19 January 2022
From the Academy to the Field

With the 2021 Army-Navy football game in the rear view mirror, are you going to see West Point and Annapolis players in future NFL games or on the AFE Pro Blitz tour?

When a service academy football player dreams of going pro, it’s not as easy as signing on the dotted line after college graduation. Academy graduates, who are appointed to the school following a rigorous entrance selection process, are required to fulfill their military duty following graduation. They are groomed to be officers first, members of a sports team second.

A New Door Opens

Photo of military serviceman holding football with American flag in the background.

In June of 2019, President Trump issued an order saying that athletes graduating from the service academies and Reserve Officers’ Training Corps should be able to defer their military service obligations due to the “short window of time” they have to “take advantage of their athletic talents during which playing professional sports is realistically possible.” He made the decision after initially rescinding the same policy (enacted by President Obama) when he took office in 2017.  

Trump administration Defense Secretary Mike Esper soon issued a memo outlining the guidelines: Athletes must get approval for the deferment directly from the secretary of defense, and the athletes will be required to eventually fulfill their military obligation or repay the cost of their education.

If approved for pro sports by the defense secretary, the athlete must agree to return to the military and serve their enlistment time, which is usually five years. While in the pro sports job, the athlete’s waiver would be reviewed every year.

If the athletes can’t pass required medical standards when it is time to rejoin the military, then they are “encouraged” to serve in a civilian post within the department for no less than five years, according to Esper’s memo. If they choose not to do that they would be subject to repayment of their school expenses.

Navy Football team celebrates after game win.
DoD News photo by EJ Hersom

The Staubach & Robinson Examples

Midshipmen QB Roger Staubach delayed his NFL career by five years to complete his military service requirement. After graduating and then serving a tour of duty in Vietnam, he joined the Dallas Cowboys in 1969 and led them to two Super Bowl wins. Receiver Phil McConkey played for the Navy Midshipmen from 1975-78, then served in the military for five years before the New York Giants made him a 27-year-old rookie in 1984. He caught a touchdown pass for the Giants in the Super Bowl, and played in the NFL until 1989.

Basketball great David Robinson was picked in the first round of the NBA draft in 1987, but deferred his rookie year until the 1989-90 season to fulfill his Naval Academy commitment. His leadership forever changing the trajectory of the San Antonio Spurs.

No waivers or deferrals existed at those times. Now the ground has shifted and there is room for going pro.

Two Army football players rejoice at the end of a football game.
DoD Photo courtesy of Sgt. James K. McCann

No Slam Dunk

Just requesting the waiver doesn’t make it so. That said, recent waivers were granted to Jon Rhattigan (West Point), who signed with the Seahawks; Nolan Laufenberg (Air Force), who signed with the Broncos; and George Silvanic (Air Force), who signed with the Rams. However, the Navy recently denied Buccaneers rookie cornerback Camera Kinley’s commission delay request. Though disappointed, Kinley says he now will “look forward to my career as a naval officer in the information warfare community.”

What’s your opinion on pro-sports deferment waivers for service academy grads? Chat back with us on the AFE social media platforms and let us know.