The Defense Department slammed the door on service academy athletes seeking to jump straight to professional sports after school, announcing May 1 that no further waivers of the two-year active-duty service commitment would be offered.
Great move, said the majority of the participants in our MilitaryTimes.com poll and on social media: These athletes have received an elite education for free and have agreed to serve their nation in leadership positions. Taxpayers didn't fund their schooling so they could try to land a spot on an NFL roster as a backup wide receiver or a seldom-used special-teamer. Or both.
Not-so-great move, said a minority, who see the participation of such elite athletes in pro sports as a bonus for recruitment efforts, as a talking point to entice top-flight athletic talent into service-academy football programs, or even, perhaps, as a small way to bridge the ever-widening military-civilian cultural divide.
There is little in the way of compromise or civic discourse between these two positions. You're either a sports-saturated nitwit willing to put athletics over country, or you're a totalitarian zealot who won't consider the possible large-scale benefits of bending the rules for a small handful of future officers. This leads to predictable back-and-forth debates in comment threads until readers get bored and return to more productive, reasoned areas of discussion. Like politics.
But finally, thanks to this recent DoD announcement, there is some common ground on which all sides of this issue can stand. And it stems from the absolutely indefensible timing of the announcement itself.
The NFL draft is the most anticipated annual transition between college and professional athletics. Postseason contests in other pro sports don't get near the ratings of cable networks airing highlights of fifth-round draft choices and scrolling six different brands of selection information across the lower third of the screen for hours, even days, on end.
Service academy players are drafted rarely: Three this millennium, two since 2009. But a half-dozen or so academy seniors, thanks to relatively new rules allowing changes to their service commitments, held out some hope that, even if they didn't hear their name over the three-day draft that ended April 29, they might have a shot at pursuing an NFL dream.
That meant months of workouts and preparation to top off a lifetime of football dedication, on top of the requirements of completing their academy education.
But the day the draft began, Air Force players were notified that the service would not grant their requests to defer the active-duty requirement. What appeared to be a harsh and ill-timed move by one service turned out to be a precursor to a harsh and ill-timed move by the Defense Department.
It's difficult to let the underlying facts of the academy-to-pro argument go. After all, while these student-athletes were preparing for 40-yard dashes, their classmates, ostensibly, were preparing to lead men and women into combat.
But the handful of football players at the heart of this issue enrolled at the academies when early exits to the pros weren't on the table – it was an opportunity that came to them through a bit of luck and through their extraordinary on-field performance representing their respective schools.
And at the very last moment, it was taken away by the Defense Department, which chose to make a point on the backs of the student-athletes rather than wait a few weeks or months, or simply announce that the new ruling didn't apply to this year's graduates.
Is the incoming officer class in such dire need of these half-dozen or so student-athletes that it couldn't function without their immediate active-duty presence? Was the end of this policy so meaningful to the mission of the academies, so critical to the institutional relevance of these revered stations of higher learning, that the players had to be screwed over at the worst possible moment, in the most public fashion this side of a two-star general handing a note to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell at the podium?
Those questions have easy answers. And while concerns about academy service commitments, or even the role of big-time sports at the schools, are worthy of debate, that back-and-forth is letting DoD off the hook for this picture-perfect example of poor timing.
Sports-saturated nitwits and totalitarian zealots, unite: DoD fumbled this, badly, and the larger issues of sports and service shouldn't distract from that mistake.