Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Army got it right

A little over two years ago, I wrote a post titled, “Go Army! Beat Someone!” The point of the post was to encourage the military academies to grant exceptions to graduates who had the opportunity to play football professionally. Although a number of benefits exist for such a change, the one that I was particularly advocating in that post was an improved football program. The once legendary athletic prowess of the academies (Army and Navy initially and Air Force much later) had turned to levels bordering embarrassing over the last few decades. Talented high school athletes no longer had any reason to even consider the academies as an option for school since it would mean a mandatory five-year commitment in the military and—even worse—five years of athletic prime down the drain. The academies have shown no interest in moving down to a lower division where they would be on a level playing field talent-wise with other schools that have recruiting handicaps. They have chosen to continue to attempt to compete with other D-1 schools that don’t require military commitments. The results are seasons like Army going 0-13 in 2003. Air Force and Navy have had some success but both programs have very defined ceilings and rely totally on deception to compete. Even when Navy was at its pinnacle over the last few years under Paul Johnson, losing to I-AA opponents was not only a possibility but a reality.

I respect the athletes at the academies immensely. The grueling academy-coursework is demanding enough as it is. Trying to fit that same coursework into college football preparation means very little free time, if any. Their lives are more stringent than most can imagine. That aside, it doesn’t make sense for the academies to pretend they’re football programs are good enough to compete with teams they’re not good enough to compete with. So, something about its culture needed to change. The options for change were to either drop down a division, or allow athletes to play professionally immediately upon graduation. I don’t think the first option is a realistic consideration at this point for pride and morale purposes. So, option #2 seemed like the best choice. Questions like—would it be fair to other cadets who don’t play a sport, and, would there be some sort or reserve commitment incurred?—would need to be answered but dealing with those issues would be better than keeping things the way they were.

Well, West Point finally adopted such a plan. The new “alternative service option program” allows academy graduates to play professionally in exchange for two concessions. First, the athlete must act as a recruiter for the military for the first two years of the program. Then, if a continued athletic career is an option, the athlete can buy out of the remaining three years of the initial commitment by agreeing to six years of reserve duty. I’m sure there are a multitude of reasons why West Point has implemented this plan but the primary principals involve making it easier to build a winning football program and to capitalize on the notoriety of West Point alums in the NFL for military recruiting gains. I don’t think this program will start to attract top 100 high school talent but there will surely be an increase in the caliber of player willing to attend West Point. If you can make the NFL, you are free to go. If you can’t, you’ll have a first-rate education and a fantastic career waiting for you. That is a much sexier recruiting pitch than, “come to West Point where you’ll never play in the NFL even if you get drafted.”

This policy looked like a winner on Draft Day when the Lions selected Army’s Caleb Campbell in the 7th round making him the first Army football player to take advantage of West Point’s new policy. Matt Millen was praised for the selection by more than a few editorials. However, it hasn’t been a winner in a number of forums, military and non-military alike. Resentment for “favoring athletes” is commonplace amongst the academy student-bodies. Football players are essentially sequestered from the rest of the student-population at the academies causing some mixed feelings about “special treatment” for athletes. So, it is no surprise that a number of alums feel burned by this policy. The policy is being viewed by many as “weaseling out of service to country.” It is true that West Point, Annapolis, and the Air Force Academy are not breeding grounds for football players. Those schools are meant to produce officers. That is the goal. However, it is also true that those schools should not be playing D-1 football. If they are going to continue to play D-1 football, then embarrassing seasons that result in zero wins need to stop. Those sorts of seasons are not good for anyone—especially an institution as proud and talented as West Point. So, before anyone starts bashing individuals—i.e. Caleb Campbell—for doing absolutely nothing wrong, it would be kosher to ask why the military academies continue to play D-1 football.

The number of idiots who have attacked Campbell’s patriotism over the last week is mind-numbing. You’ll find Campbell-bashing going on in military forums, local opinion columns, and in the comment-section of ESPN.com articles. One of the arguments for attacking both Campbell and the policy go something like, “it’s not fair that a football player at West Point gets an exemption but a talented artist at West Point does not”. What people are failing to realize—or admit rather—is that there is a huge difference between professional athletic aspirations and virtually every other career. Professional sports are age-sensitive professions. Most athletes are done by the age of 30. Requiring an officer to serve a five-year commitment before moving on to a professional athletic career means the average academy-graduate wouldn’t start a professional career until the age of 27. That service-time cuts an athletic career in half. Add on to that the fact that it’s nearly impossible to mimic the peak athletic condition that is required to play in the NFL for five years while at a military post and not having an exemption essentially eliminates an athletic career for anyone who could have had such a career. Artists and the like do not have such age constraints. How fair is that for the athletes? Honestly, arguments of this nature are among the classier that you’ll find. After that, it gets downright ridiculous.

The opposing viewpoint is riddled with ignorance and hypocrisy. Most people don’t know this—and if you have never been connected to a service academy there would be no reason for you to know this—but cadets are allowed to leave the military academies after two years without having to honor any military service or incurring any penalties. Why aren’t the people who walk away after two years not labeled “cowards trying to weasel their way out of military service” like Campbell has been? Why is it OK for Anthony Schlegel to play two years at Air Force and then transfer to Ohio St. and play professionally with no penalty, yet it’s not OK for a four-year academy-athlete to do the same? Do those two years really make that big of a difference between being patriotic and not patriotic?

