Debate: Should Service Academy Athletes go directly to pros

I’ve covered the Army football beat since 2007 and have written multiple times on the interpretation and the policy for service-academy athletes to pursue professional sports.

Thought the policy put in place last summer was across the board the fairest for Army, Navy and Air Force. Athletes were permitted, as Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds did, to go directly into the pros and defer their service time or serve in the Ready Reserves. I’m told Air Force opted for its athletes to defer service. While, Army and Navy chose the Ready Reserve option. Mind you, each athlete’s request is on a case-by-case basis.

When Air Force released a statement during the NFL draft over the weekend saying its athletes would have to serve two years of active duty before requesting their release to turn pro, change was in the air. No pun intended.

Sure enough, Monday, with the Air Force football team in nation’s capital, Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced the policy was returning to a previous status of the two-year active-duty commitment before pursuing pro sports.

Posted a Twitter poll Wednesday on the debate, 74 percent of the 302 voters believe service-academy athletes should be allowed to go directly to the pros, 18 percent said athletes should serve 2 years of active duty and 8 percent said athlete should fulfill their five-year military commitment before turning pro.

Received some opinions/views from my column that I wanted to share.

Here are readers’ takes:

“Each sport is so diverse and each has a different “feeder” system so each must be treated differently. Current DOD policy was for football only.”

“Only real and fair solution is for the DOD policy to allow them to play pro sports upon graduation with the legalized understanding that once they no longer meet an agreed upon requirement, whether it be making a roster, a tour card, a U.S. team), they serve their 5-year commitment without any buyouts or trade offs.”

“Missions of the service academies are to train officers, not to produce professional athletes.”

“Our recruiting efforts and subsequent national athletic recognition are being dealt a, “DEATH BLOW,” by this reversal of the recent DOD policy in the ever-increasing competitive college athletics environment. The DOD is establishing a recruiting ceiling, telling our coaches not to pursue the, “potential pro level” high school athletes. Our opponents Ohio State, Michigan and Oklahoma will NOT be telling their coaches such a message. Perhaps, we should offer the SecDefense and his entourage 50-yard seats at these games over the next three seasons. Maybe, then he might feel as Martin Dempsey did when he told Bob Caslen at one of our earlier gridiron failures, “Our cadets and the Corps deserve better!” A shot at a level playing field is all our athletes have ever asked. Now, we limit our recruiting by these arbitrary, poorly-informed DOD decisions. Imagine telling the Dean not to pursue and recruit our top high school scholars! Do away with the Rhodes scholarships for two years after graduation, no more Marshall scholarships, no more med-school opportunities…Newsflash to the SecDefense, some great high school athletes have very little interest in pursuing a “pro career” as an athlete. Injury and opportunity often limit these careers to just a few unpredictable years. The loss of these students in considering a West Point education severely weakens out West Point graduate program and product.” – Former Army football player

“It’s not like there’s hundreds of students who are “skipping out” on serving their country.  It’s only a few service academy students each year who have the God-given talent and the ability and chance to live out a dream.  Let these gifted kids do just that and take a shot at a dream!”

“The critics of allowing these very few athletes to participate upon graduation may not be aware that in today’s world of athletics, academy athletes are not the “blue chip” stars coming out of high school. Rather they distinguish themselves through their incredible resolve to improve their skill level during their tenure at the academy, which if recognized in light of their academy responsibilities, is to be applauded not demonized…A typical graduating class would number approximately 800-850 cadets. If by some miracle, four cadet-athletes were to be offered professional contracts in any of the major sports, we are talking about fewer than a half  of one percent of the prospective officer population per class. And even those potentially involved should be made to eventually serve our country in some capacity (militarily or socially) or pay the government for a significant portion of their “tuition” costs.
Therefore, I say let them pursue the dreams that they have worked so hard to obtain. Isn’t that what this country has always stood for?” – 1966 West Point graduate

“For the few that get the opportunity, let them go. Fewer will even make it. If they do make it, deferred commitment. If they make it permanently, then pay back the academy for the four years!”

“I would arrange for them to be in a branch that has a short Basic Officers Course after graduation so they can transition directly into the pros, but require them to serve their obligation in the Ready Reserve for a more extended period of time.”

“Yes, I think service academy athletes should be allowed to go pro immediately after graduation.  I also think they need to meet a significant service obligation where they would serve, let’s say, in the reserves during the offseason for up to ten years or so.  It seems to me the greatest return such athletes could make to the military would be to serve in the areas of recruiting and public relations for the armed services, their branch of service, their academy and their academy’s athletic teams.  Think of what value someone such as a Roger Staubach or David Robinson would add in such a role.  While few academy athletes would ever reach the pros, let alone the level of a Staubach or Robinson, any athlete good enough to go pro in their sport could be a quality ambassador that our armed services could significantly benefit from.” – 1979 West Point graduate

“The old grads will say: “Damn right, they owe the nation a 5-year military service commitments.”  The younger grads would probably gravitate towards letting the truly gifted athletes turn pro upon graduation…those are the two extremes.  So the best solution would be a compromise that would not make either side happy but perhaps more acceptable to both sides because it’s not an “all or nothing” solution, and that would be a 2-year commitment following graduation.  To the old grads, they’re not getting their “5″, but two years is better than none at all.  And to those who favor immediate entry into the pros, there should be some satisfaction in knowing that because these are truly gifted athletes a two-year delay should not be much of a problem to overcome -not for the “truly gifted” which are the quality of athletes that we’re talking about.”

“We’ve allowed athletes in various sports to pursue their dreams while on active duty through the “World Class Athlete Program” for decades.  Most of these athletes pursue “Olympic” type sports, such as running, boxing, swimming, rifle/pistol.  From what I understand, their full-time job while in this program is to train, practice and compete in their designated sport…and represent the Army when they compete.  I don’t understand what the difference is for someone drafted to play pro football, baseball or any other pro sport.  Why not let the few each year that could do that be part of the World Class Athlete Program with “duty” on the roster of whatever team drafted them?  If it’s OK for a runner and swimmer to do it, why not a football player?”

“It seems to me that a good compromise would be to allow cadets that have the opportunity to play professional sports to pursue those sports careers immediately following graduation with the understanding that they will complete their five-year active service obligation when the professional career is complete. Plenty of people join the Army in their late 20′s/early 30′s which is when most professional sports careers end. It may even provide the Army with better officers that have more life experiences. This would be a win-win for the military, the academies, and the cadets.” – 1997 West Point graduate

Let’s keep this debate going. Email your opinion to and I’ll post it on this blog entry.

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    Sal Interdonato

    Award-winning writer Sal Interdonato has been on the Army football beat since 2007. He'll take you inside the huddle and into the lives of the Black Knights. Read Full
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