DOD Gets it Wrong

When the news broke that Joe Cardona had reported to his ship after the Patriots’ season ended, I was optimistic that the Navy hadn’t lost its way. Playing football for a few months that would have otherwise been spent doing busy work was reasonable, and it wouldn’t interfere with a naval career. Even if Cardona was allowed to return to the team after two years, he’d at least have his SWO pin and a good story to tell. It wouldn’t be my preference, but if nothing else I could make an intellectually honest argument to justify it.

On Friday, we learned that Keenan Reynolds would be allowed to play his rookie season with the Ravens. That didn’t come as much surprise. The real news was not that Reynolds would be able to play his first season, but that Cardona would be allowed to play his second. This will apparently apply to Reynolds, Chris Swain, and anyone else that receives similar pro sports interest in the future.

This is a much more difficult pill to swallow.

At the moment, details on the relevant policy that permits this action are hard to come by. The closest thing that we have to clarification comes from a statement issued by the public affairs office of the Secretary of the Navy, which the Capital printed in full (emphasis is mine):

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus today submitted requests that Midshipman Keenan Reynolds and Ens. Joe Cardona satisfy their remaining commissioned service obligation in the Ready Reserve so they can pursue careers in professional sports.

The requests, which Mabus has strongly recommended be granted, have been submitted to the Office of the Secretary of Defense for final approval.

A recent policy change has provided a path for individuals who have the opportunity to play professional sports to request a waiver from minimum active duty service requirements.

“Approval of these requests will provide the Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of the Navy (DON) significant favorable exposure, enhance national recruiting, and serve as a positive ongoing contribution to DoD public affairs efforts,” Mabus said in a memo accompanying the requests. “Commissioning and appointment in the Ready Reserve is the best option for Midshipman Reynolds and Ens. Cardona due to the time and commitment required for the unique opportunity of playing in the National Football League.”

Reynolds has been drafted by the Baltimore Ravens and Cardona currently plays for the New England Patriots.

(The article has since been changed and only includes portions of the full statement).

The question is what policy has changed, and we have a few clues to help us out here. The original Department of Defense policy that mandated two years on active duty before applying for a release to pursue professional sports opportunities is no longer available on the DOD Issuances website. The Secretary of Defense granted Army women’s basketball star Kelsey Minato an opportunity to try to make a WNBA team. Reynolds’ and Cardona’s own requests are pending with SECDEF as well.

It would appear, then, that the new policy referenced above will come from the DOD. If that’s the case, then we can deduce a few things about what this policy is.

What it isn’t is a reincarnation of the Alternative Service Option. The ASO was the Army’s alone. If what we’re dealing with now is a DOD policy, it will apply to all three service academies. While Navy’s football players are the most high-profile athletes to be affected by this change, the fact that Minato was given the same opportunity supports that assumption. Unlike the ASO, this isn’t something that the Navy or the Naval Academy cooked up to gain an advantage over its rivals, which I guess will lend you some moral standing in a message board argument, but not much else.

It also isn’t trying to redefine what “active duty” means. One of the worst aspects of the ASO was that it tried frame professional sports as a construct for active duty service, as if the NFL was just another branch of the military. While not having an official name for the concept, Air Force has done a similar thing for years by sending its graduates into coaching for large portions of their service commitment. Judging by the Secretary of the Navy’s request, the new plan is to forego active duty in exchange for time in the reserves. In that, at least the new policy is honest about the nature of active duty.

That’s as close as I can come to saying anything good about all of this.

At this point I should probably say that I don’t hold it against the players that are taking advantage of this opportunity. It’s a job that the Secretary of the Navy himself says is the “best option” for meeting the needs of the Navy that, at a minimum, will pay around $500,000 per year. What boot ensign is going to tell SECNAV he’s wrong on that? I wouldn’t have.

