Acting Navy secretary reiterates opposition to Navy graduates pursuing pro sports
WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — In an appearance before Congress on Tuesday, acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas W. Harker defended his decision to deny requests from two recent Naval Academy graduates to pursue professional sports.
Former Navy football player Cameron Kinley and former Navy baseball player Charlie Connolly were told three days before graduation they must commission as ensigns and begin serving immediately.
Kinley, who was under contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and performed well at a recent rookie-free agent mini-camp, was the subject of considerable media attention after the news broke. He and Connolly had hoped to take advantage of an existing Department of Defense policy that allows service academy graduates to pursue professional sports.
Kinley applied for a waiver to delay his active-duty service commitment after signing as a non-drafted free agent with Tampa Bay. Harker denied the request and ordered Kinley to be commissioned as an ensign assigned to serve as an intelligence officer.
The Tennessee native will serve on temporary assignment duty at the academy until October then report to the Navy and Marine Corps Intelligence Training Center in Dam Neck, Virginia.
Kinley was denied the opportunity to try out for the NFL even though four other recent service academy graduates that also signed as non-drafted free agents are being allowed to do so.
Former Army linebacker Jon Rhattigan (Seattle Seahawks) along with three former Air Force players — offensive linemen Parker Ferguson (New York Jets) and Nolan Laufenberg (Denver Broncos) as well as defensive lineman George Silvanic (Los Angeles Rams) — have been approved for the pro sports option.
Kinley's case has become a cause célèbre and his story has been told by numerous national media outlets. He appeared on the Dan Patrick Show and also was interviewed by CNN and ESPN.
A columnist with Deadspin opined that denying Kinley — a Black man — the opportunity to pursue pro football while permitting four white players to do so was racist.
Following a week of questions, criticism and backlash, Harker reiterated his belief that Naval Academy graduates should not be playing professional sports before serving their full five-year military commitment.
Harker told Congress he reviewed the requests from Kinley and Connolly then consulted with Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday and Commandant of the Marine Corps General David Berger.
"I looked at this case. I looked at the significant investment the taxpayers make in every midshipman and our expectation and their expectation is that midshipmen will graduate and be commissioned with the Navy and the Marine Corps," Harker said.
Harker pointed out that former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, the most famous football player in Naval Academy history, served his full commitment. Staubach, a member of the Class of 1965, served four years in the supply corps with a one-year tour of duty in Vietnam. He is a member of both the college and pro football halls of fame.
David Robinson, who played for the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA from 1989 to 2003, was among many Naval Academy graduates permitted to pursue pro sports after serving two years of active duty. Robinson, a 1987 graduate, served two years in the civil engineering corps at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia.
In 2019, former President Donald Trump publicly endorsed the Department of Defense policy pertaining to service academy graduates seeking to participate in pro sports, outlined in "Directive-Type Memorandum 19-011." Record-setting former Navy quarterback Malcolm Perry became the first service academy graduate to benefit from that new policy. Perry was selected in the seventh round of the 2020 NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins and made the 53-man roster as a wide receiver.
Because he had been drafted by a professional sports organization, Perry received a diploma during Naval Academy graduation but did not commission as an officer. His request to delay active-duty service was officially approved by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in early June and he subsequently signed a contract with the Dolphins.
Pentagon spokeswoman Lisa Lawrence issued a statement last week making it clear the decision to approve or deny an academy graduate's request to pursue pro sports lies with the secretaries of each branch of service.
"Under existing guidance, each Service Secretary concerned has the ability to determine what process and factors they will consider in advancing athlete requests to the Secretary of Defense," Lawrence wrote in the statement. "We defer all questions regarding that process to the Service concerned."
Rep. Austin Scott (R-Georgia) said during Tuesday's hearing that he did not understand why Kinley was denied a waiver while four other recent service academy graduates were granted one. Scott urged Harker to allow Kinley to appeal and vowed to discuss the case with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
"I don't know if it's right or wrong, but I do know there should be a uniform standard," Austin said Tuesday. "If it is an accommodation that is going to be granted to West Point and Air Force Academy grads, it should be an accommodation for Naval Academy grads."
Kinley remains under contract with the Buccaneers for now and it is unclear if he would be allowed to use leave time to attend summer training camp or other organized team activities. The Buccaneers issued a statement shortly after learning Kinley's request to play pro football had been denied.
"Cameron Kinley is an exceptional young man and a shining example of the type of high-character individuals that make up our nation's military — the most elite in the world. We appreciate and support the United States Naval Academy's position with regards to Cameron's fulfillment of his post-graduate service commitment and remain hopeful that he will one day have an opportunity to fulfill his dreams of playing professional football," the Tampa Bay statement read.
Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians said Kinley would be welcome at training camp if allowed to attend.
"I would love to have him back because I thought he showed promising signs when he was here," Arians said.
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden announced Friday he was nominating Carlos Del Toro to be the next Secretary of the Navy. If confirmed, Del Toro would become the second Latino to serve in the position.
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