The Pentagon Is Making it Tougher for Academy Athletes to Go Pro

The Pentagon Is Making it Tougher for Academy Athletes to Go Pro
Jalen Robinette, left, and Keenan Reynolds, right, both played football for the service academies.

By Mandy Howard

A 2016 DoD memo eased the road to professional sports by allowing officer-athletes to serve in a reserve capacity immediately upon graduation from a service academy, assuming a professional sports binding contract was secured. The policy, however, was short-lived.

On April 29, 2017, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis signed a second memo to cancel the 2016 memo. Two years of nonnegotiable active duty service now are required before a deferment for professional sports can be considered.

Record-holding former Midshipman Keenan Reynolds graduated the Naval Academy the year before Mattis' 2017 memo and entered the NFL draft right after he graduated. He was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in the sixth round, bringing scores of headlines praising the relaxed policy. For Reynolds, though, it was simply a different way he felt he could serve and represent the Naval Academy.

“I was really surprised because I didn't come to the Naval Academy to play in the NFL,” Reynolds says. “I knew what the rule was when I first enrolled, so upon hearing that I'd be able to do both, I was just really happy and really thankful that I was given that opportunity. I also understood that it was a responsibility to make sure I represented the military and the Navy well and also that I was on top of all the things required of me as a reserve officer.”

Reynolds is currently with the Redskins and assigned as a cryptologic warfare officer. “It really is a blessing that I was able to fall in that pocket of opportunity,” he says. “One year later or earlier, that may not have been the case.”

Jalen Robinette is the Air Force Academy Falcons' all-time leading receiver. Prior to graduating, he had been considered a strong potential for immediate entry for the NFL draft. Mattis' new memo - rendering Robinette ineligible for the 2017 draft - was signed on the last day of the 2017 NFL draft, held April 27-29.

Afterward, Robinette told The Denver Post, “I felt a lot of things. … Part of me wanted to be angry, a part of me wanted to be sad, but a big part of me understood that I came to the academy and I know what I signed up for. It's to do something that's bigger than me, bigger than football.”

In September 2017, The Denver Post reported Robinette was serving his active duty requirement at Nellis AFB, Nev. Under Mattis' current ruling, he would be eligible to join the NFL in 2019.

Students at the U.S. Naval Academy, U.S. Military Academy, and Air Force Academy, all funded through DoD (the U.S. Coast Guard Academy is funded through DHS) agree to five years' active military service in return for the taxpayer-funded training and education they receive. The estimated cost for a service academy education is $400,000.

Over the years, the academies have produced some exceptional athletes. Several have succeeded at their professional sport after fulfilling part of their service requirement.

Professional stars

NFL Hall of Famer Roger Staubach is one of the most notable academy graduates to turn professional football player. Staubach played 11 seasons for the Dallas Cowboys, leading the team to two Super Bowl victories. He did so after serving four years of active duty service, two of which were served in Vietnam prior to the end of the Vietnam War.

Staubach credits the academy and his service for his success in life.

“There's no question that being in the service is a tremendous asset to whatever you do for the rest of your life as far as being able to appreciate teamwork, hard work, and perseverance,” Staubach says. “I felt I was very fortunate. I'd go back and do it again in a second as far as being in the service before I played football.”

“When I came out of college, I felt I could play professionally. And I thought, after four years, I'm probably more mature. I think I was a little stronger, too,” Staubach says. “I had the confidence that I could play, or I wouldn't have got out. I would've stayed in the service if I didn't have a chance to play football. I really like the service. I liked everything about it and made a lot of great relationships there.”

Chad Hennings, a 1988 graduate of the Air Force Academy and Dallas Cowboys draft pick the same year, admits he was torn about military service over his professional career.

“When I graduated from the academy knowing I had been drafted by the Cowboys, I felt inner turmoil between my head, knowing that fulfilling my commitment was the most important thing, and my heart, knowing that I wanted to compete at the next level in the NFL,” Hennings says.

Hennings' initial active duty commitment was eight years because he was a pilot. However, after serving four years and flying 45 combat sorties over Iraq, force reductions allowed Hennings to move to the reserves. He won three Super Bowls with the Cowboys between 1992 and 1996. He remained in the Air Force Reserve individual mobilization augmentee program throughout his professional career.

The political debate

After Mattis' memo, debate continued in Congress. An early version of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2018 included a provision intensifying the commitment expectation for officer athletes, enforcing the five-year active commitment for all graduates.

Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Florida argued against the provision, saying in part it “would make it nearly impossible for graduates of the military service academies to play professional football, basketball, or any other sport.”

Sen. John McCain of Arizona led an effort to ease the requirements on officer-athletes, arguing for a return to the 2016 memo. McCain and his former legislative fellow, retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Joe Ruzicka, argued last year there were more options available, including deferring active service until after a professional sports contract is fulfilled.

Ruzicka added that with this option, athletes who think they have a potential professional career will attend service academies, increasing the institutions' athletic competitiveness and positively affecting service recruiting overall.

On the other hand, retired Army Lt. Tom Slear argued in a Washington Post editorial, service academies “exist to instill young men and women with a mindset of selfless service to the country. There is no other justification for the significant public expense that supports them.”

Mattis' memo states: “The Military Service Academies or Senior Reserve Officers' Training Corps programs exist to develop future officers who enhance the readiness and lethality of our Military Services. During the first two years following graduation, officers will serve as full-fledged military officers carrying out their normal work and career expectations of an officer who has received the extraordinary benefits of an ROTC or military academy education at taxpayer expense.”

Mandy Howard is a freelance writer based in Raleigh, N.C. Her last article for MOAA was “Service Academy Grads in Super Bowl LI,”, January 2017.

This article first appeared in the April 2017 issue of Military Officer.