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Inconsistent Active Duty Policy Creates Pro Athlete Problems

I have wanted to write this article for years, but until now, did not feel comfortable in articulating my points, as I feared they might be misinterpreted by some.

The subject is military service by professional athletes, and more specifically, whether an active duty commitment should be excused in “exceptional” cases – by however that term is defined and whoever rules upon it.

Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch does a fine job framing the dilemma, so if you have not read his Friday article about St. Louis Cardinals pitcher and U.S. Naval Academy graduate Mitch Harris, please do. I will be waiting here.

OK, now that you have the background, let’s proceed.

The key issue as presented is what appears to be an inconsistent policy established by the U.S. Navy. Multiple football players whose skills were honed while at the Academy and then found immediate opportunity to play in the NFL were excused from their active duty service commitments.

Yet baseball player Harris, who at the time of graduation had multiple years of minor league ball ahead of him with uncertain-at-best big-league potential, was denied repeatedly in his requests to be transferred to the reserves. The latter assignment would have allowed him to both serve his country, albeit in a different manner, and play professional baseball.

On this point, I agree wholeheartedly with Harris and others who want to see consistency from their government. Set a clear policy for all and stick to it.

In fact, I would like to see them go further by entirely removing the gray area of “exceptional personnel” being treated differently.

My personal opinion is that a firm and clear line should be taken for all athletes. When these young men made their commitment to a service academy, they did it with their active duty requirement fully understood.

We as the taxpayers of the United States made a considerable investment in each of these young men – both for their college education and for their athletic training – and I believe these officer-athletes should be required to fulfill their entire commitment, including active duty responsibility.

There should not be special deals of any kind, including a partial return via the reserves, or even worse, a free ticket to make millions as a professional the day an athlete completes his college studies, just because the high-profile individual is good advertising for the service academy.

To that point, were those athletes who moved directly from the academy into the pro ranks without completely fulfilling their original service commitment required to repay the Navy for their education – plus the investment made in them to grow as athletes to become good enough to earn a contract to play sports at the highest level? If not, the taxpaying citizens of the U.S. lose out.

While I understand why Harris did what he did, it makes me uncomfortable to see his patriotism so highly celebrated, while understanding he did not want to serve in active duty in the first place, having tried repeatedly over the years to be reassigned to the reserves.

It seems that Harris came to realize over his time in the Academy that he wanted to be a professional baseball player more than a Navy officer, but was willing to compromise to enable his primary dream.

In my view, a side-step to the reserves should not be good enough – for Harris or anyone else. There should be full accountability, just as the Academy delivered on its part of the original deal to supply a full education – in return for an active duty commitment.

The problem is that horse is already out of the barn, as pointed out by Harris and others.

I want to be clear that this is not an indictment of Harris personally. I have spoken with him many times and find him to be intelligent, articulate and a fine representative of both the Navy and the Cardinals. He followed the course that he felt was best for him in unclear waters.

My issues are first and foremost with the service academies for implementing an inconsistent policy and secondarily with those who I believe should be more judicious in their celebration of patriotism.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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3 Responses to “Inconsistent Active Duty Policy Creates Pro Athlete Problems”

  1. JumboShrimp says:

    The admirals and generals want to win the army navy football game, so admit or develop nfl worthy players, to beat the other service academy. Then they must think it fair to release the men from their service commitments. It’s absurd and somewhat immoral. The football coaches are running the Pentagon, not the other way round.

    I don’t have any sympathy for Harris. He could have chosen to be drafted as a junior and dropped out of Annapolis. Then he could have pursued baseball. Instead he chose the four year degree and tried to welch out of his promise. He could not have it both ways, but tried anyway.

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