Yet while I don’t blame the players who take advantage of what the Navy is allowing them to do, I can’t help but to think of them differently. I don’t mean in a personal sense, but rather in how it affects the way I look back on their time at USNA. Reynolds in particular received an extraordinary amount of attention for his exploits as a Naval Academy athlete, which comes as no surprise given what he accomplished. But what gave each of these stories that extra zip– what made him a sort of national phenomenon– was the knowledge that everything that he did on the field was a prelude to serving his country.

We hear stories about outstanding athletes earning accolades every day, but what captured the attention of the average fan this time– through the Sullivan Award, the Heisman campaign, the SportsCenter feature— was that it was all centered around a Navy athlete. Kenneth Dixon was neck-and-neck with Reynolds in their pursuit of touchdown records, but Reynolds got the lion’s share of coverage for it. That’s because he played for the Naval Academy, which meant something. Today, it means something a little bit different, and those stories don’t feel quite as special.

Not that my feelings are what’s important. There are a number of reasons why allowing service academy athletes to go straight to the pros is a terrible idea, some of which we discussed last week. I won’t rehash those arguments, but that was really just the tip of the iceberg.

A good portion of this blog has been committed to the defense of service academy athletics from those who question their necessity. A central theme in that defense is that there is no wrong reason to come to the Naval Academy. Well, now there is. Within minutes of the news breaking that SECNAV was signing off on Navy players turning pro, there were Navy coaches letting recruits know about their new NFL possibilities. As with the players, I also don’t blame coaches for embracing this new policy, either; their job is to win games, and they are going to want anything that will make that job easier. Still, seeing it out there like that gives me an uneasy feeling. While I’m sure that the coaches will continue to stress the benefits (and likelihood) of serving on active duty, there are still going to be guys that hear “blah blah blah NFL blah.” For them, active duty service is no longer the goal of graduation; it is a backup plan.

At a service academy.

It’s disheartening. It’s disheartening to see so many people supporting an action that I know in my heart is wrong. It’s disheartening to see them so blinded by visions of NFL glitz and ESPN glamour that they don’t truly appreciate the unique nature of service academy football for what it is.

It’s also frightening. This new policy won’t last– they never do– and I hope the DOD comes to its senses sooner rather than later. The problem, though, is that it’s rarely that simple. There is an equilibrium to these things. When you pull a pendulum back and let it go, it doesn’t immediately return to the middle; it swings the other way. Allowing players to turn pro right away pulls the pendulum back. As people start to see more and more service academy players turning pro (and let’s be honest, that’s the whole point), they will start to question whether it’s appropriate. Criticism will mount until this policy is inevitably scrapped. But will it end there? SECNAVs and SECDEFs are just politicians, and politicians like to “send a message.” I can easily see the new policy not merely be corrected, but rather overcorrected. I fear that there could be an equally wrong and opposite policy to de-emphasize athletics at the service academies in response.

Admittedly, that’s just speculation. However, the other reasons I’ve listed for years on this blog are not. Whether they come from up the chain of command or from within, there will be consequences.

I am dismayed, so much so that my enthusiasm for maintaining this blog has faded a bit. I realize that makes me sound like a drama queen, but you have to understand… I don’t write here because I’m simply a fan of Navy athletics. I write because I believe in Navy athletics. I believe that sports are crucial to the mission of the school, and I believe in the athletes that play them. Today, that belief is shaken a little. Yes, I understand that this policy is not something that’s coming from the Naval Academy, but I find little solace in that. The end result is the same no matter who made the decision.

I know many of you are celebrating, but I cannot join you.


28 thoughts on “DOD Gets it Wrong

  1. Andy

    I was a fan of year 1. I’m not a fan of reserves. Hopefully DoD reverses course and makes a 2 year and/or warfare qualified requirement before this becomes commonplace

  2. Resolute One

    Regarding the subject matter, even those that may be celebrating must still, in their guts, be struggling to rationalize how on one hand a young Marine officer is going in harm’s way to fulfill his Oath; on the other, a star athlete is going to the NFL for fame and fortune. No sour grapes here – just curious to understand how one processes and then reconciles the stark dichotomy. What if the star athletes came to realize their obligation differently and, compelled by their own conscious volition, declined their recruitment until they served? That would be asking too much because, after all, they have done nothing “wrong.” Put me in the group that will have difficulty supporting this – or watching the “brotherhood” on its new stage.

