football Edit

On Service Academy Athletes Turning Pro

Earlier this month, the news broke that the Secretary of the Navy had informed former Navy defensive back Cameron Kinley that he would not be allowed to delay his commissioning in the pursuit of an NFL career. Navy pitcher Charlie Connolly, listed as a top-200 prospect by and who probably had a better shot at eventually making a big-league roster, was also denied. Players from Army and Air Force have thus far been allowed to delay their commissioning.

The timing was unfortunate for Kinley, who graduated with the rest of his class on May 28. As an undrafted free agent, he had participated in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' rookie mini-camp and reportedly performed admirably enough. However, rather than building on that performance in training camp, Kinley has instead received his commission as an ensign and will begin his training as an intelligence officer in October.

This will not be a popular decision among sports fans, but it is almost certainly the right one.

There should be a clarification here. Many of the reports on the situation have framed Kinley’s denial as a reversal of policy, but that isn't true. The policy is being followed as written. Under current Department of Defense guidance, individual service secretaries "may nominate" midshipmen or cadets for deferred commissioning to the Secretary of Defense. May nominate, not will nominate. Thomas Harker, the current SECNAV, simply declined to do so, as is his prerogative.

The Office of the Secretary of the Navy released the following statement regarding Kinley’s and Connolly’s status:

“Admission to the Naval Academy is an extensive and competitive process. The mission of the Naval Academy is to develop young men and women to commission as officers in the Navy or Marine Corps. When students accept admission and continue their education in this program, there is an understanding and acknowledgment that they will upon graduation be commissioned. Every Midshipman attends on the same terms and each has the same responsibility to serve. Exceptions to that commitment to serve have been rightfully rare. Following discussions with senior Department of Navy leadership and in accordance with existing Department of Defense policy, acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas W. Harker, declined to forward requests from recent Naval Academy graduates to the Secretary of Defense, seeking to delay their commissions.”

The Secretary's statement doesn't say that future requests will not be considered. My impression is that Harker may have a high bar to meet when considering such cases; delaying commissioning is a big deal, and not everyone is David Robinson. Whatever rationale was behind the decision, it is merely the latest swing of a seemingly never-ending pendulum on the topic of service academy players turning pro.

Service academy athletes have dabbled in professional sports with varying levels of success for as long as there have been professional sports. It's really in the last 50 years or so, as the nature and cultural influence of professional sports has evolved, that the debate over these athletes' participation in pro leagues has picked up steam.

At first, the Navy tried to have it both ways. Napoleon McCallum was stationed on a ship in Long Beach while playing for the Los Angeles Raiders, an arrangement that ended when he was transferred to a deployed ship. David Robinson spent two years in the Civil Engineer Corps after graduating, but he could still play basketball at the international level before joining the San Antonio Spurs. Such accommodations were not without their critics, including James Webb, who closed the door on any more of them when he became Secretary of the Navy in 1987.

Eventually, the individual services settled on a consistent standard: service academy athletes had to spend at least two years on active duty before they would be allowed to play professionally. There were inconsistencies between the services, though, on what should be done with the athlete's remaining obligation. In 2007, the DOD settled the question by issuing a memo stating that the athlete's remaining active duty obligation would be changed to a reserve obligation of double the remaining time.

However, even as this standard was being codified at the DOD level, there were efforts to undermine it. In 2003, West Point assembled a panel to provide recommendations on improving its struggling football program. Members of the panel included Bill Parcells, Tom Osborne, Pete Dawkins, and then-Lieutenant Colonel Darryl Williams, who is now the superintendent of West Point. The panel's recommendations were never released publicly, but rumored to be among them was to improve recruiting by finding a way to allow athletes to turn pro.

Whether the idea came from this panel or somewhere else, it soon found its way into policy. In 2005, the Army quietly established what it called the "Alternative Service Option." The ASO was a cynical attempt to circumvent DOD rules. Because the DOD required two years of active duty from an athlete before allowing him to pursue a pro career, the ASO simply redefined professional sports as a form of active duty service. The first cadets to take advantage of the policy were minor league baseball and hockey players, but it gained national attention in 2008 when football player Caleb Campbell was drafted by the Detroit Lions. Among those who noticed was David Chu, Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. Three days after the NFL Draft, Chu issued a memo stating that the existing DOD policy remained in effect, and that “constructs for ‘active duty’ service should not include arrangements typically unavailable to others in uniform.” That effectively killed the ASO.