There are all sorts or ridiculous arguments being bandied about like questioning the use of taxpayer money. Since cadets receive a $500,000 education for free in exchange for five-year military commitments, some say that taxpayer money is wasted if a cadet doesn’t end up paying back the money with a five-year commitment. What about the money spent on all of the cadets who leave after two years free and clear of any obligation? Why isn’t anyone leading a campaign against taxpayer money wasted by that policy? Also, who says those two years as a high-profile recruiter and six years in the reserves aren't worth the $500,000 education? The military says it is and I don’t think there is anyone who can effectively argue that it isn’t. Don't forget that Campbell will be required to buy out his final three years of active duty while still serving in the reserves.

Other arguments question the effectiveness of Campbell as a recruiter since he was exempted from his military-commitment as if he were so some sort of a draft-dodger. Again, Campbell has two years of an active-duty committment and a six year commitment as a reserve. Just because he isn't serving in Iraq (and trust me, reserve units--the same kind of unit that Campbell will have his six-year commitment in--were much more likely to have served in Iraq than not) doesn't diminish the fact that he is, in fact, a soldier. If not fighting in a war diminishes service to country, then every member of the armed forces in the 80s should be equally discredited since there were no major military conflicts. To minimize the effectiveness of Caleb Campbell as a recruiting tool to the military is to use highly unintelligible reasoning. Campbell can do so much more for the military as a recruiter than he could have ever done as one person on the battlefield. Campbell prepared for four long years at West Point to be a leader of men in battle. He didn’t slack. After four years of going to school and playing football, it became apparent that he might be good enough to play professionally. For him to be able to preach to similarly-minded high-schoolers that an athletic career and a military career can co-exist—that you’re either going to play in the NFL or get the best education in America by signing on at an academy—is a huge recruiting tool for the military. That’s just the effect that he’ll have on high school athletes considering the academies. His effect on the recruitment of enlisted soldiers will be substantial as well. Campbell is likely in the 99th percentile in a multitude of categories among soldiers. He is exactly the kind of person you want introducing the military to prospective recruits.

It's also disheartening to see the sheer number of idiots who speak as if Campbell hasn't dedicated his life to the military. Four years at a military academy are more intense than most could possibly imagine. It is four years of an in-your-face, military-centered, education. People who enter the military via an academy have already dedicated more of their lives to their country than the vast majority of the popluation--and that's before they are even recognized as official members of the U.S. Armed Forces. Campbell has already done more in the name of "duty" than a moron like Bill Simonson will ever do. Then there's the fact that Campbell will be an active-duty member in the military which is something that idiots like Simonson strategically neglect to mention. Campbell's calling as a soldier will be different--but no less important--than every other American soldier. To pretend it isn't is to be foolish.

There are certainly fairness issues that need to be addressed. For instance, I can envision a situation where NFL teams draft newly-commissioned officers over other qualified athletes as a “favor”. The positive praise that Matt Millen received for drafting Campbell in the 7th round will only encourage other NFL franchises to do the same. It’s good publicity. A 7th-round pick is often a throw-away pick anyway so why not make the best of it with a good-publicity pick? Millen’s son played with Campbell on the West Point football team. Millen claims that didn’t influence his decision to take Campbell but that isn’t believable in the slightest. The odds that it was purely a coincidence that Campbell would be drafted by the only franchise in the NFL with a GM whose son played with Campbell at West Point are slim at best. There is no question that Millen’s familiarity with Campbell via his son had at least a minimal impact on his decision to draft him. Now, Campbell was graded as a late-round draft pick. I don’t think the Lions did anything wrong by drafting him. In fact, I think it was a great move for all parties. However, it is easy to envision a similar situation where a player in Campbell’s position who wasn’t graded as a late-round pick might get drafted and thrown on special teams for five years to “save” a player from military service. I can even see an NFL franchise favoring an academy-alum for the wrong reasons subconsciously. Another "fairness" issue that needs to be addressed is the fact that Navy and Air Force graduates are not afforded the same policy.

There are two ways of looking at the benefits of this policy. The easiest and most obvious is that it benefits the football program. It makes it easier to attract more skilled athletes. However, I think the most important benefit is fairness. To deny an NFL-career because of inflexibility is obtuse. It doesn’t make sense. It’s simply not fair. This policy doesn’t reward as much as it prevents punishment. There is no reason that a cadet capable of being a professional athlete should be punished by having their professional aspirations destroyed. The opposing viewpoint is mostly fueled by ignorance and jealousy. The only acceptable opposing viewpoint is to argue that the academies should not recruit any athletes because its purpose is not to produce professional athletes rather it is to produce officers. That would mean a reduction to D-2 status and the marginalization of all academy-athletic programs. To be honest, that’s not a terrible argument. But, nobody ever argues for that. Finally, I’d like to welcome Caleb Campbell to Detroit and wish him a successful NFL career. He has earned the opportunity.

I want to dedicate this post to a friend who was recently killed in a car accident that also claimed the life of her two year old son. Carrie Pedersen was a Major in the Air Force and a graduate of the Air Force Academy. We were classmates in the same graduate program in Germany. This post reminded me of her.

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