As Navy Players Get Drafted, Don’t Forget the Lessons of the ASO

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?

Continue reading “As Navy Players Get Drafted, Don’t Forget the Lessons of the ASO”

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WILL SOMEONE TELL TROY CALHOUN TO SHUT UP

Troy Calhoun is tired of coaching in a conference full of Mormons.

Many Mormons of college age, you see, go on two-year missions; or as Calhoun calls them, the “two-year redshirt program.” That’s because this missionary work consists primarily of eating bowls of steroids and hitting the weightroom for 8 hours a day to turn these Mormon youths into 24-year-old man-beasts with a thirst for Air Force cadet blood (right?). So when Calhoun’s Air Force team is about to face a team from Utah, well, he just has to let the world know what kind of a disadvantage he’s facing.

Troy’s a pretty bright guy, though. He’s all about finding solutions to the tough problems, and this is no exception. His answer? Air Force should be able to redshirt players, too!

No.

It’s time people stopped buying into Troy Calhoun’s act. That’s exactly what it is, by the way. It’s all for show. Every single press conference he has, he finds some way to inject something about “gee golly service and country blah blah” or some pseudo-intellectual nonsense, and it’s so over-the-top that it’s sickening. Just try reading the first two paragraphs of his official bio without having dry heaves. Air Force is playing on Boise’s blue turf? Well gosh tootin’ they’re gonna have to fly over all kinds of colors someday. Sweet comparison, coach. The BCS is unfair, so let’s talk about the days of the “old Soviet Presidium.” Oh he’s so smart! And when Wyoming head coach Dave Christensen goes on a postgame tirade, noted constitutional scholar Troy Calhoun decides it’s time to reflect on the First Amendment. Seriously? How condescending can you be? Who talks like that? Someone looking to avoid the tough questions, that’s who.

And that’s the act. By being so over-the-top with his Howdy Doody facade of courage and the Constitution and whatever other patriotic buzzword you can think of, nobody bothers to question him. Look elsewhere for your stories, nosy media, because Troy Calhoun is an American patriot. There’s nothing to see here. If Dave Christensen goes on a rant because he thought Calhoun had one of his players fake an injury, don’t bother wondering if Christensen might have had a point. Dodging the media after a tough loss and saying it was all about “academics?” You don’t want to appear to be anti-academics, do you? So when Calhoun says he wants redshirts and wants his players to be able to turn pro, don’t bother asking how someone who spent 4 of his 6 years on active duty as a football coach could have the all-out gall to pretend that it’s for the good of the service.

Fortunately, there is one person willing to take Troy Calhoun to task for his comments: Troy Calhoun. Of course, the “no excuses” Troy that threw his fellow Air Force coaches under the bus was 2-1 and just finished taking Oklahoma to the wire. NuTroy is 1-2 and coming off of his first losing season. I guess now that he’s having his own problems, he’s more sympathetic to their plight. Imagine that. Then again, by saying he wants redshirts he might as well stand in his own locker room and say “I can’t win with you guys.”

Winning is hard, and coaching is a high-pressure job. It’s completely understandable that any coach would want whatever edge he could get. At the very least you’d hope for a level playing field. The challenge of service academy football, and the very thing that makes it special, is that you aren’t going to get one. There are some lines that cannot be crossed. Anyone that truly cares about service– or the future careers of service academy athletes– would understand that.

TROY CALHOUN’S IS THE SUPERIOR INTELLECT

Troy Calhoun relaxes after a long day of thinking.
Troy Calhoun relaxes after a long day of thinking.

We all know it’s the topic that won’t die. But now, Troy Calhoun has put his two cents into the “service academy players turning pro” debate, so I guess it’s worth talking about. And what does the esteemed Air Force coach have to say?

“Are we losing literally hundreds upon hundreds of outstanding officer candidates that will not consider going to any of the service academies because they have no chance to pursue a possibility?” Calhoun said. “I think right now we’re deterring a good chunk of young men and young women just because of a door that’s immediately shut.”

