West Point to Loosen Service Requirements for Athletes

Army will loosen rules (Times Record-Herald)

A new policy is poised to go in place that could change the face of West Point athletics, allowing Army athletes in any sport who sign a pro contract to serve two years active duty and six in the reserves upon graduation. The proposal is expected to be approved by Army officials within weeks.


The idea of changing the five-year commitment for athletes was discussed in 2003 by the now defunct advisory panel put together by Army Superintendent Lt. Gen. William J. Lennox to resurrect the struggling football program. Members on the panel included Bill Parcells and former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne. “My recommendation was that if an athlete serves two years active duty, allow him to serve six years in the reserves as a recruiter,” said former Army safety Mike McElrath, who was on the panel. “I think it would be great. Look at all the publicity Navy gets every time you hear about David Robinson. Every time you hear about David Robinson, you hear about the Navy.”

If the new policy is put in place, it would make recruiting at Army easier. For instance, now football coach Bobby Ross can walk into a recruit’s home and tell him he has a better shot at playing in the NFL. According to several West Point sources, Ross is heavily in favor of the commitment change, hoping to keep up with rival Navy. The Midshipmen have beaten Army 58-12, 34-6 and 42-13 the past two seasons. Ross could not be reached for comment last night. “If I were in their shoes, I would be doing the same thing,” Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk said. “The coaches over there are probably looking at everything, whether we’re wearing one sock or two. Anything to make it a level playing field.”

Air Force has the same program in place as West Point. Navy adapted the revised program in November 2000. Since then, no Midshipman has signed a pro contract.


“I think this is a good thing for the service academies,” former Navy running back Napoleon McCallum said. McCallum graduated from Navy in 1985. He spent the 1986 season with the Los Angeles Raiders while on active duty in Alameda. A rule change by the Secretary of Navy forced McCallum to leave the Raiders. He returned in 1990 and retired four years later. “I think I definitely would have been a starter,” McCallum said. “I would have played in a Super Bowl. That would have given Navy so much publicity. It would have been a great way to promote the Navy.”

I’m of mixed minds on this, although agree that it probably is in the best interests of the academies to have such a rule. The recruiting advantage for the military and the academies outweighs the down side.

There is definitely a double standard at work here. For example, an outstanding engineering graduate who might be offered a huge salary by Microsoft wouldn’t be eligible. Then again, the double standard works the other way at most big time college sports programs. A superb athlete who flirts with pro sports will lose his scholarship and eligibility, whereas any other student that tried and failed to make it in the private sector would be welcomed back to school with open arms. Not to mention that only athletes are precluded from having outside jobs while they’re in school.

Bob Owens is right that the job of the academies is to provide leaders for the military.

USMA Mission: “To educate, train, and inspire the Corps of Cadets so that each graduate is a commissioned leader of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, Country; professional growth throughout a career as an officer in the United States Army; and a lifetime of selfless service to the nation.”

Still, the number of cadets that would be affected by this policy change would be miniscule. Navy and Air Force, which already have similar rules, hardly ever have an athlete selected by the pros. The PR value to the academies and the services of having recent graduates in the big leagues probably outweighs the three year loss of active service.

As an aside, I note that the mission has changed somewhat since I memorized it as a Plebe more than twenty years ago. The “professional growth throughout a career as an officer in the United States Army” clause did not exist then and, indeed, seems out of place. USMA doesn’t train officers anymore once they’ve graduated, unless one is talking about those who return as part of the faculty or tactical staff.

Apparently, the mission has evolved considerably over the years.

Circa 1980, it was: “Educate, train, and inspire the Corps of Cadets so that each graduate shall have the character, leadership, intellectual foundation, and other attributes essential to progressive and continuing development throughout a career of exemplary service to the nation as an officer of the Regular Army.”

That one had been changed, too, by 1984. Interestingly, cadets have not been commissioned in the Regular Army for a number of years now. And it has long been recognized that a large percentage will leave the military for other pursuits once their five years are up. Indeed, the Academy lists many among its distinguished alumni who are famous for something other than their military careers.

Via Google, I’ve found a history of the changes to the Academy and its mission during the last couple of decades.

Additionally, the phrase “full career in the Army” was changed to “a lifetime of service to the nation.” This phrase was thought to be more consistent with the nation’s historical expectations and the reasonable limits of the commitment that high school seniors can be expected to make upon entering the institution. The revised mission statement was approved and signed by the Army’s Chief of Staff, General John Wickham, in May, 1987.

Interestingly, the “lifetime of selfless service to the nation” phraseology accords to what I remember from 1984-86. The current version was apparently put in place some time after 1996.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.