For ser­vice academy ath­letes with shots at the pros, pol­icy shifts can be tricky.

Op­por­tu­nity to go pro will of­ten de­pend on lead­er­ship, cir­cum­stance

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY WILL HOB­SON will.hob­son@wash­

Last May, at the Naval Academy’s graduation, then-Sec­re­tary of De­fense Ash­ton Carter an­nounced in dra­matic fash­ion that nor­mal mil­i­tary ser­vice would not pre­vent star quar­ter­back Keenan Reynolds, drafted weeks be­fore by the Bal­ti­more Ravens, from try­ing to make it in the NFL right away.

“Keenan . . . you are cleared and ap­proved to de­fer your ser­vice so you can pur­sue your NFL dreams,” Carter said, bring­ing cheers from the crowd at NavyMarine Corps Me­mo­rial Sta­dium. “Go get ’em.”

Carter’s words re­flected the De­fense Depart­ment’s en­ac­tion last May of its most gen­er­ous pol­icy ever to­ward ath­letes with chances at pro­fes­sional sports ca­reers: While a free mil­i­tary academy ed­u­ca­tion usu­ally re­quires five years of ac­tive duty, Reynolds and a few others were al­lowed to ful­fill their com­mit­ments in the re­serves. Be­fore Reynolds, elite ath­letes have been re­leased in­ter­mit­tently from ac­tive duty after two years, a deal known in mil­i­tary cir­cles as “the David Robin­son model.”

But last week — as two Air Force se­niors watched the NFL draft hop­ing to hear their names called while an Air Force base­ball pitcher and an Army hockey goalie pre­pared to pur­sue pro ca­reers after graduation — the De­fense Depart­ment pulled an about­face, adding a new chap­ter to the U.S. mil­i­tary’s his­tory of flip-flop­ping on pro ath­letes. In a memo signed April 29, De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis wrote the acad­e­mies ex­ist to “en­hance the readi­ness and lethal­ity” of the mil­i­tary and that grad­u­ates will serve a min­i­mum of two years of ac­tive duty.

Field­ing teams at the top tier of col­lege sports — most promi­nently, foot­ball — has long been a point of pride for Army, Navy and Air Force. But over the past sev­eral decades, of­fi­cials over­see­ing the acad­e­mies have re­sponded in starkly dif­fer­ent ways when the pros have come call­ing.

A De­fense Depart­ment spokesman said the lat­est pol­icy change does not ap­ply retroac­tively, so Reynolds, a wide re­ceiver on the Ravens’ prac­tice squad, will not be af­fected. Nei­ther will others who ben­e­fited last year: Reynolds’s team­mate Chris Swain, a full­back on the New York Jets’ prac­tice squad un­til he was re­leased late last week; and Joe Greenspan, a 2015 Navy grad­u­ate who shifted from ac­tive duty to re­serves to play for Ma­jor League Soc­cer’s Colorado Rapids.

Pro prospects in the class of 2017 are still try­ing to determine if there’s any wig­gle room in the new pol­icy. Air Force wide re­ceiver Jalen Robi­nette, ex­pected to be a mid­dle-round se­lec­tion in the NFL draft, went un­drafted as word of the pol­icy change cir­cu­lated, as did team­mate Weston Steel­ham­mer, a safety who had hoped to hear his name called in the later rounds.

Robi­nette did not re­ply to a re­quest to com­ment. Steel­ham­mer’s agent, Peter Schaf­fer, said he’s try­ing to ne­go­ti­ate a com­pro­mise with the Air Force.

“I’m not giv­ing up, nor am I blinded by the com­pet­ing is­sues,” Schaf­fer said. “I un­der­stand, as does Weston, that he vol­un­tar­ily en­listed at the academy . . . He’s not try­ing to get over on any­body.”

Air Force of­fi­cials de­clined to com­ment, other than to send a state­ment about Robi­nette that also men­tions an­other ath­lete ap­par­ently af­fected by the new pol­icy — to the sur­prise of the MLB team that signed him last year.

“Jalen Robi­nette and Grif­fin Jax look for­ward to graduation and com­mis­sion­ing in May . . . and should have an op­por­tu­nity to pur­sue their pro­fes­sional ath­letic goals after serv­ing two years as of­fi­cers in the Air Force,” the academy said.

Jax, a lanky right-han­der with a 95 mph fast­ball, gave up his col­lege base­ball el­i­gi­bil­ity last year when he signed a $645,000 con­tract with the Twins, who drafted him last June. Jax spent last sum­mer pitch­ing for Min­nesota’s rookie league af­fil­i­ate in Ten­nessee be­fore re­turn­ing to Air Force for his se­nior year.

Jax did not re­ply to re­quests to com­ment. Last year, Twins of­fi­cials said they ex­pected Jax, like Reynolds, would serve only in the re­serves.

“We did our home­work on this,” Twins scout­ing di­rec­tor Deron John­son told

While Air Force of­fi­cials were un­equiv­o­cal Jax has to serve two years, Twins spokesman Dustin Morse said the club is “still gath­er­ing in­for­ma­tion.”

“Ob­vi­ously we’re go­ing to sup­port Grif­fin Jax and his com­mit­ment in any way we can,” Morse said.