Brilliant. If you just make it easier to get out of the service commitment, then more people would be willing to go to service academies! Now THERE’S the argument we want to be making hot on the heels of Washington Post op-eds calling for service academies to be closed. But if that’s your logic, then why limit it to football players? If we just shortened the commitment for everyone, or if we let anyone defer or eliminate service obligations whenever something better comes along, then imagine how many awesome candidates we’d attract!  But you never hear that argument made. Somehow, it’s ridiculous to suggest such a thing for midshipmen/cadets in general, but it’s a candidate-enhancing boon when applied to football players. It’s just too hard to believe.

It’s hard to blame a football coach for making this argument. His job is to win games, and he’s just looking for ways to to help him do his job. It is, however, easy to blame a service academy graduate. The service commitment is more than just paying back the cost of an education. It’s the very reason the schools exist. The op-ed in the Post was right; there are cheaper ways to produce new ensigns and second lieutenants. The reason why the cost of the service academies is justified is because it’s cheaper to produce admirals and generals that way; service academy graduates become career officers at a higher rate than their ROTC and OCS counterparts. Trying to lure applicants who aren’t even willing to commit to 5 years isn’t going to increase the rate of academy graduates who make it to 20. It’ll do the opposite. And if you love your school at all, you don’t want that.

Sometimes I wonder if the people making these arguments really understand what they’re saying.

WHY WON’T YOU DIE

Which is scarier? Jason Voorhees repeatedly rising to terrorize counselors at Camp Crystal Lake with a machete despite being vanquished at the end of each Friday the 13th movie? Or the fact that someone thought it was a good idea to make another Friday the 13th movie?

The same question could be asked of Army’s Alternative “Service” Option– the villain in the slasher-flick world of service academy football. Just when you thought the topic was dead, it comes out of nowhere to hack internet conversation to bits and haunt your dreams. (OK, that last part is a Nightmare on Elm Street reference, but they made Freddy vs. Jason, so the judges have allowed it.) At a West Point Board of Visitors meeting a couple weeks ago, the question of the ASO came up. On Tuesday, Sal Interdonato wrote about the responses given by the superintendent, LTG Franklin Hagenbeck, athletic director Kevin Anderson, and new head football coach Rich Ellerson, here. And whoa Nelly there’s some classic buck-passing going on in this one.

BUT FIRE WILL ONLY MAKE IT ANGRIER!
BUT FIRE WILL ONLY MAKE IT ANGRIER!

The Supe has some hum-dingers. Highlights:

Hagenbeck: “In ’05, we wrote a particular standard in line with OSD (Office of the Secretary of Defense). We moved out and had some youngsters go to the professional ranks other than football. Last year, Caleb Campbell was drafted by the Detroit Lions. The spotlight was on him. Another service academy was very outspoken and their view was we had an unfair competitive advantage and had that policy turned around in a blink of an eye…We are all under the same policy and how you look at it and implement it is the question.”

It’s bad enough that Hagenbeck completely dodges any responsibility that he might have had in this debacle, but he didn’t stop there. No, he takes it a step further and decides to blame the Naval Academy. With that, I would like to cordially invite LTG Hagenbeck to screw himself. (All the Army fans that will inevitably read this and feign offense because I told an OMG GENERAL to screw himself can likewise screw themselves). He gets away with it because there’s nothing that some Army fans like more than blaming Navy for their problems. I don’t know where that trend began, but it’s as pathetic as it is absurd. “Evil Navy is a bunch of wimps that don’t fight the real war, so they tell Army recruits’ parents that their kid will die! Evil Navy went to the NCAA about Army player eligibility!” Etc., etc. Maybe it makes some Army fans feel better to think that way, but the result of believing this nonsense is that they fail to hold accountable the people truly responsible for their problems. People like LTG Hagenbeck, who can’t even get his story straight while he tries to play the victim:

Another service academy was very outspoken and their view was we had an unfair competitive advantage and had that policy turned around in a blink of an eye…

They (cadets) could buy out. It was $280,000 and spend their remaining time in the reserves subject to recall. If you didn’t show progress in the pro ranks, Army could recall you back. That was all laid out. OSD came back literally at the 11th hour, actually less than 48 hours when Caleb reported to Detroit to say that definition of active duty for the first two years was not acceptable.

