Do Division I Athletics Support the Mission?

"To develop midshipmen morally, mentally, and physically and to imbue them with the highest ideals of duty, honor, and loyalty in order to provide graduates who are dedicated to a career of naval service and have potential for future development in mind and character to assume the highest responsibilities of command, citizenship, and government." -The Mission of the United States Naval Academy

            The age-old argument about the role of intercollegiate athletics at the service academies has surfaced yet again. This time, it's USAFA that is under the spotlight, as Air Force Secretary James Roche has ordered a review of the Academy's athletic department.


"The purpose of this review is to ensure the athletic program continues to support the academy's mission to graduate officers of character and integrity," Roche stated.  This shouldn't necessarily raise any alarms.  Like any service academy endeavor, the athletic department is subject to an occasional review to ensure the needs of the service are being met; those needs being the best possible officers upon commissioning.  We've seen these kinds of audits before at USNA with such wide-ranging effects as the creation of the Character Development Division and countless revisions of the fourth class system.  Any institution that wishes to endure must invariably examine itself in an effort to improve.


There seems to be a different tone to this round of inquiries, however.  The review comes at a time when the Air Force Academy is already undergoing significant changes stemming from a wave of sexual assault allegations.  While Secretary Roche claims that the desire to review USAFA's athletic department predates these allegations (and there is no reason to dispute that), one must wonder if the current scandal could be used as justification for a de-emphasis of intercollegiate athletics.  Depending on what rumor you choose to believe, this could result in anything from dropping football to I-AA to dropping every sport to Division II status.  Most likely, nothing quite so drastic will occur.  But the inveterate question is raised yet again: do service academies really need to compete at the highest level?  Is Division I necessary?  Do we even need the athletic department?  As our Air Force counterparts endure the latest manifestation of this inquisition, we can take this opportunity to re-examine the role of intercollegiate athletics at the Naval Academy.


It is doubtful that even the most vocal opponents of D-I athletics at Navy would argue against the value of athletics in general.  Any stance to that effect lacks credibility.  Indeed, there are few ways of teaching the meaning of duty, honor, and loyalty quite like sport.  Showing up for practice every day, playing your hardest because you owe it to your teammates, fair play, sportsmanship... Values learned through sports translate very easily to those same military ideals that USNA seeks to develop.  The discipline, teamwork, and respect for the chain of command that athletes have attained through competition in high school are a superb foundation for the hard lessons of Plebe Summer.  Admissions reflect this; 89% of the class of 2007 were varsity athletes in high school.  It's one reason why every midshipman is required to participate in some level of sports at the Academy.


The benefits of athletic participation are well documented, and while Brigade intramurals may be spirited clashes, they can't compare to the varsity experience.  True enough, some would say. But does the competition have to be at the highest level?  Couldn't these same benefits be gained through competition on any level?  Perhaps, but let's not kid ourselves.  The focus here is not the squash team.  When voices of incertitude are raised, it isn't over the cross-country team.  The nerve center of the debate is football.


One glance at college football today and it's easy to see why there is such concern.  At times it becomes difficult to say "college football" with a straight face.  Graduation rates in major college football are abysmal.  The University of Pittsburgh, a future Navy opponent, "leads" the way with a 16% graduation rate.  Sixteen percent!  Even some schools that one would think would strive to maintain an academic reputation such as UNC (35%) and Cal-Berkeley (44%) look the other way when it comes to football.  Half the schools in the SEC can't claim a 50% graduation rate.  The overall graduation rate for I-A football is 54%... and this is seen as progress!  By lowering admissions standards for football players below that of the general student population, many schools have essentially hired mercenaries to compete on behalf of the school rather than field a team that actually represents it.  All this in an effort to grab a piece of the big money pie, with corporate-sponsored bowl games, lucrative TV deals, and $13 million BCS payouts. 


Is this the environment that we want the U.S. Naval Academy competing in?  Do we compromise our standards to remain competitive?  Do our athletes get preferential treatment?


If there is any special treatment being given to athletes, I have yet to see it.  During my time on the banks of the Severn, we took the same classes, crammed for the same tests, got punished for making the same dumb mistakes, lived in the same rooms, waxed the same floors, jumped off the same 10-meter platform... About the only thing we didn't do together was march in parades, and you won't be able to convince anybody that a couple of parades a week is harder to handle than going to practice every day.  One of the great joys of being a Navy fan is looking out onto the playing field and seeing a team that truly represents me, my school, and my experience.  Can fans of University X really claim this?  Watch a Navy game on television and take a look at what these guys are majoring in-- Physics, Economics, Chemistry, Mechanical Engineering... It isn't some watered-down curriculum. Ask any Academy Mech E major of the last 30 years if they think the "Four Horsemen" would take it easy on a football player.  Do they even bother to list a player's major during SEC broadcasts anymore?  I'm not sure, maybe they do; although if the guy doesn't even plan on graduating I don't know why they would bother. 


One wouldn't have to search very long for an illustration of football players excelling in the Navy and Marine Corps. "Terrence Anderson is as good, if not better, than any center in America," ESPN analyst Mike Gottfried said in a 1999 interview. "I know I didn't see a better center in the games we did on ESPN." But that isn't what got Terrence Anderson into medical school.  Stuffing opposing running backs made Jason Snider a force on the defensive line, but it probably didn't impress his instructors at Nuclear Power School.  Out in the mountains of Afghanistan, the Taliban doesn't care about Enrico Hunter's kick return average.


