The military changes it's traditions to allow players pursue the NFL.
Drafted Out of the Army
Gridiron, Not Gridlines
Like any serious football fan, I kept one eye on the NFL draft this weekend, watching my favorite college players embark on the next chapters of their athletic careers.
One of the ESPN profiles caught my eye- it was a US Military Academy (USMA, a/k/a “West Point”) cadet in uniform being interviewed in what seemed like some pre-NFL draft hype. The sound was off on the gym TV so I figured it was something else- service academy graduates are obligated to serve on active duty, or so I thought. Turns out I was wrong.
The NY Times reported yesterday that USMA Cadets Caleb Campbell and Mike Viti will not be joining their comrades fighting in the Global War on Terrorism, but instead will be authorized under new Army regulations to play pro football in the NFL. Campbell was selected by the Detroit Lions in the seventh round of the 2008 draft and Viti signed a free agent contract with the Buffalo Bills.
The new policy, established in 2005, allows “individuals with exceptional skills to pursue professional careers while remaining on active duty”, according to the Times. The exceptional individual is to be assigned to a nearby recruiting post as a part-time recruiter and is eligible for early release from active duty after two years. This policy is unique to the US Army and is not DoD universal.
How the Army Sees It:
“People have philosophical problems with this — they think everyone else is going to Iraq,” said one Army official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the policy. “You can’t judge someone’s worth by their proximity to the battlefield. There are a couple thousand soldiers on recruiting duty. Is he still helping the Army? Yes. Is he still serving? Yes.”
Let’s take it from the top: the sacrifice is on the battlefield, period. The fight is on the battlefield. The burden is on those on the battlefield and their families at home. The greatest need is for well-trained leaders (exactly what West Point produces) to fight. Campbell’s service as a part time recruiter is in no way comparable to that of the soldiers walking the streets of Basra.
Additionally, recruiting is considered special duty in the military- normally it’s duty with a lot of responsibility and autonomy, and performance as a recruiter can make or break someone’s career. It’s also duty that’s given to troops coming off of deployable unit tours; in today’s world we call those people war vets. And while it’s very hard work, it usually represents the only duty a service member can get close to home so these billets are highly sought after. Campbell will certainly be a public affairs trophy the Army can parade around liberally, but no more so than actual veterans who have gone onto great careers in the civilian sector after their service- from Ted Williams to Roger Staubach.
How Campbell Sees It:
“I’ve heard stories about what’s gone on in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Campbell said. “In another sense, the N.F.L. is just as much pressure. You’re out there to take somebody’s job. In terms of coaches can’t cut me? We’re talking about the N.F.L. here. This is a cutthroat business.”
Yeah, the NFL is just like war. Watching or hearing about your friends dying, reckoning your own mortality, lying to your family about what you do, eating MREs and T-Rats, the heat, the celibacy, the compartmentalization of all emotions, the ruined personal relationships, the inner strife about what you’re doing, and the anger about how little the average voter understands or cares about what you do. You nailed it champ.
How I See It:
The civilians who run the US Army have hired too many consultants who don’t understand the way the military culture works or why it should be preserved. Consultants see brand awareness opportunities. They see endorsement opportunities. They think the Return On Investment on Campbell’s West Point education is higher with him in Detroit than Mosul because the money needed to get the equivalent of NFL exposure would probably be a whole quarter’s budget. These people are great marketers, but terrible soldiers- because they’re not soldiers. And they are trading away the strength of the military culture for a few awareness points.
The issue here is equity. We all join the military to serve- at the core of all the college scholarships or self-expressive benefits of being a warrior, service is why we sign up. And in that service, we expect to be treated fairly- we wear uniforms and cut our hair the same way, we eat the same food, we sleep in the same dirt, we stamp out cronyism, and we embrace our multicultural nature. How are Campbell's classmates heading off on their first 15 month deployments supposed to feel while he heads off to NFL training camp? More importantly, what does the average soldier think, hearing about this story during his involuntarily activated combat deployment- the one that pulled him away from his own civilian career after he was honorably discharged?
When you consider all the kids that killed themselves to get into West Point (probably the world’s best military academy, and undeniably one of America’s best schools) and you think about the nearly limitless bounty of upward mobility that comes with its degree, the new Army rule means that those “exceptionally skilled” individuals are wasting slots for real soldiers as well as wasting their degrees and training- as far as taxpayers are concerned.
Campbell may have been placed in an awkward position, but the decision should be clear to a real warrior: The NFL will be there in four years. Honor your obligation and your service, and pick up a rifle. If Campbell prioritized the NFL over regular service, then why attend West Point? Why not go to any of the other colleges that would have let him play ball?
One of the first articles I wrote on 2 Dinar was about Pat Tillman, the Army Ranger killed in Afghanistan four years ago this week. Tillman was a pro safety who left his NFL career behind to enlist in the army, and served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The Campbell story is Tillman in reverse, made worse by the fact that the public seems to be incapable of telling the difference. Tillman shunned the spotlight for dark nights in the Afghani mountains and made the ultimate sacrifice. Campbell is ignoring both Tillman’s legacy and the service to which he is obligated- and the Army is encouraging him.