After going back and forth on this issue for several years, graduates of the military’s service academies can now delay their mandatory service and play professional sports instead, Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced this week. 

Esper released the guidelines for the graduates that want to play pro sports. They must get approval from the Secretary of Defense, and then agree to eventually fulfill their military obligation or repay the costs of their education.

This new policy stems from the meeting that President Trump had in May with the Army football team after the Cadets of West Point at the U.S. Military Academy were awarded the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the best military academy football team. The Black Knights from West Point won the award for the second year in a row.

President Trump said that while attending the annual Army-Navy football game he came up with the idea to let service academy graduates defer their service to allow them to play in pro sports. 

Saying that he believed this would make recruiting for the military a little easier, the president stated, “I am going to look at doing a waiver for service academy athletes who can get into the major leagues: the NFL, hockey, baseball,” he said. “They can serve their time after they are done with professional sports.”

President Trump consulted with Defense Secretary Esper and other Pentagon officials and then gave them four months to come up with a workable guideline for this to happen.

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This issue has been ongoing for nearly 75 years during which a number of servicemen excelled at pro sports: 

Glenn Davis, for example, won the Heisman Trophy while at the Army and he was also a member of those terrific West Point teams during World War II. He served for five years before he landed with the Detroit Lions in 1950. Roger Staubach won the Heisman in 1963. The Navy sent him to Vietnam where the Dallas Cowboys sent him a bag of footballs to practice with — he had to ask for another when those were shredded in a Viet Cong rocket attack. Staubach had to wait until 1969 to begin his NFL career. He went on to win the Super Bowl. Joe Bellino, also from the Naval Academy, was a Heisman winner who served for five years before briefly playing for the Boston Patriots. 

In 2016, the Obama Administration adopted a policy that allowed some players to defer military service to play in the pros. The Baltimore Ravens drafted Navy QB Keenan Reynolds that year. The year before, the New England Patriots selected Joe Cardona as the team’s long-snapper. The Navy made Cardona a reserve officer, which allowed him to continue playing in the NFL. However, in 2017, the Pentagon rescinded the policy as then-Secretary Jim Mattis said that the academies’ function was to develop future officers, and that the athletes are to be fully-fledged officers first and then continue on with their athletic aspirations. 

Back in June, President Trump cited the short window of time that academy athletes have to take advantage of their athletic talents and tasked the Defense Secretary to look into changing the rule. 

In the new guideline Secretary Esper said that the service academies can nominate an athlete for a waiver — if there is a strong expectation that the athlete can compete in professional sports. He also added that this “would provide DoD with significant favorable media exposure likely to enhance national level recruiting or public affairs missions.”

If the waiver is approved, the athlete has then to agree to return to fulfill his/her military obligations, which is usually for five years, and each waiver will be reviewed annually. However, if the athlete can’t pass the required physical due to sports injuries, then he/she is encouraged to serve in a civilian post for the service for a period of five years. If they choose not to serve as a civilian, then the athlete will be required to pay the government back for their school’s expenses. 

During these times that the military faces recruitment problems, it is a smart choice to let some athletes compete in the pros. Some have waited and done their time in the service. For example, former Army Ranger Alejandro Villaneuva, who completed combat tours in Iraq, is an offensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Others like Cardona are allowed to juggle between a professional football and military career. 

It is a win-win situation for the military, the service academies, and the athletes. The policy is sure to generate good press coverage and be a great recruiting tool for all of the services. At a time when our military enjoys a very favorable view from the American public, this will put the services in an even better light as it will show that they care about a service member’s goals and aspirations, by allowing them to play out a dream scenario while still retaining their commitment to service. 

Photo of Patriots long-snapper Joe Cardona: Courtesy of the author.