The U.S. Naval Academy is its own kind of "Suitcase College." Midshipmen on the walled off campus are always looking for a way to escape — not the boredom, but the unending pressure.
One of the ways they can escape is to the home of a "sponsor family," residents in and around Annapolis who volunteer to be the home away from home for young men and women just looking for a nap, some TV time, a chance to call home and maybe some home cooking. A place away from Bancroft Hall and the Yard.
There are more than 2,100 sponsor families, and they all have to pass muster. They are required to report for training. There are rules. Lots of them. And the midshipman pays the price if they are violated.
At every training session for sponsor parents — and at the meeting for families of incoming plebes — the grown-ups are told: Under no circumstances should you rent a house for your mid and his friends or teammates to use, nor should you help him or her to do so.
These are the same rules that were in place when my husband and I were both sponsors and the parents of a midshipman a decade ago, and Capt. William Byrne, the Academy's commandant and a former Navy quarterback, reiterated the prohibition in a letter in August.
First-class midshipmen who are about to graduate are allowed to find and rent places to spend the summer if their training does not begin for several months. But underclassmen are not allowed to cross the threshold of unauthorized off-campus houses. The punishment can range from demerits to expulsion.
The alleged sexual misconduct at the center of this week's hearing involving three Naval Academy midshipmen took place at one of these houses. It was the football team house, referred to in testimony at the hearing as the "Black Pineapple." It is a nondescript split level located in the Rolling Hills community off of Generals Highway.
According to Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger, neighbors said the midshipmen were polite and the house and yard were well kept. One neighbor remembered that they went so far as to alert them that a "toga" party would be held one weekend.
It was at just such a party in April, 2012, when a woman midshipman says she got so drunk she can't remember if she had sex or who she had it with. The three men, football players at the time, face a possible court-marshal and prison time if convicted of sexually assaulting her.
Make no mistake. These safe houses are not places where midshipmen go on a Saturday night of liberty to watch ESPN and eat pizza. And they are not campus frat houses because there is no accountability for bad behavior unless, of course, neighbors complain to the Academy and they are found out.
Instead, they have been the scene of alcohol-fueled sexual misconduct that has ruined the careers of young men and women in the past and will again in the future.
The Naval Academy deploys midshipmen on "shore patrol" on weekends, to cruise the bars in downtown Annapolis and make sure there is no under-age drinking and to diffuse trouble. However, there is no system in place for uncovering these secret team houses, although any reports are investigated.
There is much talk about the explosive mix of young men and young women, at the peak of their sexual energy, in the pressure cooker of military life. About the chain of command and unit cohesiveness and self-policing. The problem of sexual predation in the military has reached the halls of Congress where that body is threatening to take the prosecution of the accused out of the hands of commanders.
In the meantime, the Naval Academy must find these team houses. Grant amnesty if you have to. Call the National Security Administration for help on the phones if you need it. Call in SEAL Team 6.
Or ask the assistant coaches or the officer or faculty representatives assigned to mentor the sports teams. If they can't ferret out this information they aren't doing their jobs.
Find the houses where these kids are in danger of ruining their careers and perhaps their lives, and shut them down.