    Regarding the author, there are few in the universe of writers who can express with such raw honesty yet offer such an objective tone. How can he possibly see the depth of my thinking without even knowing me? Thank you for the time you invest here.

  3. Chvw '99


    Absolutely agree with you, and I’m feeling a little sick to my stomach about this myself. Hoping sanity prevails in the end here. Much respect and gratitude as always for your words and insight.

  4. bethel95

    Ruh-roh. Is this, perhaps, a SecNav PR play without prior SecDef support? Or a resigned, “Sure, why not?” after seeing SecDef approve Kelsey Minato’s request? Or even an attempt (misguided, if so) to force a broader discussion of an issue that was pretty much under the radar when it was only a female basketball player (no insult intended, just that this is the first I’ve heard of the Minato case, so it can’t have been widely covered, let alone discussed by the general public).

    Regardless, this has a “sports camel’s nose inside the academic tent” feel to it that leaves me feeling very uncomfortable and unsure about the future direction of my alma mater. Having watched the UNC debacle from close up here in Raleigh, I am truly dismayed at the prospect of having mids who are first and foremost athletes, not officers-in-training (even if it’s only in their own minds).

    It dismays me to a great degree that SecNav would take a step that has the potential for compromising the mission and the academics of our dear old Boat School. That SecDef seems ready to do the same for all service academies makes me wonder if these political appointees really understand what the mission is.

    1. As vocal as Mabus has been publicly regarding the situation, I would be shocked if he didn’t already know OSD’s decision.

  5. Joe Tranchini

    The policy may “not be coming from the Naval Academy,” Mike, but surely the request from the athletes to SecDef has to go through the chain of command, which includes the USNA superintendent and the commandant. When and where do these two guys take off their cheerleader uniforms, put on their big boy Fleet pants, and not endorse the request? Sometimes the leader just has to be the bad guy at the party. Just say “no,” Slapshot. Just say “no.”

    1. Even if everyone at USNA disapproved, the request wouldn’t end there. Besides, USNA has nothing to do with Cardona now that he’s in the Fleet.

  6. Dave Church

    It is going to take an extraordianry effort by Reynolds & Swain-Train (what happens to Greenspan’s soccer career?) to excel/burnish their
    “service commitment” in the Reserves to the betterment of the Navy.

    My counter would have been – you don’t make the team you are back on active duty fulfilling your full commitment.

    We also now have Luke Gillingham ’16 (Navy pitcher) who is most likely going to be drafted – another situation to be watched. OBTW – did everyone see the piece on Moore ’15 who is in flight school and pitching in the minors?

    Meanwhile – the Navy is every year releasing a number of pending/recent grads who wash out of flight school/Nuke school /other pipelines without fulfilling their obligations (most often with the grad’s utter disappointment) due to “no room in the inn” in other designators. We are dealing with a bureaucracy & politicians…a bad combination. It is a dynamic & pragmatic process regardless of our desire for patriotism, service, and equal treatment.

    I agree with Mike – the pendulum will swing back – we have new DOD/Navy/Army Secretaries on the near horizon. Tighten your seat belts.

  7. Joe Tranchini

    Mike, to your comment “even if everyone at USNA disapproved, the request wouldn’t end there” – of course, it wouldn’t! However, are you suggesting that the Supe should just take the temperature of the position of his boss and just go along? Is that what admirals do nowadays? My original point (obviously, not very well stated) was that the Supe has a mission to execute. Graduating folks to play in the pros is not to be found anywhere in that mission statement. Sorry, but it’s time to get back to the business of being a “service academy” and not a minor league training camp. Time to stop trying to be “one of the guys.”

    1. Navyrugger

      Do you know what the Supe and Dant recommended? I don’t. Is it public knowledge?

