Nobody knows why the Secretary of the Navy suddenly decided to cancel the professional sports option for his branch of the armed services.
In late May, Thomas W. Harker denied requests from a pair of former Naval Academy athletes to delay their commissioning to pursue professional sports opportunities. Football player Cameron Kinley and baseball player Charlie Connolly were told three days before graduation they must commission as ensigns and begin serving.
Kinley had signed a free agent contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, while Connolly was expected to be selected in next month’s Major League Baseball Amateur Draft.
Connolly and Kinley were given the bad news together during a meeting with Colonel James “J.P.” McDonough III, Commandant of Midshipmen at the academy. They were given no explanation for why Secretary Harker chose to ignore a standing Department of Defense order that allows service academy graduates to postpone their commissioning if they were pro prospects.
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.”
That policy remains in place and is enabling four other recent service academy graduates the chance to make NFL rosters after signing as undrafted free agents. 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) — will be attending training camp later this summer.
Both the Secretary of the Army and Secretary of the Air Force approved the requests from those athletes to delay commissioning until their professional careers were completed.
Capt. Jereal Dorsey, a spokesperson for Harker, issued a statement that made it clear the Secretary of the Navy does not endorse the Department of Defense policy. Dorsey said that following discussions with senior Department of Navy leadership, Harker declined to forward the Connolly and Kinley requests to delay their commissions to the Secretary of Defense.
“Admission to the Naval Academy is an extensive and competitive process. The mission of the Naval Academy is to develop young men and women to commission as officers in the Navy or Marine Corps. When students accept admission and continue their education in this program, there is an understanding and acknowledgement that they will upon graduation be commissioned,” the statement read.
“Every Midshipman attends on the same terms and each has the same responsibility to serve. Exceptions to that commitment to serve have been rightfully rare.”
This saga surrounding service academy graduates attempting to pursue pro sports has been going on since the 1980s. Legendary Navy running back Napoleon McCallum, who was once a Heisman Trophy candidate, famously fought with U.S. Navy leadership for the opportunity to play in the NFL.
McCallum was initially assigned to a ship home-ported in Long Beach, California, and was permitted to play for the Los Angeles Raiders while on active duty. He rushed for 536 yards during the 1987 season but was then assigned to another ship that was patrolling the Indian Ocean.
McCallum claimed the Navy leadership purposefully reassigned him because of the attention he received as a result of his success with the Raiders. He served on active duty until 1990 then rejoined the Raiders. The former All-American remains bitter to this day about how his situation was handled.
Former Navy baseball player Mitch Harris was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals after graduating from the academy in 2008. The right-handed pitcher twice petitioned for early release from active duty and was denied. The Florida native served his full five-year commitment then began his pro career in 2013.
Remarkably, Harris made the majors with the Cardinals in April 2015 at the age of 29. He would appear in 26 games and pitch 27 innings of relief that season.
I’ve been covering Navy athletics in some form or fashion since joining the Capital Gazette 32 years ago and became the primary Navy beat writer in 2002. During that time, the Department of Defense and Department of Navy policies addressing professional sports participation have changed at least a dozen times — often with no rhyme or reason.
As Kinley told The Capital this week, “administrations change and policies change.” Former Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds was allowed to pursue pro football after being drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in 2016. One year later, talented Air Force wide receiver Jalen Robinette was not permitted to do the same.
In the wake of this week’s news about Kinley and Connolly, many social media posters demanded the Department of Defense issue a uniform policy that applies equally to all three service academies.
Well, that is exactly what exists right now. “Directive-Type Memorandum 19-011” specifically and clearly allows service academy graduates to pursue professional sports. However, such requests must be forwarded to the Secretary of the Defense through the chain of command for each respective service.
Secretary Harker has simply decided the Navy will not participate in the process. Had Harker approved the requests from Kinley and Connolly and sent them up to the Secretary of Defense, both athletes would still have a shot at playing in the NFL and MLB.
Everyone has an opinion about whether service academy graduates should be allowed to pursue pro sports or serve the mandatory five-year military commitment. I have always supported the former because I firmly believe athletes such as David Robinson, Napoleon McCallum, Keenan Reynolds and Joe Cardona can bring great value to the United States Navy as professional athletes.
Cardona and Reynolds continued to serve the Navy in reserve roles and the publicity surrounding their stories as officers and players was a recruiting bonanza for the Navy.
Harker probably did not consider, and perhaps does not care, about the biggest unintended consequence of his recent decision. Navy athletics recruiting across the board has been dramatically impacted in a negative way by this week’s announcement.
You can bet Army and Air Force football coaches will be telling recruits there is a pathway to the NFL through their respective academies, but not Navy. Same with Army baseball in its recruiting battles with Navy: You won’t have a shot at the major leagues if you choose Annapolis over West Point.
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Harker was appointed as the Acting Secretary of the Navy on Jan. 20. Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk along with football coach Ken Niumatalolo and baseball coach Paul Kostacopoulos can only hope the Biden administration names a different person to the full-time post and that Secretary of the Navy agrees to follow the standing Department of Defense directive regarding service academy graduates pursuing professional sports opportunities.