In 2017, Annapolis graduate Cameron Kinley signed up to the Naval Academy to serve his country as a naval officer. But the ensign was also a very talented athlete and played on the academy’s football team for four years. 

The 6’2”, 207-pound cornerback’s progress on the Navy football team also got the attention of NFL scouts who believed Kinley may have the talent to play professional football. But any hopes of simultaneously playing in the NFL and serving his country were dashed when Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Harker, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday, and Gen. David Berger, commandant of the Marine Corps, denied Cameron Kinley’s request to defer his military service so he could play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“I looked at this case. I looked at the significant investment the taxpayers make in every midshipman and our expectation and their expectation is that midshipmen will graduate and be commissioned with the Navy and the Marine Corps,” Harker said.

Cameron Kinley stood out at the Tampa Bay Bucs offseason program and was signed by the team but the Navy didn't allow him to delay his service.
Cameron Kinley stood out at the Tampa Bay Bucs offseason program and was signed by the team but the Navy didn’t allow him to delay his service. (USA Today)

“I was kind of speechless,” Kinley said. “I started thinking about the whole journey, being able to go down to Tampa and compete for a spot on the 53-man roster – so all of the hard work, all of the adversity you overcome and, for somebody to be able to take that away, it hurts especially when you are so close to achieving a childhood dream.”

Cameron Kinley wasn’t asking the Navy to ignore his Navy commitment, only to delay it. Since his contract to play for Super Bowl champions Tampa Bay Buccaneers was contingent on the secretary of the Navy approving his request, so he won’t be able to realize his footballs dreams. 

Athletes and Servicemen? Well, It Depends

The armed services’ athletes’ path to playing professional sports has traditionally been a rocky one. One of the most famous was Roger Staubach, the quarterback at Navy who won the Heisman Trophy and was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys. But Staubach had to serve five years, including a tour in Vietnam, before playing for Dallas. 

In 2019, then-President Donald Trump changed the rules that allowed service academy athletes to request a delay of service to pursue professional sports opportunities. Now, athletes have to submit a packet that is reviewed by officials in the chain of command.

However, the rulings of the services are rather arbitrary.

Naval Academy graduate Charlie Connolly’s request to delay his commissioning was also denied. Connolly, who has a 95 mph fastball, struck out 45 batters in 36 innings for the Midshipmen this season and no doubt would have been drafted by MLB. 

New England Patriots long-snapper Joe Cardona was allowed to play in the NFL and is a lieutenant in the Naval Reserve. The Patriots and the Navy worked out a schedule that allowed Cardona to serve his service obligation while pursuing his NFL dreams. 

Further, each of the services looks at the issue differently.

This spring, West Point’s Jon Rhattigan (Army) and the Air Force Academy’s Parker Ferguson, Nolan Laufenberg, and George Silvanic, all had their commissions delayed and were allowed to pursue careers in the NFL.

Cameron Kinley
Kinley in his Naval Academy headshot was the class president and presented VP Kamala Harris with a gift at his class graduation. (U.S. Navy)

Did the Navy Miss a PR Opportunity by Rejecting Cameron Kinley’s Request?

“Being a professional football player would have been one of their best recruitment tools,” Kinley said in a radio interview with Glenn Clark. “because you’re going to have young kids looking at that like, ‘Oh, look at him. He’s in the NFL and he’s an officer. I want to be like him when I get older,'” Kinley added. 

“This could have an even better impact on the Navy, and this will allow me to inspire and motivate so many other people,” Kinley said.

While very disappointed, Kinley has some memories of playing in the Bucs offseason program. 

“[T]hat was definitely a memory I will remember forever. Quite frankly, it might be my last football experience but, yes, it was good. It was good.”

“I’m going to give 110 percent of my effort into serving,” Cameron Kinley said. “This situation isn’t going to deteriorate my approach that I take to be an officer.”