Regardless of the success stories that emerge from the ranks of varsity athletes, there are still critics who question whether the ends justify the means. The prep school, according to them, is being used too often as a taxpayer-funded redshirt.  Not only that, but these faultfinders claim that the athletes that are sent to the prep school are less qualified than other applicants.  How can that support the mission?


First, one thing needs to be made clear: contrary to popular belief, a year at the prep school is not the same as a redshirt.  The Naval Academy Preparatory School exists solely to provide a stronger academic base for otherwise qualified candidates that the admissions board feels would succeed after an extra year of schooling.  Academically qualified candidates do not attend the prep school, no matter what their 40 time is or how much weight they need to gain.  But even if it isn't technically a redshirt, it's still a just a football factory, right? Isn't it still just a way to push less qualified recruits through?


When we talk about "less academically-qualified recruits," we aren't talking about JUCO transfers or partial-qualifiers here.  Applicants to the Naval Academy are some of America's finest students.  How often does a choice have to be made between a 4.0 student and one with a 3.58 GPA, but is captain of the wrestling team and a 3-year letter winner in football?  Who do you choose?  The answer, quite possibly, is both of them.  But while the Academy itself has programs to whip any kid into shape (and do so in a hurry), shoring up the academic side takes a little more time.  The Academy seeks to develop midshipmen morally, mentally, and physically.  Those that need moral guidance have every opportunity to find it through numerous religious, ethics, and character development programs.  Those that need to step up to meet the physical requirements get all they can handle during Plebe Summer.  Athletes already excel in the physical mission; if some need a year of prep school to ready themselves for the academic rigors of USNA, by all means we should give it to them. The mission statement does not prioritize the moral, mental, and physical missions of the Academy, nor should we.  As arduous as the academic requirements are at USNA, the objective is not to produce legions of scholars.  Instead, the Academy seeks to produce Renaissance men; well-rounded graduates, "ready to assume the highest responsibilities of command, citizenship, and government." Or, as John Paul Jones described, alumni should be "gentlemen of liberal education, refined manners, punctilious courtesy, and the nicest sense of personal honor."  A demanding academic regimen goes a long way towards that goal.  So does an unyielding physical program.  Varsity athletes get the most out of both.


There is still contention, though, over whether the football program needs to be at the Division I-A level.  For some, it's an issue of whether we can really expect to compete on that level. Still others believe that the needs of the Navy could be met without a I-A football program. I wouldn't be so sure.


The Naval Academy has 30 varsity intercollegiate athletic programs, one of the largest offerings of any school in the country.  Such a wide variety provides a wonderful opportunity for midshipmen to represent their school and to gain the benefits of varsity athletic participation. Many of these sports are not made up of recruited athletes and provide every opportunity for midshipmen to walk on.  The athletic department is able to fund these programs almost exclusively through revenue generated from football.  A drop to I-AA status or lower would eliminate much of the revenue that keeps these sports alive, and in the process reduce the opportunities our midshipmen have to develop themselves.  Some might point out that Ivy League schools compete in I-AA football but still offer a large number of varsity teams; these teams, though, are supported by the university's general fund rather than by football-generated revenue.  Such an arrangement isn't reasonable at a taxpayer-funded institution.


Another casualty of a drop from I-A status would be the overall visibility of the school.  Through at least two nationally televised games each year (Notre Dame and Army), the Naval Academy is able to get its message out to the country.  It's free advertising. In each game, viewers get told of the academic achievements of the Navy team and the dedication of the Brigade as a whole.  Especially the Army game; while Army-Navy might be the greatest rivalry in college sports, it's also a four-hour infomercial for the values and ideals of each school.  America doesn't only get to see the spirit of the Corps of Cadets and the Brigade of Midshipmen, but of the services themselves as well. This is critical if we are to attract the best possible candidates.  Service academies aren't as well-known as they could be. For many Americans, the first exposure they have to USNA, USMA, and USAFA are through their football teams.  If we want to ensure that America is acquainted with its service academies and that the greatest number of potential candidates is reached, Division I-A football provides a medium to do so like none other.


Even from a purely competitive standpoint, dropping to I-AA doesn't assure success.  The opportunity to play I-A ball is a great motivator for many that choose to attend the service academies.  Several football recruits received offers from I-AA schools but came to a service academy to prove that they could play on the I-A level.  This kind of desire to prove oneself is exactly the kind of attitude that each service academy seeks to ingrain from the very first day.  If the academies were I-AA, these recruits would most likely not even consider a service academy because it wouldn't offer the opportunity they are seeking. Difficulty in recruiting players would make it much harder to find success in I-AA. Besides, Navy is 8-4 this year and improving. Army won 10 games as recently as 1996.  Air Force has a lengthy record of success.  It's been proven too many times that service academies can compete at the highest level to believe otherwise.


Many cynics suspect that service academies continue to play I-A football because of some stubborn tradition.  Perhaps.  But tradition should not be discounted so easily.  Among our most revered traditions is a well-known quote of Theodore Roosevelt's that expresses the very attitude of not only our athletes, but of each and every midshipman and cadet:


"It is not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds might have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who if he wins, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, if fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat."


I do not know what the investigation at USAFA will reveal.  I do not know if some kind of cultural rift or any other alleged problem is developing there.  What I do know is this: the players taking the field in my school's colors are representing me, and I am proud of them. They deserve the chance to strive valiantly. They deserve the chance to know the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and to spend themselves in a worthy cause.  They deserve to know the triumph of high achievement. They deserve the chance to dare greatly.


They deserve the chance to compete at the highest level.


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