Military policy toward athletes turning pro depends on who's giving the orders
By WILL HOBSON | The Washington Post | Published: May 5, 2017
Last May, at the Naval Academy's graduation, then-Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced in dramatic fashion that normal military service would not prevent star quarterback Keenan Reynolds, drafted weeks before by the Baltimore Ravens, from trying to make it in the NFL right away.
"Keenan ... you are cleared and approved to defer your service so you can pursue your NFL dreams," Carter said, bringing cheers from the crowd at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. "Go get 'em."
Carter's words reflected the Defense Department's enaction last May of its most generous policy ever toward athletes with shots at professional sports careers: While a free military academy education usually requires five years of active duty, Reynolds and a few others were allowed to fulfill their commitments in the reserves. Before Reynolds, elite athletes have been released intermittently from active duty after two years, a deal known in military circles as "the David Robinson model."
But last week — as two Air Force seniors watched the NFL draft hoping to hear their names called while an Air Force pitcher and an Army goalie prepared to pursue pro careers after graduation — the Defense Department pulled an about-face, adding a new chapter to the U.S. military's history of flip-flopping on pro athletes. In a memo signed April 29, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis wrote the academies exist to "enhance the readiness and lethality" of the military and that graduates will serve a minimum of two years of active duty.
Fielding teams at the top tier of college sports — most prominently, football — has long been a point of pride for Army, Navy and Air Force, but over the past several decades, officials overseeing the academies have responded in starkly different ways when the pros have come calling.
A Defense Department spokesman said the latest policy change does not apply retroactively, so Reynolds, a wide receiver on the Ravens' practice squad, will not be affected. Neither will others who benefitted last year: Reynolds's teammate Chris Swain, a fullback on the New York Jets' practice squad; and Joseph Greenspan, a 2015 Navy graduate who shifted from active duty to reserves to play for Major League Soccer's Colorado Rapids.
Pro prospects in the class of 2017 are still trying to determine if there's any wiggle room in the new policy. Air Force wide receiver Jalen Robinette, expected to be a middle-round selection in the NFL draft, went undrafted as word of the policy change circulated, as did teammate Weston Steelhammer, a safety who had hoped to hear his name called in the later rounds.
Robinette did not reply to a request to comment. Steelhammer's agent, Peter Schaffer, said he's trying to negotiate a compromise with the Air Force.
"I'm not giving up, nor am I blinded by the competing issues," Schaffer said. "I understand, as does Weston, that he voluntarily enlisted at the academy. ... He's not trying to get over on anybody."
Air Force officials declined to comment, other than to send a statement about Robinette that also mentions another athlete apparently affected by the new policy — to the surprise of the MLB team that signed him last year.
"Jalen Robinette and Griffin Jax look forward to graduation and commissioning in May ... and should have an opportunity to pursue their professional athletic goals after serving two years as officers in the Air Force," the academy said.
Jax, a lanky right-hander with a 95-mile-per-hour fastball, gave up his college baseball eligibility last year when he signed a $645,000 contract with the Twins, who drafted him last June. Jax spent last summer pitching for Minnesota's rookie league affiliate in Tennessee before returning to Air Force for his senior year.
Jax did not reply to requests to comment. Last year, Twins officials said they expected Jax, like Reynolds, would serve only in the reserves.
"We did our homework on this," Twins scouting director Deron Johnson told MLB.com.
While Air Force officials were unequivocal Jax has to serve two years, Twins spokesman Dustin Morse said the club is "still gathering information."
"Obviously we're going to support Griffin Jax and his commitment in any way we can," Morse said.
Army cadet Parker Gahagen faces similar uncertainty. One of the best goalies in college ice hockey last year, Gahagen signed an amateur tryout contract with the San Jose Sharks in March. Mike Wulkan, Gahagen's agent, said he's trying to determine if the new policy applies to his client, but Gahagen will fulfill whatever service requirement Army officials determine he owes.
Before the 1980s, the policy was simple: Everyone filled active duty requirements. When Army Heisman Trophy winners fullback Doc Blanchard and halfback Glenn Davis asked for deferments in the late 1940s so they could play in the NFL, they were denied. Blanchard never played professionally, instead opting for a military career, while Davis played briefly in the 1950s.
Legendary Navy quarterback Roger Staubach had to serve four years, including a tour in Vietnam, before starting his Hall of Fame career with the Dallas Cowboys, and Navy wide receiver Phil McConkey served five years before breaking into the NFL with the New York Giants in 1984 as a 27-year-old rookie.
The military's inflexibility broke in 1986, when Navy Secretary John Lehman saw the public relations promise of allowing recently graduated Navy running back Napoleon McCallum to suit up for the L.A. Raiders. Senior Navy leadership approved stationing McCallum on the U.S.S. Peleliu, in Long Beach, where he worked as a food supply officer every day from 5:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. before heading off to football practice.
In 1987, Lehman announced that star Navy basketball player David Robinson — who had grown from 6-feet-8 to 7-1 while at the academy — was too tall for active duty service on most ships, and would serve a specialized two-year stint before being able to play in the NBA. Later that year, however, Jim Webb took over as Navy Secretary.
Webb, a decorated Marine who had served in Vietnam, revoked McCallum's arrangement and considered forcing Robinson to serve five years. After talking with Robinson, though, Webb concluded Navy officials had promised reduced service to convince Robinson to stay after his sophomore year — when he could have transferred and avoided any service requirement — and thus honored the two-year offer.
The Robinson deal set a precedent, but not a guarantee.
"It really comes down to who's in charge, what's the public sentiment, and is there a war going on," said Bob Kuberski, a 1993 Navy graduate whose request for a deferment was denied the day he was drafted by the Green Bay Packers. Kuberski, a defensive lineman, said he offered to serve two years for every one year the Navy let him play in the NFL.
"I figured, I can be an admiral when I'm 60, but I can't play in the NFL when I'm 60," said Kuberski, who served close to three years before earning an honorable discharge, and eventually played five years in the NFL with the Packers and the New England Patriots.
In the 2000s, the academies gradually started offering the two-year Robinson deal to more players. Then, in 2005, Army crafted an "Alternative Service Option" program that would allow select athletes to go pro right away. The program didn't last long.
In 2008, as the Navy cited the war in Afghanistan when it told Midshipmen pitcher and St. Louis Cardinals draft pick Mitch Harris he needed to serve five years, Army drew criticism for allowing safety Caleb Campbell to go straight from West Point to the Detroit Lions. The day Campbell was supposed to sign his rookie contract, Army rescinded the deal. After two years of active duty, Campbell had brief stints on the practice squads for the Kansas City Chiefs and Indianapolis Colts, but never made an active roster.
The Defense Department's latest policy shift drew praise from Tom Slear, a 1973 graduate of West Point who has criticized the deals offered pro athletes as boondoggles, wasting educations paid for with public money. Slear, 65, is a retired Army lieutenant colonel who also covered service academy football as a journalist for years, and can recite from memory the career details of academy athletes who left active service early.
"The collective mentality is we are here to serve, and when this stuff happens, that gets chipped away," Slear said. "Then you begin to wonder, why have the academies?"
Kuberski and others have suggested a military-wide policy that allows athletes to serve after their sports careers. He concedes, though, any new policy lasts only as long as the person signing it is in charge.
"It all comes down to politics," Kuberski said. "Policies can always change."