      We can hypothesize but unless I’m missing something that is out there I’m not going to pass judgment on them for things unknown.

    2. I understand what you’re saying, I just don’t understand what it is that you would have the Supe do. Also, once the midshipman graduates, I’m not sure there’s much input for the Supe to give.

  8. GoMids

    Not to be all get-off-my-lawn, but for this admin the military is a PR and social lab toy, and secdef and service secs have been fully onboard. Thus decisions have tended to be 180 out from what you’d expect. Maybe future leadership will correct back on this one — or overcorrect, as you point out — but who knows. But having guys go straight pro is not the look we want.

  9. Can we at least use this to slay the classic Joe Mid v. Jock (aka the “Setaside” argument) once and for all? The athletes get WAY more scrutiny than the rest of the Brigade. How many of you know multiple classmates or company mates who never came close to serving 5 years–or even two years–in the fleet after commissioning? Lots of those guys walking around–got passed over for flight school, ran out of seats, needs of the navy, got bounced, etc. More common some years than others, but it happens every year. To act like this type of “false commitment” doesn’t happen all the time is ludicrous. The 2 four 7 is not made of steel and everyone knows it. Everyone. Is it a real problem? That’s another conversation… But here–like in so many other cases–only the athletes come under the microscope.

    That being said, I agree that it is bad policy. If David Robinson could do two years, anybody can.

    And Mike, you write that you are not holding KR accountable. But you go on to write that the KR glow we’ve all so enjoyed has now lost some of its shine… In other words, you are implying that you’d now view KR and all his amazing accomplishments, media coverage, etc., in a better light if he were forced to take what you see as the moral high road (not for his personal benefit, mind you) by DoD officials… Not sure you’re on stable ground there.

    1. I don’t see what’s so shaky about it. Like I said, I would do the same thing if I was Keenan. However, so much of his appeal at the time was due to his chosen profession. If everyone knew then what we know now, those stories wouldn’t have been seen as so exceptional. The world is full of great guys who go to class, but they don’t all get followed around by SportsCenter. “Football player aspires to NFL” is not a story. “Heisman candidate studies for future naval career” is. That’s what made Keenan stand out, and it’s what makes Navy football in general stand out. I don’t think that saying so is breaking new ground, nor is it contradictory.

      As someone who’s read this blog for as long as you have, I’m disappointed that you’d go straight the the set-aside tack here. One of the points I’ve constantly made in defense of athletics is that special exceptions for athletes are largely a myth. That is not the case anymore.

      Yes, there are grads that have their careers cut short for a variety of reasons. That is a good argument to rethink manning policy. It is not a justification for creating a path to have active duty careers cut short (or eliminated) *by design.* It is not the same thing. The Naval Academy isn’t recruiting people who are trying to be the best at getting bounced. They *are* recruiting people trying to be the best at their sport. Athletes are under the microscope here because we’re talking about instituting a policy specifically to accommodate athletes. You can’t frame this as some unfair persecution.

  10. I hear you.

    I will clarify that I am not framing this as some unfair persecution. And I agree with you wholeheartedly that this is bad policy–for all the reasons you articulate so well (much better than I could, by the way).

    As you acknowledged, I’ve been a reader and fan of your work for a long, long, time and generally agree with everything you write. Thank you, by the way (and please keep it up)

    Let me try to reframe the comment: Lots of guys get out of their service requirements for lots of reasons. Some more valid than others. When it happens to anyone other than an athlete, it is a non-story–and justifiably so. But for Keenan, well, here we are. He’s not “skating”–he’s under more scrutiny than every other Ensign in his class. He’s paying a price for this… personally.

    I just can’t see how looking back on KR’s accomplishments and media coverage with bittersweet hindsight is not judgmental. You are saying that the KR coverage was false or less true in hindsight because of a stupid DoD policy he cannot control… I just don’t buy that. He was still an active duty midshipman training for a military career when all of those stories ran. None of it was untrue nor should it be diminished in any way–especially if you’re not willing to pass judgment on Keenan’s decision to pursue an NFL career.

