Academy Athletes & Pro Sports

Updated: December 27, 2019

Table of Contents

    Academy Athletes & Pro Sports

    Photo by Trevor Cokley

    In 2019, the White House issued a Presidential directive allowing athletes in ROTC programs or who attend service academy schools such as the Air Force Academy to defer military service obligations in order to play pro sports.

    It was the latest in a series of decisions by various administrations. The Department of Defense and the White House have had an on-again, off-again love affair with professional sports, especially with athletes competing while attending military service academies or participating in ROTC.

    The most recent changes to White House policy toward academy athletes and pro sports include this written statement from the President:

    “As I recently stated, these student-athletes should be able to defer their military service obligations until they have completed their professional sports careers…Such cadets and midshipmen have a short window of time to take advantage of their athletic talents during which playing professional sports is realistically possible.”

    On-Again, Off-Again

    How back-and-forth has the government been on this issue? In 2016, a Washington Post article published in July announced the DoD had moved away from a previous policy that required cadets or midshipmen to serve a two year initial commission before moving into pro sports.

    DoD policy prior to the changes stated, “A waiver to release a cadet or midshipman prior to the completion of 2 years of active service” is required. These waivers must be approved through channels and are not awarded automatically.

    Academy athletes may be authorized to enter the Selective Reserve following two years of military service, “when there is a strong expectation their professional sports activity will provide the DoD with significant favorable media exposure likely to enhance national recruiting or public affairs.”

    Changes In 2016

    In 2016, the DoD relaxed those rules, but it wouldn’t last long. In May of 2017, an article on Defense.gov announced the end of the 2016 exception–a two year service commitment was again required, at the insistence of Defense Secretary James Mattis. Come 2019, that policy would be reversed thanks to a written directive from the White House.


    The Power Of Professional Sports As A Branding Strategy For The Military

    The DoD recognizes the power of professional sports to enhance its brand, reach potential recruits (as well as those who are too young to be potential recruits for now), and promote the military lifestyle.

    But there are limits. Some in Washington have, over the decades, made attempts to establish clear priorities for military readiness, appropriate use of taxpayer dollars, and to promote athleticism while putting the mission first.

    The back-and-forth on DoD policy governs who, when, and how cadets, midshipmen, ROTC members, and others who have made commitments to the military in exchange for school and want to compete in sports.

    Service Academy Athletes Who Went Pro

    Since the year 2000, there have been several notable names in professional sports who also attended military service academies. Here’s a list–from 2000 to 2012–of pro sports names who attended the United States Military Academy:

    • Captain Anita Allen, 2004 Summer Olympics
    • Captain Lorenzo Smith III, 2006 Summer Olympics
    • Captain Boyd Melson, 2004 World Military Boxing Championships
    • Lieutenant Caleb Campbell, 2008 Detroit Lions in the 2008 NFL Draft
    • Captain Alejandro Villanueva, 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers
    • Cadet Stewart Glenister, 2008 Summer Olympics
    • Cadet Stephen Scherer, 2008 Summer Olympics
    • Lieutenant Josh McNary, 2011 Indianapolis Colts
    • Lieutenant Collin Mooney, 2012 Tennessee Titans and the Atlanta Falcons

    Professional Athletes Who Began As Service Members

    ESPN.com published an article naming a variety of professional ball players who began as uniformed service members in the Navy. They include:

    • Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach. Quarterback for the Midshipmen from 1962-64. After serving in Vietnam, Staubach joined the Dallas Cowboys in 1969.
    • Heisman Trophy winner Glenn Davi. Army, 1946. First-round draft pick of the Detroit Lions.
    • Phil McConkey. Navy, 1975-78, Served for five years, joined the New York Giants and played until 1989.
    • David Robinson, nicknamed “The Admiral,” served two years of military service at Kings Bay, Georgia and Port Hueneme, California. The College Player of the Year was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs out of the Naval Academy, with the first pick in the 1987 draft.

    That’s just one branch of military service, but it’s easy to see that pro sports and military service can and do complement one another.


    A Brief History Of U.S. Military Athletes And Pro Sports

    Military involvement in sports is not new. The first Inter-Service Sports Council (also known as the ISSC) met in 1947. At this meeting, the Army, Air Force, and Navy discuss the need for service sports. Less than six months later, the ISSC officially established Articles of Agreement approved by General Omar Bradley.

    It would not be long before another body is established: the International Military Sports Council or CISM. The acronym is in French and translates as “Council International du Sport Militaire.”

    There were five member nations in CISM at the time it was founded:

    • Belgium
    • France
    • Denmark
    • Luxembourg
    • Netherlands

    In 1951, CISM welcomed the United States. By 1953, the U.S. Marines joined the ISSC. It wouldn’t be long before all participating branches of military service would reap the benefit of Public Law 11, which authorized military members to train for and take part in sports events on the national and international level.

    It wouldn’t be until 1978 that a CISM North American office was opened, and a decade following that action the Department of Defense would redesignate the ISSC as the Armed Forces Sports Committee (AFSC) and later as the Armed Forces Sports Council.

    Service members who qualify to compete on the national or international level with the approval of the Armed Forces Sports Council may participate in a variety of disciplines:

    • Basketball
    • Bowling
    • Cross-Country
    • Cycling
    • Golf
    • Judo
    • Marathons
    • Modern Pentathlon
    • Orienteering
    • Parachuting
    • Rugby
    • Sailing
    • Shooting
    • Skiing
    • Soccer
    • Softball
    • Swimming
    • Tae Kwon Do
    • Track and Field
    • Triathlon
    • Volleyball
    • Wrestling

    Many Paths To Pro Sports

    What is important to keep in mind here is that military athletes can become professionals in a variety of ways. There are those who compete professionally as individuals and land sponsorships or other financial support, and there are those who are recruited by professional sports teams–these teams may or may not be affiliated with events and competitions known to Armed Forces Sports participants.

    Professional sports teams discover new talent by recruiting efforts. Professional military athletes don’t have to join a pro-football team, major league baseball team, or National Hockey Association team to compete professionally, but such pro sports organizations and teams are considered highly aspirational.


    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News


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