Which is it, General? Did mean ol’ Navy get that policy turned around in the “blink of an eye,” or did it drag on so that you heard nothing until the “11th hour?” You can’t have it both ways. And his claim that he received nothing in writing is suspect. Do we need to go over the ASO timeline again?

2005: Army creates the ASO.

August 2007: After representatives from each of the academies voiced their concerns over differing policies between the services, a memo is promulgated from the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Personnel and Readiness) regarding the “Policy for Academy and ROTC Graduates Seeking to Participate in Professional Sports Before Completion of their Active Duty Service Obligations.” The policy orders two years of active duty before a service academy or ROTC graduate is able to apply for excess leave to attempt to catch on with a team. The policy becomes effective Jan. 1, 2008.

April 2008: Caleb Campbell is drafted.

Only three freaking days after the draft: Dr. David Chu, the Under Secretary in question– who has absolutely nothing to do with the Navy or the Naval Academy, by the way– sends out a new memo, “retransmitting” the August 2007 policy and stating that it is “a policy that remains in force and may not be supplemented.” In order to address any claim that playing in the NFL could itself be considered “active duty,” the memo goes on to add that “constructs for ‘active duty’ service should not include arrangements typically unavailable to others in uniform.” This all happened three months, not 48 hours, before Lions training camp.

May 2008: After this new memo is sent, Army begins their “internal review.”

July 2008: Caleb Campbell is pulled away from Lions training camp.

We can deduce from Hagenbeck’s comments that our initial suspicion about the nature of that “internal review” was pretty much dead on. It wasn’t an “internal review” as much as it was weeks of begging and weaseling between Army officials and the OSD, with the former trying to manipulate the ASO into legitimacy. If anything happened at the “11th hour,” it was someone at OSD saying “no means no” for the thirtieth time. LTG Hagenbeck had been told “no” a whole hell of a lot sooner than “less than 48 hours” before Campbell reported to Lions camp. Chu’s “retransmit” memo proves it. For Hagenbeck to say otherwise is nothing but dishonest revisionism.

Did Naval Academy officials complain about the ASO after Campbell was drafted? Of course they did, and they should have. But Dr. Chu obviously didn’t need to hear anything from Navy to smack the ASO down; his reaction was immediate. The facts are simple; the OSD had a policy in place. West Point tried to violate that policy. The OSD didn’t let them. And by fighting the decision until the last minute, Army jerked Campbell around and created a public relations train wreck for themselves. Hagenbeck’s lack of accountability is disappointing. Trying to blame the Naval Academy is just shameful.

(By the way, can you imagine if a cadet went to a conduct board and said something like, “We are all under the same policy and how you look at it and implement it is the question.” I’m sure that’d fly!)

Predictable Disaster

It’s all over. The topic that has created more hate & discontent than any other on this mediocre blog has reached its conclusion, and it’s glorious. The Army, in a move as smooth as concrete, plucked Caleb Campbell away at the last minute as he was to begin training camp with the Lions. Somewhat shockingly, the careers of their baseball players are over too, with Nick Hill and Milan Dinga ordered to report to their respective Officer Basic Courses once their seasons are complete. It’s hard not to feel for these guys as they’re being jerked around; few feelings are worse than that of uncertainty. But one way or another, the right thing has happened; West Point is no longer sending graduates straight to the pros. The Alternative Service Option is dead.

To their credit, Campbell, Dinga, and Hill have said all the right things since the news broke. Not that you’d expect otherwise; they’d only be hurting themselves if they made a fuss over it. Besides, there’s no need to make a fuss when the media is doing it for you. And ho-lee cow are they ever. What the Army tried to sell as a PR goldmine has turned into a PR nightmare. The stories are too numerous to count (or link), but most of them contain phrases like “shattered dreams” or “unfair treatment” and whatnot. So rather than fulfilling the Army talking points about how the ASO will be good for recruiting, “regular” Army service is instead being portrayed almost as a punishment– with the added bonus of Army leadership being shown as untrustworthy. Way to go, Army. This outcome was about as predictable as low scores from East German gymnastics judges. And frankly, the Army deserves every bit of the bad PR it gets from this.

