On a cold morning during Atlanta’s 2014 “Snowpocalypse,” when a surprise winter storm paralyzed the city, a West Point football coach driving a rental car managed to make it to my family home in one of the city’s northern suburbs.
I was a mediocre college football prospect in the final days before National Signing Day, and the coach knocked on my door to offer me a spot on Army’s football team.
The coach knew I wanted to study military history. During our conversation, he brought up the Marshall Plaque — a bronze tablet bearing a (possibly apocryphal) quote that Gen. George Marshall purportedly uttered in 1944. West Point football players touch it as they take the field for games.
“I want an officer for a secret and dangerous mission. I want a West Point Football player!”
At the time, two of the Army’s most influential officers — future president and then-Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and then-Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley, a future chief of staff — were West Point football alums.
While I turned down West Point to become the worst football player in the Southeastern Conference, telling myself that the Army would always be there for me if I wanted to join (which I later did), the legend of the Marshall Plaque has always loomed in my mind.
Nearly nine years later, ahead of the 123rd Army-Navy football game, I decided to test a related theory: are West Point football players more likely than their peers to become general officers?
Any good numbers story starts with the data.
We obtained data from several sources for this analysis. The Army General Officer Management Office, which is required by law to track all current and retired Regular Army and Army Reserve general officers, provided Army Times with a public database of general officers that included basic demographic data like rank, commissioning source and more.
The West Point Association of Graduates maintains its own database of West Point alumni, including their varsity sports. Their data team provided a list of 1,417 football players, which included self-reported ranks and titles for addressing communications.
In order to verify the alumni association’s self-reported data, Army Times checked the ranks and components of self-reported generals. Then, to reduce the likelihood that any West Point football alumni became generals and failed to report their rank to the association, we used Structured Query Language to combine the databases and identify potentially overlooked matches of demographic data between the two databases. We researched each match to verify there weren’t any generals missing from the data.
This showed that 27 football alumni during the study period had reached the general officer ranks, including 11 three- or four-star generals. I included one Army Reserve officer, retired Lt. Gen. Ricky Waddell, because very few officers reach that grade in the reserve.
An analysis of the general officer data showed that 953 current or retired active-duty general officers received their commissions during the study period. We excluded a handful of individuals from the general officer data numbers — including a two-star Army chaplain who as of November was the only current general who joined the Army after 1998, and officers who were stripped of their stars in retirement due to misconduct.
But knowing what percentage of generals who commissioned between 1975 and 1998 played football at West Point is useless without context. So we conducted broader population research in order to have baseline rates for comparison.
Army Times reconstructed the total number of officer accessions between 1975 and 1998, dividing them between West Point and non-West Point, in order to calculate the baseline probability that a given officer from a given commissioning pipeline made it to general.
The Department of the Army’s annual historical summaries, available online, provided West Point’s total commissions for 1975-1985, and 1990-1998. The summaries did not include West Point commission numbers for a four-year period from 1986-1989, for which we pulled Senate promotion scrolls that tallied the total number of Regular Army commissions for each West Point graduating class.
We found that 22,597 officers during the study period were commissioned via West Point.
Defense Manpower Data Center data published in an annual diversity report provided the total number of officer accessions for each fiscal year in the period, but did not specify a commissioning source. 167,326 officers received active duty commissions during the study period.
In order to determine how many new officers per year didn’t commission from West Point, we subtracted the number of West Point commissions we’d calculated via historical summaries and Senate scrolls from the total number of commissions listed in the Defense Manpower Data Center data. That left us with 21,180 non-football playing members of the Long Gray Line.
We also used subtraction to determine the number of officers, regardless of commissioning source, who did not play football for West Point — 165,509.
From there, calculating the probabilities was simple math.
At the advice of the experts interviewed for this research, we conducted one-tailed independent T-tests to see whether the findings were statistically significant. We assumed unequal variances in our data due to extremely low F-test values.
The tests show that the advantage West Point football alumni have had in reaching the general officer ranks is unlikely due to chance alone — especially compared to the entire population of officers (regardless of commissioning source) who weren’t on the football team there. Katherine Kuzminski, one of the experts interviewed for this research, reviewed the data and described the relationship as “non-insignificant.”
Where we know our data falls short
When dealing with numbers this big, there is an unavoidable error at the margins. This is especially the case with historical data.
For example, the total officer commissions listed in the Defense Manpower Data Center data don’t match the totals provided in the historical summaries that we mined for the West Point graduating numbers. We don’t know why, and we were unable to obtain the center’s commissioning source data in order to reconcile the discrepancy.
There is also a small chance that the West Point football alumni list is missing some general officers — the Association of Graduates’ top spokesperson cautioned that their data was “self-reported” and could potentially “not be all-inclusive.”
Another issue we discuss in the story is the potential that West Point football players happen to follow a recipe for Army career success that exists regardless — they are physically-fit men and West Point graduates who overwhelmingly enter combat arms career fields. All of those groups are overrepresented in the general officer ranks.
To capture the true nature of the “football effect,” a researcher will need to control for those variables across different commissioning sources. Will there be any meaningful difference in career outcomes between West Point football players who commissioned as infantry officers and their non-football West Point peers who branched infantry and boasted similar physical attributes? We don’t know.
Thanks for reading.
Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists' 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.