However, the desire to send service academy athletes straight to the pros was still alive and kicking. The next time around, though, the push came not from individual services, but the DOD level. In 2016, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter changed DOD policy, allowing athletes to pursue a professional sports career while fulfilling their service commitment in the reserves. Several athletes took advantage of the new guidance, including Navy football players Keenan Reynolds and Joe Cardona, Navy soccer player Joe Greenspan, and Army women’s basketball player Kelsey Minato.

The change was short-lived. Carter’s successor, Jim Mattis, reversed the policy soon after taking office in 2017. Once again, athletes were required to commit to at least two years of active duty service. This time, even Congress got into the act; Title 10 of the U.S. Code, the law that governs the Armed Forces, was altered to specifically prohibit academy athletes from pursuing a pro sports career until after two years on active duty. With that, the issue of athletes turning pro became not a matter of policy but law.

While that should have settled the matter once and for all, it did not. When the Army football team visited the White House in 2019, President Trump announced that he wanted to examine the issue yet again, stating that he was considering “a waiver for service academy athletes who can get into the major leagues.” That seemed impossible under Title 10, which states that an athlete cannot seek a release from his active duty obligation. Later that year, we discovered how a new policy could skirt the law: by deferring the athlete’s commission until after his pro sports career rather than seeking a release from that obligation. That is the policy as it exists today.

May 14, 2021; Tampa Bay, Florida, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers corner back Chris Wilcox (29) and corner back Cameron Kinley (26) look on during rookie mini-camp at AdventHealth Training Center
May 14, 2021; Tampa Bay, Florida, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers corner back Chris Wilcox (29) and corner back Cameron Kinley (26) look on during rookie mini-camp at AdventHealth Training Center (© Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports)

There are several angles to consider here. There are practical implications to SECNAV's decision, both immediate and over the long term. There is the larger question of whether the current policy is a good one. Finally, there is also the individual case for the affected Navy athletes, Kinley in particular.

The history lesson on how we got here makes for tedious reading, but it is necessary to illustrate the nature of the issue. As the people who make the rules have constantly changed, so have the rules themselves. One would hope, then, that service academy coaches would be wise enough to avoid leaning too heavily on the prospect of a professional sporting career in their recruiting pitches. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. Navy’s coaches haven’t been as brazen as others in selling the NFL publicly, although it is naive to think that the subject doesn’t come up in their conversations with recruits.

It is reasonable, then, to believe that Harker’s decision could hurt Navy football recruiting. One of the Naval Academy's biggest advantages over the other service academies is the variety of service options after graduation. Generally speaking, anything you could do coming from the other academies, you can do from USNA. Want to fly jets? Sure. Helicopters? OK. Want to be a ground-pounder? No problem. Want to drive a ship? You can’t do that anywhere else. For those who are sold on the idea of military service but still unsure of what they want to do, the Naval Academy burns fewer bridges. Now, there is the notable exception of having a harder path to the NFL. Very few players have true NFL potential, but far more of them think they do. Keeping that door open, however unlikely, is a siren’s song that some won’t be able to resist.

Then again, dangling the NFL carrot in front of recruits is a double-edged sword. One could question the ethics of selling such an unlikely path to begin with, especially given how often the rules change — and they always change. Leaning too hard into pro sports on the recruiting trail also has the potential to hurt retention. Perhaps the essential element to recruiting and retention is getting buy-in from recruits on the school's mission and serving after graduation. The rigors of academy life become much easier to bear when you accept that it is the prelude to a world of opportunity and a rewarding career. Those with eyes on the NFL prize have not bought in; rather, they have been convinced that if they work hard enough, they can put off service for as long as possible, perhaps avoiding it altogether. On top of being the opposite of everything for which a service academy should stand, it will also create midshipmen and cadets who are less likely to stick around once they realize that there are easier paths to their real goals.

