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.