    Nor do I think remote NFL possibilities (and KR’s were remote all along) is enough to preclude future Navy stars from getting Keenan-esque media attention (aside from Keenan being a once in a generation/program type player).

    It’s an emotional issue. I’m with you.

    As you mentioned, policies change. This one should. And if enough of us make enough stink about it, it probably will. It’s a garbage policy.

    On the good news side, how about Lax and baseball? Big weekend coming up..

    1. Keenan is many things, but he is not a victim. This isn’t something that “happened” to him. This is not a stupid policy that’s suddenly being forced upon him. It’s his choice. I don’t blame him for that choice, but it’s a choice nonetheless. It is not comparable to guys who are bounced out involuntarily. Frankly, this *should* be cause for scrutiny. Given how well he handles himself in the spotlight, I don’t think he needs any sympathy.

      If you want to use loaded language like “pass judgment,” so be it. I’m not sure what else I could say to get my point across, and I can’t force you to feel the same way. I’m only expressing my point of view. Being a midshipman, to me, only carries value as an antecedent to joining the Fleet. It’s the difference between a “military school” and a “service academy,” and the main reason why the public holds the latter in particularly high regard. That high regard was what drove many of those stories. To remove the reason for that high regard from the equation makes them feel a little like a bait & switch to me, regardless of the good intentions at the time. I do think that this new NFL possibility will make it less likely that players with pro potential like Keenan’s will see such admiration from the media in the future.

      I also don’t agree that the chance of seeing more players with NFL potential is remote, especially if it’s now something that can be part of a recruiting pitch. We’ve seen guys in the past that had a shot at the NFL. That number isn’t going to go *down* with this policy.

  11. GoMids

    Something that gets a bit lost in all this why I’m such a huge Navy football fan in the first place, aside from just being a grad. It’s that the football players I watch and root for — root really, really hard for — are mids. They do all the hard mid stuff all the other mids do, and somehow play D1 football at the highest level on top of that. And then they go and serve, just like their classmates do and everyone before them has done. The fact that our team nickname is Midshipmen, and our players are in fact midshipmen, part of the Brigade during and after graduation, is so meaningful to me, and why I love our team so much.

    It’s one thing to root for the civilian college you went to or the big time school in your area, that’s what makes college football so great. But most (all) of those teams and players are mercenaries, they’re there to play football and audition for the NFL, and that’s pretty much it. Calling them student athletes is window dressing. Not so for our guys, and that’s what makes Navy football special and why I’m so passionate about it.

    If our guys becomes mercenaries too, even a few because those will be the high profile cases, it won’t be as special anymore. Of course I’ll still be a huge fan, but it won’t be the same thing.

  12. Charlie

    Great post. Agree–2 years active, get warfare pin, followed by reserve commitment is great policy/compromise. Especially agree that the pendulum will swing back too far at some point.

  13. 81Zoltan

    Mission of USNA
    The Naval Academy has a unique clarity of purpose, expressed in our mission:

    “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.”

    Our mission forms the basis for everything we do at the Academy. It also encourages a sense of spirit and pride found at few other schools.


    Politics have no relation to morals. Niccolo Machiavelli

  14. GoNavy81

    I am a supporter of letting KR and others play – but like you I assumed he would have to serve his obligation on active duty to some degree. Perhaps at Ft. Meade in cyber warfare, like he was commissioned to do. We have many, many reservists in the Active Reserve, and if they don’t get qualified in a warfare specialty, what good are they to the Navy?
    I agree that this approach will backfire on the Naval Academy – I don’t care as much about the others.

  15. Lee Geanuleas

    Best thing you’ve ever written, and you’ve written some great stuff. Thanks for standing for what’s right. SECNAV and SecDef have made a bad decision.

  16. Navy72


    Agree wholeheartedly with your position. The decision destroys the essential difference between service academy athletes and athletes in every other NCAA school. Sad, very sad.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s