There are really two different elements to this story. First is the core idea of whether or not service* academy graduates should have the opportunity to play professional sports immediately upon commissioning instead of “regular” service. We can hash that one out again if you’d like, but I’m pretty sure we’ve already said everything that there is to say on the subject. But the second part of this debacle, and the one that the media seems to have completely missed, is that the Army completely brought this upon themselves by violating a DOD directive. The Army failed at the beginning of the whole Caleb Campbell affair when it ignored a direct order and allowed Campbell to pursue an NFL career. So while Campbell’s course change might be news now, everyone– everyone— should have seen this coming. The Army was counting on the ignorance of the public and the apathy of the Secretary of Defense in enforcing directives issued by his office. That should have been enough of a clue that their policy was shady. The Army got neither, and now they’re left with a mess.

Some may look to defend the Army now by saying that it was DOD action, not the Army’s, that led Campbell to be pulled from training camp; but that’s hogwash. The DOD made their ruling on January 1, when their directive went into effect. It was the Army that chose to violate that directive. It was the Army that told Campbell– as recently as a week before he was to report to camp– that he was still good to go despite knowing otherwise. And it was the Army that strung this out for months after a second memo was released by OSD in April that unquestionably stated the office’s intent to enforce the original directive. You might read sites like The Big Lead that want to blame this on the other service* academies. Or you’ll read sites complaining about the timing of the DOD’s decision. But that’s all crap. This train wreck has been brewing for months.

Surface Warfare officers are taught that ship collisions at sea are a result of a chain of bad decisions. At any point in that chain, if someone had stepped in and said, “wait a minute,” the mishap would have been avoided. That’s what we have here. The Alternative Service Option was one of the recommendations made by the “expert panel” put together by West Point to examine its football program back in 2003. The idea gained traction within the athletic department. And who could blame them? An AD’s job is to act in his department’s best interest, and that means doing whatever he can within the rules to make money and field winning teams. Let’s not pretend that Navy and Air Force’s athletic departments wouldn’t want the same thing. (Hell, Air Force still has their Combat Coach program!) But as some people are charged with the best interests of the athletic department, others are charged with the best interest of the school. Still others, the service. And at these levels, nobody stepped in to change West Point’s course. They ran straight into the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the bigger ship won. The law of gross tonnage isn’t something to be trifled with.

MELTING?

There was quite a bit happening while I was gone. I-Day and the subsequent official recruit lists were the big news. The 2009 schedule evolved a bit more, too, as Rice now is scheduled for the date once reserved for Rutgers. And we also had this bit announcing that former Army punter Owen Tolson’s pursuit of an NFL contract has come to an end.

“Football is a thing of the past, I’m told,” said Tolson, who signed with the Giants in May but was cut after rookie mini-camp.

Really? So does this mean that the Army has thrown a bucket of water on the ASO witch?

Don’t get your hopes up. Caleb Campbell is still a Detroit Lion, isn’t he? And none of the Army baseball players filling the ranks of the minor leagues have been whisked away, have they? No. The Alternative “Service” Option hasn’t gone anywhere. It would appear to me that this is nothing more than housekeeping, with the goal being to simply save face by limiting the time that players have to pursue a pro contract.

That puts the Army in a rather ironic position. The best thing for them would be if Caleb Campbell was cut by the Lions. That way, the Army gets to say “See? They’re going off to serve now. No harm, no foul!” Sure, that means that they won’t get any good PR out of Campbell. But they would still get to sell the ASO to recruits (which is all they really care about), while OSD stays off their backs since there’s nobody violating the DOD policy. Well, other than baseball and hockey players, but Army’s been getting away with that for a few years now. The Army’s policy would simply be under perpetual “review.”

In a twist that everyone could see coming except for the Army, the worst part is that by possibly being called back into actual service, Campbell is generating negative PR. The headlines tell the story: “Campbell’s career could be in jeopardy.”  “Campbell might have to forgo NFL career for Army.” The tone is one of disappointment. “Oh no, he’s going to have to serve now.” And that not only doesn’t help Army recruiting efforts… It harms them by painting the Army as a letdown. Talk of Campbell’s future is nothing but speculation now, but just watch. If he gets cut, the collective response will be, “oh no! Now he has to go be in the Army!

Anyway, the drama continues.