Our venerable head sports honcho recently penned an article about Army cadet Caleb Campbell's being drafted by the Detroit Lions in the seventh round of this year's NFL Draft.
Mainly, he was talking about the polarization this has caused with a lot of fans and writers. Most seem to be decidedly on one side of the line or the other, a line that reads "Campbell is shirking his military duty to play professional football."
I, as a veteran, am still figuring out how I feel about this. I honestly don't believe that this is Campbell trying to weasel his way out of anything. The worst thing you could accuse him of is taking advantage of a rule that the Army created almost four years ago. Had this rule been created 10 years ago, Caleb would be far from the first soldier-athlete to use it and this story would be a much smaller issue.
In fact, several athletes have already taken advantage of the rule, including two current minor league ballplayers and a hockey goalie. The rule actually states that if you are talented enough to be picked up by a professional sports franchise, then you are afforded two years of active duty as a recruiter so that you can pursue that sport relatively uninterrupted. Then, if after those two years a pro team still wants you in their organization, you can have your remaining active duty time bought out for six years of reserve duty (since initial contracts are actually eight years long).
So he's avoiding war and then he's gonna go recruit other schmoes to do it for him? Not exactly. This wasn't:
"Hey, Coach, can I skip my officer duties and go play pro football?"
"Sure, buddy, go for it!"
The first thing to know is that Campbell (and his classmate Mike Viti, the fullback who signed a free-agent contract with Buffalo) did not know about this option until Army's football coach, Bobby Ross, told them about it during their senior year. Then, the two players had to apply for acceptance into the Alternative Service Option program, which, knowing the Army, was unlikely to be as simple as walking into an office and getting a rubber "approved" stamp.
Now that they are in the program, they'll have their two years to try and make it, and even that isnt any guarantee. Their odds of making the roster aren't any better than any other I-AA, D-II, or D-III athlete who gets invited to training camp (and we all know how many dozens of those there haven't been).
Then, once they have done all that (two years in a row), if a team still wants them playing, they can then exchange their remaining active duty fo reserve time in order to finish their contract.
So yes, it is indeed true, that if Campbell and Viti show enough promise and put in enough hard work to make an NFL roster three consecutive years, then yes, they won't serve as officers or deploy overseas.
What about this rule though? It's difficult to get a feel for it. If a player were truly gifted enough to play football on Sundays, wouldn't he have been recruited by a major Division I program to begin with? Another interesting consideration is that academy cadets are able to leave after their first two years there, penalty-free.
So perhaps, instead of waiting until they have become seniors and going "oh, by the way, you can try and go pro if you want," they should be made aware of this from the get-go, so when they come to the end of those two years, they can say "I think I have a respectable shot at doing this sport for a living, I'm going to make the decision to transfer to a school where I can focus on it without the concern of signing paperwork committing to an officer commission and having to change it later, etc etc."
If West Point academy feels that this rule is necessary to help recruit the cadets they need to supply the active duty ranks with future officers, then I suppose I understand it. It would make a lot more sense to promote the two-year option, but this is the US military, and they can do as they please with the rules they have created. I'm not going to chastise these players for taking advantage of an opportunity that was given to them, but I will keep an eye on how, if at all, this new rule affects the Army's ability to meet its demand for officers in the future or whether it's simply an isolated incident of good PR generation.