. To imply that this is less arduous than the physical requirements of the average midshipman is beyond laughable.
The football recruit that the author has singled out is 6’3″ and 280 pounds. However, there is a difference between a kid who is 6’3″ 280 from eating Twinkies on the couch and one that is a trained, Division I-caliber athlete. Losing weight isn’t fun– trust me, I know– but it is much easier for an athlete with muscle mass built up from four years of strength training, already accustomed to hard work, and aided by a nutritionist. It happens every single year.
There is one last institutional side issue; would USNA recruit a 17-yr old 6’3″ 280# young man who was a winner at the Google Science Fair?
Is he an athlete that’s going to enter a Division I strength and conditioning program once he gets to USNA? Then yes. Like I said, not all 6’3″ 280 lb. people are the same.
I also wish that all those who invest so much of their own personal feelings of self-worth – and money – in to the NAAA and football would ask themselves, why? To what end?
Well I’m glad you asked.
In the Navy, we are taught that we are the ambassador service. We fly the flag in foreign ports. We interact with locals. We are, in many cases, the first exposure that people have to Americans and the United States. In much the same way, the football team serves that role for the Naval Academy. They are the conduit through which the nation learns of the school, and to some extent, even the Navy itself. They make the school mainstream, and help it to cast a wider net when seeking out future midshipmen.
Why do I support Navy football? Because both the school and the Navy are better off for it.
It’s as simple as that.