Some will argue that the risk is worth the reward or that the cost of letting players defer their service is low in comparison to the benefits. But what exactly is the reward? When considering this topic, it can be difficult to tune out the appeals to emotion; “let him follow his dreams” is a common refrain. However, the name of the school is not the U.S. Follow Your Dreams Academy. It is the U.S. Naval Academy, and it has a mission to accomplish. The Navy needs to realize any benefit from making these exceptions, and the argument along those lines is not a strong one.

Those who support service academy players immediately turning pro claim that doing so is a boon to public relations. But is it? Simple exposure is not the same thing as public relations. The idea that having a clean-cut guy saying nice things on TV once in a while is some PR goldmine is laughable. Indeed, it might even be counterproductive.

The supposed value of this “positive” exposure is to enhance recruiting efforts for the services. How are these players supposed to help recruiting? Players like Chad Hennings and Ali Villanueva have credibility because they actually served. They have a story to tell, and that story is not “let me put my service on hold while I take care of more important things.” That is why it makes no difference that the new policy is to defer a player’s commissioning for later service. Those who have priorities other than service are the wrong messengers if the policy's purpose is to show the public that service should be held in high esteem and encouraged. Actions speak louder than words; no matter what the clean-cut guy on TV says, his choices say something else.

Frankly, the whole premise of this debate is silly. What is so important about professional sports that exceptions should be made to accommodate them? Even if you think that there really are PR benefits from such a boondoggle, since when is positive PR a reason to skirt the mission of the school? It’s a self-licking ice cream cone. Of course, that’s the real motivation for most supporters of the policy. They want to make it easier for their favorite teams to recruit. That’s fine if you’re a coach whose job is to win games, but those responsible for the big picture should act accordingly.

It should also be noted that the current DOD policy absolutely violates the spirit of the law, and I’m not entirely convinced that it doesn’t violate the letter as well. Under Title 10, cadets and midshipmen, upon graduating, “will accept an appointment, if tendered, as a commissioned officer.” If such an appointment is not tendered, then cadets and midshipmen “will accept an appointment as a commissioned officer as a Reserve.” Under the current DOD policy, athletes immediately turning pro upon graduation are doing neither.

Finally, we have the specific case of Cameron Kinley. To be blunt, his conduct since SECNAV denied his petition has been shameful.

Kinley’s strategy, undoubtedly at the encouragement of his agent, has been to launch an all-out media assault on the Secretary’s decision. He has talked to anyone who will listen. The goal is simple: to generate a public backlash that will pressure SECNAV into changing his mind. That, or to plant a seed with the next Secretary of the Navy to revisit the decision once he takes office. To some extent, the strategy has been effective, with some prominent political figures even weighing in on the matter.

But at what cost? Kinley’s actions violate everything that the military expects from its officers regarding the chain of command and good order and discipline. For a boot ensign who hasn’t even left Annapolis to be conducting a national media campaign to criticize the lawful orders of the Secretary of the Navy is utterly unconscionable. Would this be tolerated if we were talking about any other issue? Why should this be thought of any differently? Never mind Navy football; Kinley’s actions reflect poorly on the Naval Academy as a whole. How can anyone observe all of this and not wonder what on earth is being taught at USNA that would lead a graduate to think this is acceptable? This goes far beyond the worst stereotype of ring-knocker entitlement.

Kinley is attempting to have his cake and eat it too. He tries to say the right things about still wanting to serve, but using media appearances to plead for a deferral says otherwise. Indeed, that’s how the media has seen the story. The irony of Kinley’s conduct is that it belies whatever interest in recruiting that he claims to have. Rather than service being held in high esteem, it is being treated as punishment. Graduation was not a celebration of the beginning of a new career, but the death of a dream. Service is not the natural expectation of a service academy graduate; it is a plight to be endured. Opportunists have even tried to make the situation about race, something that Kinley’s own agent has winked at, invoking Langston Hughes' Montage of a Dream Deferred. One cannot claim to have enormous potential as an ambassador for the Naval Service while simultaneously undermining it.

It is understandably frustrating, for athletes, fans, and coaches alike, that all service branches are not held to the same standard. I am sympathetic to the argument that they should be, if for no other reason than allowing service academy athletes to defer service is a bad idea for everyone. The changes to Title 10 were supposed to codify a uniform set of rules, and we should insist upon adherence to those rules. The Navy is in the right on this, and the other services should follow suit.

Service is not the backup plan at a service academy. It is the entire point.