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How the Pentagon’s rash decision can hurt service academy athletics

We want you! But so do we, and we and we.

NCAA Football: Military Bowl-Pittsburgh vs Navy Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Jamir Tillman, Caleb Campbell, and Keenan Reynolds are just a few names the NFL wanted as much as Uncle Sam- but all of that came to an end for Mr. Tillman the day of the NFL Draft. The Pentagon’s Secretary of Defense James Mattis put into effect a new rule that said graduates from West Point (Army), Annapolis (Navy) and the Air Force Academy can pursue athletics as a profession but not for two years after they serve for the armed forces. This is a drastic change from the rules laid out for Keenan Reynolds in 2016.

Caleb Campbell was fortunate enough to see a rules change during his time that allowed him to play in the NFL called the “Alternative Service Option.” However, it has been suspended since Campbell. Keenan Reynolds was drafted by Baltimore in the 6th round of the 2016 draft and was cut and placed on the practice squad. Reynolds and New England Patriots Long Snapper Joe Cardona both were cleared for 2016 and beyond, as long as they’re under contract. Through my research this seems to have been a Navy decision, not a Pentagon decision for those players.

Cardona was serving the Navy in the off-season and on weekends, Reynolds was serving in the off-season as well. The decision to deny Tillman’s future in the NFL comes under a new presidential cabinet and could stay in effect through 2024, if President Trump were to win re-election. This could have an adverse effect on the service academies and the student-athletes that make a tough decision to sign there.

The Naval Academy students agree to a 5-year enlistment once they are graduates of the Naval Academy. They know this and none debate the fact. The broader issue is those three hundred plus Mids, Black Knights, or Falcons won’t be able to pursue NFL (or MLB/NBA/etc) careers. It was already a difficult task to recruit to the service academies.

The service requirements in addition to the physical, intelligence, academic and emotional requirements are a tough sell. Even so, all three programs have had success as of late.

Air Force under Troy Calhoun has had a winning season eight of the past 10 years. Navy under coaches Paul Johnson and Ken Niumatalolo have had winning seasons 13 of the past 15 years. Lastly, the Black Knights have had less recent success but even Army has won two bowl games in the last seven years. For perspective, the Miami Hurricanes have only won two bowl games in the last 11 years. This is because they can offer a guaranteed career in the service while recruiting upstanding citizens, hard workers, great teammates, but also young men with a dream of a future in athletics.

Will student-athletes still sign up by the hundreds to attend the service academies and play athletics if their hope for a professional sports career is nullified by the government? I would imagine the answer is not the most talented ones. If you truly don’t believe you’ll have a future in sports but want to play in school, then yes. But for most athletes that’s just not how they see themselves. The attitude it takes to succeed in athletics, and even more so at a service academy, requires a bit of a chip on your shoulder. I just can’t see the top athletes still coming when there are other options.

Losing talent at the academies is not a good thing. They’re already succeeding above their means. But also, in an era where the military isn’t always as beloved as in ‘the golden age’, the Army/Navy game and the Commander-in-Chiefs Trophy do a lot for the image of the armed forces. They’re respectful games played with an added level of pride and pageantry (and it just means more). The games are fun and rooted in history. They are college football! It would hurt to see Army and Navy slump back down to the sub-.500 levels of the 1990’s.

It’s safe to say that a majority of the student-athletes play for the academies are there to serve the country first, I just wish they also had a chance to realize their dream as a professional athlete too.