Photo via Tommy Gilligan/USA SPORTS Sports Images
Before 2016, it was a requirement at all Military Academies to serve one’s country after graduation. This policy was the main turn-off for many high-achieving athletes during recruitment season, as a college athlete’s focus is often on the draft.
Only 84 military academy graduates subsequently played in the NFL, but this is about to change because of a new DoD policy. As of 2016, players at the Naval Academy, the Air Force Academy, and West Point will have the option to join the reserves instead of completing two years of active duty. Students at the Coast Guard Academy and the Merchant Marine Academy will still have to complete active duty because they are not overseen by the DoD.
Under the new rule, there will be less agitation among high school athletes about recruitment to military schools. Now, a West Point, Air Force or Navy student can go pro right after college. We can’t discount military academies from the greater picture of college football any longer.
Navy, Air Force and Army aren’t seen as heavy-hitters in football, because many of the highest-caliber athletes would prefer to go to schools that get them drafted. Yet, Navy has had an impressive run the last few seasons. Navy led the AAC West with a 9-5 overall record last season, and that came after losing their last three games—mostly due to injury.
Navy held NCAA rank at several points during the season, and were considered a strong team. Army rounded out the season at 8-5, and Air Force ended the season with a 10-3 record after an impressive Arizona Bowl win against South Alabama.
With the recruitment change, all three teams will begin the ascent to NCAA relevance. Attending a military academy seems like a sweet deal, considering all expenses are paid (estimated at around a $400,000 value) by taxpayers and federal funding.
This change won’t happen overnight, though, as neither team is in a particularly strong conference (the AAC is on the up, with teams like USF, Houston, and Temple improving steadily). In order to build relevance they’ll need to build schedule strength. This will result in a tough couple of years as they re-adjust to playing more difficult teams.
The transition will be slow, but all three schools will slowly develop into more powerful programs—especially Navy. Just think: if Navy could do so well with only athletes who weren’t interested in the NFL, what will they be able to accomplish now that the mandatory service requirement is all but waived? Navy doesn’t have a single recruit over 3 stars. They’re not going to have 5-star recruits lining up to sign with them next year, but the potential will grow over time.
The new policy definitely has its critics, though. In a Washington Post editorial, retired Army Lt. Col. Tom Slear expressed his worry over the diminishing ethos of military academy service. “[Service academies] exist to instill young men and women with a mindset of selfless service to the country,” he said; by changing the requirement the value of the education diminishes.
I’m interested to see how this issue is debated, but the fact remains that the policy has changed. The world of college football needs to ready itself for the inevitable relevance of the military academies.