Last week, the Capital published an editorial urging Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus to allow Keenan Reynolds and Chris Swain to play in the NFL.
I understand the sentiment, and to a point I share it. We all grew up idolizing our sports heroes. The thought of some of our midshipmen becoming those heroes for the next generation is appealing. We’ve spent years cheering for these guys, and we don’t want good things to come to an end. There is, however, a bigger picture to all of this, and I hope we don’t forget that.
Last year, I wrote this piece after Joe Greenspan and Joe Cardona were drafted into MLS and the NFL, respectively. My opinion hasn’t changed. There was still some uncertainty about their futures at the time that post was written, and some of those questions have since been answered as both were allowed to play out their rookie seasons. I don’t have a problem with that; most newly-commissioned ensigns are stashed at temporary jobs for a few months before moving on to their specialty schools. It wasn’t unreasonable for Cardona to be playing football instead of passing footballs out to PE classes. Based on SecNav’s comments, it appears that Reynolds and Swain will get that same chance.
The more important question is what comes after that rookie campaign, and it appears we’re seeing the plan in that sense as well; both Greenspan and Cardona are out in the fleet today. If the same is what awaits Reynolds and Swain– to play a year to catch on with a team, then serve two years before possibly resuming their NFL careers– then I could live with it. I won’t be thrilled with it, but I could live with it.
I could live with it because at least the Navy would be playing by the rules. The Army’s “Alternative Service Option” was a disgraceful train wreck for several reasons, not the least of which was that it was a blatant violation of DOD policy. The Capital’s editorial made a factual error. This:
The Department of Defense has no formal policy on service academy athletes seeking to play professional sports
… is not true. There is a DOD policy, and it requires officers to serve at least two years on active duty before they’re allowed to ask for a release to play professional sports. The Navy’s policy mirrors that requirement. The ASO attempted to circumvent that directive by saying that playing pro football could be considered “service” when combined with an occasional stop at a recruiting office on Tuesdays. The Office of the Secretary of Defense shut down this cynical end-around attempt when Caleb Campbell was drafted, issuing a memo stating that “constructs for ‘active duty’ service should not include arrangements typically unavailable to others in uniform.” With that, the ASO was dead.
One thing the editorial got right was this:
We think the case-by-case approach taken by the Navy is the right one.
It is. The ASO essentially created a pipeline to professional sports. The Navy, on the other hand, requires each individual seeking an active duty release to take the issue up the chain of command for ultimate approval with the Secretary of the Navy. It is essential to have that level of oversight in order to ensure the legitimacy of each request. Cardona and Greenspan will also serve two years (presumably). The case-by-case handling of each situation, combined with the two years of service, ensures that the Navy succeeds where the Army failed in complying with both the spirit and the letter of the DOD’s policy.
Playing by the rules is important, but it’s only part of the equation here. There is still the broader issue of tinkering with athletes’ service requirements in the first place. On this, I’m not as comfortable. Service academies have a responsibility to the American taxpayer. It’s a sacred trust, and it deserves more than the cavalier attitude that some have when it comes to our athletes playing professionally. While the Navy is not resurrecting the ASO, many of the same arguments in favor of the Army’s folly are being repeated.
The most common of these arguments is that this really isn’t that big of a deal. Navy players should be able to play right away. Just put them in the reserves or on recruiting duty, then reap the PR rewards! This line of thinking is shallow to the point of being offensive, showing a complete lack of respect for the Navy Reserve, recruiting duty, or those you’re trying to recruit. There are several reasons why DOD policy requires athletes to do two years of active duty service– real service, and not just posing for pictures and signing autographs– before even being allowed to ask for a reduction in their obligation. Without those two years, that athlete is of no use to the Navy.
Midshipmen learn the basics of what it means to be an officer while at the Naval Academy, but their education doesn’t end at graduation. Before heading off to their first operational assignments, newly-minted ensigns and second lieutenants go to specialty schools to learn how to do the jobs they’ll be assigned in their chosen branches. After completing those courses, they report to their new commands and spend the bulk of their time getting on-the-job training. Only after completing all of that are they considered qualified to actually do anything.
The mission of the Navy Reserve is to provide a capable supplement to regular forces when the need arises. If athletes are allowed to play without those two years to learn how to do their jobs, what are they supposed to do in the event of a recall? What use could they be to any unit that was called into active duty? None. The reserves have a mission to accomplish, and they need people who can help them carry out that mission. It is not a place for the unqualified.
For that matter, neither is recruiting duty. I don’t think that the people who say that athletes should be recruiters really understand what that entails. Recruiting is far more involved than doing meet & greets or passing out business cards at high school career fairs. Being a recruiter is difficult work. It involves long hours, frequent travel, and quotas to meet. It is not a job for part-timers, which is all that a professional athlete could possibly be.
