Defense Department clears the way for cadets to jump straight to pro sports

Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds  calls a play in the first half of a game against Memphison Nov. 7, 2015, in Memphis, Tenn.
Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds  calls a play in the first half of a game against Memphison Nov. 7, 2015, in Memphis, Tenn. (Mark Humphrey / AP)

The quarterback was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens with their sixth-round pick after lighting up college football. Reynolds broke records, including those for most rushing touchdowns in NCAA Division I history (85), most career total touchdowns (88) and yards rushing by a quarterback (4,559).

Reynolds' success prompted the Department of Defense to take a second look at its policy regarding the mandatory 24-month active duty stint upon graduation. On Monday, the Air Force Academy provided an updated policy to The Colorado Springs Gazette, making it clear that a professional sports career is possible directly upon graduation.

The old Department of Defense Pro Sports Policy reads: "Officers appointed from cadet or midshipman status will not be voluntarily released from active duty principally to pursue a professional sports activity with the potential of public affairs or recruiting benefit to the DoD during the initial 2 years of active commissioned service. A waiver to release a cadet or midshipman prior to the completion of 2 years of active service must be approved by the ASD(M&RA). Exceptional personnel with unique talents and abilities may be authorized excess leave or be released from active duty and transferred to the Selective Reserve after completing 2 years of active commissioned service when there is a strong expectation their professional sports activity will provide the DoD with significant favorable media exposure likely to enhance national recruiting or public affairs."

That essentially meant a service academy graduate would not be eligible to be placed on reserve status for the purpose of pursing pro sports until serving 24 months on active duty. But the policy, which was changed in May, now reads: "A service member can request to be tendered an appointment in the reserve upon graduation and satisfy their commissioned service obligation in the Ready Reserve."

Jim Knowlton, the Air Force athletic director, told The Gazette any graduate can request to have a reserve appointment instead of serving active duty, but each decision would be looked at on a case-by-case basis by the branch. Knowlton added a secured contract or binding commitment with a professional sports team is required.

Air Force Academy assistant football coaches are touting this policy change as a "huge" change that "immediately levels the playing field." The coaches spoke off the record to The Gazette as they were not allowed to publicly comment on the situation. They said during recruiting visits, other teams "routinely use the two-year commitment against Air Force."

Because of the old rule, military academies haven't been breeding grounds for professional athletes, even if that's not what they were ever intended for. To date, only 89 MLB players in the history of the league hailed from federal military academies (13 attended the Naval Academy, 60 attended West Point, 15 attended the Air Force Academy, one attended the Coast Guard Academy). Seventy-nine NFL players have graduated from federal service academies (31 attended the Naval Academy, 32 attended West Point, 15 attended the Air Force Academy, one attended the Coast Guard Academy). Two federal military academy graduates have been on NBA or ABA rosters (One attended the Naval Academy, one attended West Point). No professional MLB, NFL or NBA athletes have come from the United States Merchant Marine Academy.

Out of all 170 professional athletes produced by federal service academies, all of them but two have not fulfilled their two-year active duty commitments: Reynolds and Garrett Griffin.

Griffin is currently in limbo, as he already has his orders for the two-year active duty commitment.

Even Navy's Roger Staubach and David Robinson and Air Force's Chad Hennings served at least two years before turning pro.

"[Service academies] exist to instill young men and women with a mindset of selfless service to the country," retired Army Lt. Tom Slear wrote in a recent Post editorial. "There is no other justification for the significant public expense that supports them.

"Professional football, on the other hand, is about service to oneself. It has its place, but not for academy graduates who haven't fulfilled their obligations to their fellow citizens. Each time one of them leaves early, the ethos diminishes a bit, and the taxpayers are cheated."

The approximate price tag on a service academy education is $400,000.

Knowlton told the Gazette that isn't the way he looks at the situation.

"My view is we recruit cadets to come to the academy to develop over four years as leaders of character and then go out and serve our nation in the Air Force," Knowlton said. "There are many different ways that cadets can serve our nation."

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