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Sen. Marco Rubio takes up cause of former Navy football player Cameron Kinley

Vice President Kamala Harris accepts a gift from Cameron Kinley, class president, during the Graduation and Commissioning Ceremony for the United States Naval Academy's Class of 2021 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Friday, May 28, 2021.
Vice President Kamala Harris accepts a gift from Cameron Kinley, class president, during the Graduation and Commissioning Ceremony for the United States Naval Academy's Class of 2021 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Friday, May 28, 2021. (Brian Krista/Capital Gazette)

United States Sen. Marco Rubio has taken up the cause of former Navy football player Cameron Kinley.

Rubio, a Republican representing Florida, sent a letter to President Joe Biden requesting the White House review Kinley’s request to delay his military service to pursue a professional football career. The Tampa Bay Times first reported the news on Monday.

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Kinley signed as an undrafted free agent with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on May 2, one day after the 2021 NFL Draft. The 6-foot-2, 204-pound cornerback was permitted to attend Tampa Bay’s Rookie-Free Agent Mini-Camp a few weekends later and performed well.

Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas W. Harker put an abrupt end to Kinley’s dream of making the NFL by declining to forward his request to delay his five-year military commitment to the Secretary of Defense.

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“I implore you to right this wrong. Grant Mr. Kinley’s waiver to play in the NFL and send a message to future academy graduates that the United States is a country where Americans can follow their dreams and be true to their commitment,” Rubio wrote in the letter, full text of which can be found here.

Rubio opened the letter by stating he was writing Biden, as Commander-in-Chief, on an issue of “great unfairness.” He referenced the professional sports policy enacted during the administration of former president Donald Trump and pointed out that four other recent service academy graduates have been approved to try out for NFL teams.

“Previous administrations have enacted policies that would allow athletes from the Navy, Air Force and Army academies to delay their commissions to live out their dreams of playing a professional sport,” Rubio wrote. “In fact, just this year, it has been reported that four other academy graduates did receive a waiver to play in the National Football League. These athletes serve as incredible role models for our youth — service members who share a love of country on and off the field.”

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) — also signed as undrafted free agents.

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Last week, Pentagon spokeswoman Lisa Lawrence issued a statement 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.”

Harker told the House Armed Services he reviewed the requests from Kinley and Connolly then consulted with Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday and Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. 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 midshipman will graduate and be commissioned with the Navy and the Marine Corps,” Harker said.

Rep. Austin Scott (R-Georgia) said during last 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 and Connolly were informed three days before Naval Academy graduation that they must commission as ensigns and begin serving immediately.

Kinley will serve on temporary assignment duty at the Naval Academy until October then report to the Navy and Marine Corps Intelligence Training Center in Dam Neck, Virginia.

Rubio, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for president in 2016, stated in his letter to Biden that Harker denied Kinley’s request for deferment “without cause.”

“In years past, the U.S. Department of Defense has issued many waivers to allow athletes to temporarily delay their service to our nation to pursue their professional sports dreams,” Rubio wrote. “Unfortunately, Mr. Kinley seems to be the exception, and without reason.”

Biden announced on June 12 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.

Rubio posted to Twitter on June 18 that he also intends to appeal to Del Toro to reverse the decision made by Harker. Rubio linked an ESPN.com story about Kinley’s situation with the comment “This is wrong.”

Kinley, who is currently at his home in Memphis, Tennessee while on basket leave, learned from the Twitter post he had backing of the senior senator from Florida. Rubio, who is of Cuban descent, wielded significant influence on U.S. policy toward Latin America during the Trump Administration.

“I saw the tweet that Senator Rubio put out on Friday night and it kind of caught me off-guard. I’m definitely thankful that he’s on my side,” Kinley told The Capital on Monday night. “There were a lot of people working behind the scenes to get this on his radar. Any support is certainly appreciated. To have someone with [Rubio’s] connections advocating on my behalf is definitely valuable.”

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