Besides, what is this athlete-turned-recruiter supposed to say to the person he’s recruiting? If you have an 18-19 year old kid contemplating a life-changing decision, you owe it to him to have someone who can look him in the eye and tell him what he’s signing up for. No part-timer would have the experience to be able to convey what serving is like, nor would he have any credibility behind his words. Dangling a celebrity in front of recruits is not a serious plan.
But that celebrity status would still be good for PR, right? I don’t think it would be. One might be able to argue that seeing players in the NFL would be good advertising in the sense that it gets the Navy name into more living rooms, but that isn’t the same as good PR. In fact, it would probably be the opposite. You can’t hold someone up as a spokesman for service if he hasn’t actually served himself. Again, what credibility would that person have? Do as I say, not as I do? That’s a terrible, destructive message. This is another example of how the two years required by the DOD is important. An athlete putting NFL fame and fortune on hold for the sake of service elevates the idea of service to a public that places athletes on a pedestal. Guys like Mitch Harris, Billy Hurley, Ali Villanueva, and Chad Hennings all help to tell the story of typical servicemembers because they lived that life. That is what makes for good PR: an organization able to tell its own story by highlighting individuals doing that organization’s work. Service academy athletes cannot tell that story without having done that work, and any attempt to do so would be hollow at best, hypocritical at worst.
Mabus made another argument that we often heard from ASO defenders: that the same rules would apply to any uniquely talented midshipman, not just athletes.
“The way I revised the regulation, it’s also if you have a unique skill anywhere,” he added. “So if you’re a great cello player and you get drafted by the New York Philharmonic, and you’ll go out and make appearances for the Navy, then I could probably get you a waiver to do that too.”
This is technically true, but it’s also disingenuous. The Naval Academy doesn’t seek out cello players, nor do they foster the musical development of cello players to the point that the New York Philharmonic would want them. Nobody comes to the Naval Academy to play the cello. The same is not true of athletes. This scenario with the hypothetical cello player will never happen, but it has the potential to be an annual occurrence with athletes, especially football players.
Of course, that’s the whole point. The real goal here would be to recruit players that might have NFL ambitions. It would be nice if we could drop the pretense that letting players turn pro should be done for the good of the Navy. Advocates simply want to make their football team better. There’s nothing sinister about wanting to win; we’ve discussed the importance of a winning football program many times on this blog. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s right to win at any cost. To allow players to turn pro without any real service would be a cost too high.
I’m not sure that the benefits would have the intended effect, either; at least, not without some serious side effects. Allowing players to turn pro would certainly make it easier to recruit, but that’s a double-edged sword. Do you really want to recruit guys who haven’t bought into the service commitment? Is it right for a service academy to send a message of, “if you work hard enough, you don’t have to serve?” Yes, you’ll be able to recruit more players, but they’ll be the kind of guys more likely to quit as soon as some dweeb gets in his face over Plebe Summer. Midshipmen don’t need to be sold on a 20-year career, but they do need to understand that their education incurs an obligation. Those who do not will be disillusioned when senior year rolls around and they realize that they aren’t going to get drafted.
The service commitment is a tough sell in recruiting, but it is also what defines Navy football as a program. It is why the team is held in such high esteem. What is the Army-Navy Game without the underlying theme of service? How can the team be the public face of the school if select members will be exempt from fulfilling the school’s primary mission? It is important for every school and every program to understand who they are and what it is that makes them special. For service academies, it’s the service itself. To tinker with that is to play with fire.
When the Army attempted to sell the ASO, they fed lines to their players that came across very poorly. To their credit, neither Swain nor Reynolds have said anything but the right things. Reynolds in particular has been in a constant spotlight, and he’s handled it very well. I have no doubt that they will continue to carry themselves in a manner befitting Naval Academy graduates. This isn’t about the individuals, but rather the long-term policy.
The NFL is entertainment. It is a diversion. It exists so that for a few hours per week, we can all escape the real world. The Naval Academy exists because we need people who will deal with the real world. Athletes have demonstrated time and again that they are well-suited to that task. They make the Navy and Marine Corps better. We shouldn’t be so caught up in the excitement of the NFL that we inflate its importance and send our athletes out to do the wrong job.
I am fine with Keenan and Chris getting their shot at a rookie year, and I hope they both do well. I won’t pretend that I’m not looking forward to seeing them on the field again. But if the Navy is going to go down this road, they need to do so with an emphasis on service. So far, it appears that’s the case. Let’s hope it stays that way.