Friday, July 25, 2008

Duty, Honor, Country... Football?

Much has been written in the media lately about former Army linebacker Caleb Campbell, the Detroit Lions seventh round pick in the most recent NFL draft.

One question has been the center of the controversy: Should Campbell - or should he not - be eligible to forgo military service requirements to play in the NFL?

Typically, the answer is an easy "no". Military academies just don't make exceptions. It took the Army a while to do it, but just a couple of days ago U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jonathan P. Liba wrote a letter to the Lions, informing them that Campbell was to immediately cease playing football to perform "full time traditional military duties".

The Navy made a similar ruling just a month ago with baseball prospect Mitch Harris, who was drafted in the 13th round by the St. Louis Cardinals, so the move was hardly unprecedented. The decisions are almost always questioned by the media, though the stories typically lose steam fairly quickly.

This morning, however, ESPN radio host Colin Cowherd ranted about how terrible a move this was by the Army. It would only hurt recruiting, he said. They can't expect to compete with "the big boys," he said.

Sometimes life is bigger than football, he should have said.

I strongly disagree with Cowherd's opinions, and that is my entitlement, just as he is entitled to think the way he does. Nobody's right, and nobody's necessarily wrong. But I couldn't help but wonder how a Naval Academy graduate - and someone who has dedicated most of his life to serving his country - would feel about the issue.

I present to you today's guest entry.

Duty, Honor, Country

"The long gray line has never failed us. Were you to do so, a million ghosts in olive drab, in brown khaki, in blue and gray, would rise from their white crosses, thundering those magic words: Duty, Honor, Country……In my dreams I hear again the crash of guns, the rattle of musketry, the strange, mournful mutter of the battlefield. But in the evening of my memory I come back to West Point. Always there echoes and re-echoes: Duty, Honor, Country.”

- General Douglas MacArthur, West Point Farewell May 12, 1962

There has been a lot of discussion lately as to whether or not U.S. service academy graduates should be allowed to enter professional sports instead of fulfilling their five year service obligation. Service academy graduates have participated in professional sports in the past but only after they had fulfilled all or at least part of their original obligations. In the latter case athletes have served two of their five years followed by extensive (4-6 year) stints in the Reserves.

The current cases though are different. While the Naval Academy and Air Force Academy have upheld the Department of Defense policy regarding service obligations, West Point and Army leadership have attempted to literally ignore the rules. The Army has allowed recent West Point graduates to try out for teams and forgo their obligated service if they make the professional roster.

So why does a young man or woman pursue admittance to a service academy? There are many reasons….patriotism, a sense of responsibility, a sense of honor, etc. Do young Midshipmen and Cadets attend the Academies to compete? You bet. They compete every waking moment of their four years. They compete academically, they compete mentally and emotionally, they compete against themselves, and they compete athletically from the intramural ball fields to the top levels of competition in the NCAA. It is not well known that many of those that do compete at NCAA levels actually attend one year of prep school in addition to the standard four years. Do they do so with an expectation of achieving the professional ranks? No, they do so because it presents a great challenge. Army, Navy and Air Force do not play Ohio State (2010), Boston College, and Notre Dame just to get run in to the ground…they do so because every service academy athlete (and student) knows that on any given day they can outperform their rivals to win in spite of the odds. Once they graduate that next “up against all odds” confrontation may likely occur in Baghdad or the mountainous expanses of Afghanistan, thousands of feet above the land, or hundreds of feet beneath the surface of the ocean in a life or death scenario entrusted with the lives of their comrades in arms.

If, however, there is that special athlete that demonstrates the potential to perform at the professional level, should he or she be allowed to do so regardless of existing policy? The answer is one of the five basic responses ingrained in the minds of Midshipmen and Cadets from day one, No Sir! I ask you to read again the reasons why these young Americans opt to attend these institutions of physical and academic discipline and rigor. In short – to serve their country.

Do athletes at the service academies receive preferential treatment? To a degree, yes. Do they warrant such treatment? To a degree yes. But once the “college experience” is over all bets are off. The professional military playing field is leveled once again as these young officers set out to further enhance their war fighting skills and to lead our sons and daughters in harm’s way. This is a responsibility that transcends all the glitter, hype, and economics of professional sports. It is an absolute, solemn responsibility. An absolute, solemn responsibility. The nation invests heavily in their academic and professional development; the nation should expect no less than total commitment to the values and ideals of “duty, honor, country”.

The “long grey line has never failed us” and it cannot and must not do so in the future.

Contributed by a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and 32 year veteran.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you. Being an officer in the Army is more important that playing football. Though, I do worry about the potential adverse affects this could have on recruiting. It is probably true that having an NFL player would be great for recruiting, but duty to country comes first. Plus, how does this make other people in the military feel? The Army made the right call.