Army cadet Parker Ga­ha­gen faces sim­i­lar un­cer­tainty. One of the best goalies in col­lege hockey last year, Ga­ha­gen signed an ama­teur try­out con­tract with the San Jose Sharks in March. Mike Wulkan, Ga­ha­gen’s agent, said he’s try­ing to determine if the new pol­icy ap­plies to his client, but Ga­ha­gen will ful­fill what­ever ser­vice re­quire­ment Army of­fi­cials determine he owes.

Be­fore the 1980s, the pol­icy was sim­ple: Every­one filled ac­tive duty re­quire­ments. When Army Heis­man Tro­phy win­ners full­back Doc Blan­chard and half­back Glenn Davis asked for de­fer­ments in the late 1940s so they could play in the NFL, they were de­nied. Blan­chard never played pro­fes­sion­ally, in­stead opt­ing for a mil­i­tary ca­reer, while Davis played briefly in the 1950s.

Leg­endary Navy quar­ter­back Roger Staubach had to serve four years, in­clud­ing a tour in Viet­nam, be­fore start­ing his Hall of Fame ca­reer with the Dal­las Cow­boys, and Navy wide re­ceiver Phil McCon­key served five years be­fore breaking into the NFL with the New York Gi­ants in 1984 as a 27-year-old rookie.

The mil­i­tary’s in­flex­i­bil­ity broke in 1986, when Navy Sec­re­tary John Lehman saw the pub­lic re­la­tions prom­ise of al­low­ing re­cently grad­u­ated Navy run­ning back Napoleon McCal­lum to suit up for the Los An­ge­les Raiders. Se­nior Navy lead­er­ship ap­proved sta­tion­ing McCal­lum on the USS Peleliu, in Long Beach, Calif., where he worked as a food sup­ply of­fi­cer ev­ery day from 5:30 a.m. un­til 1:30 p.m. be­fore head­ing off to foot­ball prac­tice.

In 1987, Lehman an­nounced that star Navy bas­ket­ball player David Robin­son — who had grown from 6 feet 8 to 7-1 while at the academy — was too tall for ac­tive duty ser­vice on most ships, and would serve a spe­cial­ized two-year stint be­fore be­ing able to play in the NBA. Later that year, how­ever, Jim Webb took over as Navy Sec­re­tary.

Webb, a dec­o­rated Marine who had served in Viet­nam, re­voked McCal­lum’s ar­range­ment and con­sid­ered forc­ing Robin­son to serve five years. After talk­ing with Robin­son, though, Webb con­cluded Navy of­fi­cials had promised re­duced ser­vice to con­vince Robin­son to stay after his sopho­more year — when he could have trans­ferred and avoided any ser­vice re­quire­ment — and thus hon­ored the two-year of­fer.

The Robin­son deal set a prece­dent, but not a guar­an­tee.

“It really comes down to who’s in charge, what’s the pub­lic sen­ti­ment, and is there a war go­ing on,” said Bob Ku­ber­ski, a 1993 Navy grad­u­ate whose re­quest for a de­fer­ment was de­nied the day he was drafted by the Green Bay Pack­ers. Ku­ber­ski, a de­fen­sive line­man, said he of­fered to serve two years for ev­ery one year the Navy let him play in the NFL.

“I fig­ured, I can be an ad­mi­ral when I’m 60, but I can’t play in the NFL when I’m 60,” said Ku­ber­ski, who served close to three years be­fore earn­ing an hon­or­able dis­charge, and even­tu­ally played five years in the NFL with the Pack­ers and the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots.

In the 2000s, the acad­e­mies grad­u­ally started of­fer­ing the two-year Robin­son deal to more play­ers. Then, in 2005, Army crafted an “Al­ter­na­tive Ser­vice Op­tion” pro­gram that would al­low se­lect ath­letes to go pro right away. The pro­gram didn’t last long.

In 2008, as the Navy cited the war in Afghanistan when it told Mid­ship­men pitcher and St. Louis Car­di­nals draft pick Mitch Har­ris he needed to serve five years, the Army drew crit­i­cism for al­low­ing safety Caleb Camp­bell to go straight from West Point to the Detroit Lions. The day Camp­bell was sup­posed to sign his rookie con­tract, the Army re­scinded the deal. After two years of ac­tive duty, Camp­bell had brief stints on the prac­tice squads for the Kansas City Chiefs and Indianapolis Colts, but never made an ac­tive ros­ter.

The De­fense Depart­ment’s lat­est pol­icy shift drew praise from Tom Slear, a 1973 grad­u­ate of West Point who has crit­i­cized the deals of­fered pro ath­letes as boon­dog­gles, wast­ing ed­u­ca­tions paid for with pub­lic money. Slear, 65, is a re­tired Army lieu­tenant colonel who also cov­ered ser­vice academy foot­ball as a jour­nal­ist for years, and can re­cite from mem­ory the ca­reer de­tails of academy ath­letes who left ac­tive ser­vice early.

“The col­lec­tive men­tal­ity is we are here to serve, and when this stuff hap­pens, that gets chipped away,” Slear said. “Then you be­gin to won­der, why have the acad­e­mies?”

Ku­ber­ski and others have sug­gested a mil­i­tary-wide pol­icy that al­lows ath­letes to serve after their sports ca­reers. He con­cedes, though, any new pol­icy lasts only as long as the per­son sign­ing it is in charge.

“It all comes down to pol­i­tics,” Ku­ber­ski said. “Poli­cies can al­ways change.”


Keenan Reynolds, right, is on the Bal­ti­more Ravens’ prac­tice squad as a wide re­ceiver after grad­u­at­ing from the Naval Academy.

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