By Bill Wagner
Dec 22, 2022 at 5:00 am
President Joe Biden is set to sign congressional legislation that includes a provision that would dramatically change the professional sports option for future service academy graduates.
That amendment, introduced by Representative Mike Gallagher (R-Wisc.), revoked a Department of Defense rule that was publicly endorsed by former President Donald Trump. Directive-Type Memorandum 19-011, which was issued in November 2019, permitted service academy graduates to pursue employment as a professional sports athlete following graduation.
Athletes approved for the policy did not commission as officers and deferred their mandatory five-year military commitments until after their pro careers were complete.
The original amendment would have prohibited current athletes, such as Army football player Andre Carter, a potential first-round NFL draft pick, from pursuing professional sports. It has since been revised to allow any service academy athlete that enrolled before June 1, 2021, to be grandfathered into the 2019 waiver policy.
Gallagher said in a statement he wanted the Trump-era policy altered because “U.S. Military service academies exist to produce warfighters, not professional athletes.”
Other congressional leaders apparently agreed and added language to the annual defense authorization bill, stating that failing to immediately begin active-duty service following graduation constitutes a “breach of agreement to serve as an officer.”
In adopting the amendment crafted by Gallagher, lawmakers called the current policy governing service academy athletes “contorted” and said granting such exemptions goes against the principles for which the institutions are designed.
“Service academy appointments are a zero-sum game,” they wrote. “Every appointment that goes to a graduate who does not complete his or her active-duty service obligation to pursue professional athletics could have been awarded to many other qualified young people who would have happily served their country.”
In comments in the committee debate, Gallagher pointed out the average acceptance rate for individuals applying to the three major service academies — Army, Air Force and Navy — was roughly 10%.
“That means there are thousands of patriotic Americans who do not have the opportunity to attend a military service academy,” said Gallagher, a former U.S. Marine.
Gallagher’s amendment would require service academy graduates to serve at least two years before applying for a waiver to pursue pro sports.
“When a midshipman or cadet opts to put off their service obligation to pursue a career as a professional athlete, in effect, it means they removed an opportunity from an individual who is committed to carrying out their service obligation immediately following graduation,” he said. “My amendment would prohibit that. It would require them to fulfill their obligation prior to going pro for whatever sport.”
Gallagher’s comments, along with the language included in the bill, ignored the stipulation in the Trump-era policy that required those athletes to be commissioned as officers upon completion of their pro careers and serve their mandatory five-year obligation.
Former Navy athletes react
Former Navy quarterback Malcolm Perry was the first service academy athlete to benefit from the Department of Defense policy issued in 2019. Perry was selected in the seventh round of the 2020 NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins as a wide receiver. He graduated from the Naval Academy one month later and received a degree, but did not commission as an officer.
Perry spent two seasons in the NFL before announcing his retirement just prior to starting 2022 training camp with the New England Patriots. The Tennessee native is currently in the process of commissioning as a Marine Corps officer and will soon begin The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia.
Perry told The Capital he did not understand why Congress was working to overturn the 2019 policy, saying it was “working well for all parties.”
“The entire time I was in the NFL I was looking forward to serving my commitment,” he said. “I think they’re looking at things the wrong way. Nobody is getting out of their military commitment.”
Perry believes there is promotional and public relations value to having an Army, Air Force or Navy graduate playing in the NFL.
“Any player that makes it to the NFL can do so much for their institution and branch of service as a spokesman for the academy and military as a whole,” he said. “I used my platform to promote the Naval Academy and Marine Corps.”
Cameron Kinley, a 2021 Naval Academy graduate, signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent. Kinley went to training camp and played in one preseason game before being waived. After failing to latch on with another NFL team, Kinley recommissioned and began serving as an intelligence officer. He is currently an ensign assigned to the Theater Undersea Surveillance Command Pacific in Whidbey Island, Washington.
Kinley said since arriving at the Whidbey Island facility, he has met numerous service members that know he played football at Navy and spent time with the Buccaneers.
“I feel like those people serving in the military really don’t care. Most of the people with whom I’ve interacted within my command think it’s awesome that I got a shot at the NFL,” Kinley said. “It’s the politicians who are worried about perceptions. I think it’s just political maneuvering from people who have never walked that path.”
Kinley pointed out that having more than a handful of service academy football players per year get an NFL opportunity is rare.
“Losing five potential officers for a few years is not going to impact the military at-large,” Kinley said.
Every year, a group of graduates from each service academy are granted opportunities to continue their education. Some received Rhodes Scholarships, while others attend medical school. Former Navy basketball player Cam Davis was chosen for a prestigious post-graduate program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is currently pursuing an advanced degree as part of the MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute Joint Master’s program.
“I don’t know why anyone would say that service academy athletes that delay their military service to play pro sports are not honoring our contracts,” Kinley said. “It’s the same thing as these grad school opportunities. Those people are gone for a few years with no military obligations, then they come back and serve.”
The Military Times initially reported on the new amendment on Dec. 8. However, an ESPN.com story published earlier this week that detailed how the proposed policy would prevent Carter from making the NFL, drew sympathy from lawmakers.
Carter, a linebacker who is rated by many analysts as a possible first-round draft pick, was a freshman at West Point when the Trump-era policy was put into place. He could have left the United States Military Academy without penalty following his sophomore year, but chose to sign the so-called “two-for-seven papers” binding him to a five-year military obligation.
Army head coach Jeff Monken said prior to the revision that the amendment altering the current policy is not fair to Carter.
“It’s just kind of pulling the rug out from under him,” Monken said. “He was loyal to this team and institution. He could have left and didn’t. It’s not that he doesn’t want to serve. He wants to pursue the NFL and play, and then serve.”
Following an outcry about Carter’s predicament and heavy lobbying by U.S. Army officials, Congress scrambled to alter the language of the amendment.
Tuesday morning, lawmakers posted a provision that would make Carter and other current service academy athletes eligible for a waiver allowing them to defer active-duty service for the purpose of pursuing pro sports.
Under the new provision, any service academy athlete that enrolled before June 1, 2021, has been grandfathered into the 2019 waiver policy. The new policy established in the bill set to be signed by President Biden as soon as Friday mandates that all service academy athletes due to graduate in 2027 or later cannot apply for a waiver until after two years of immediate service.
“Thank you to the members of congress who stepped up, spoke out and worked expeditiously in support of Andre and other service academy cadets and midshipmen who made decisions in reliance on the 2019 policy allowing deferral of service,” Carter’s parents, Melissa and Andre, wrote in a text message to ESPN.