Congress just sneezed in your beer, Army-Navy fans.
Two days before the 123rd football classic in Philly, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the National Defense Authorization Act — stay with me, there’s some jargon ahead. It includes $858 billion for the Department of Defense and, because this is really important, bars service academy athletes from turning pro until two years after graduation.
It also revokes the DOD policy requiring COVID vaccines, so huge chunks of the Navy, Marine Corps, Army and Air Force can all call out sick on the same day if the virus numbers swell again. Whatever you think of that policy, the decision will probably keep Vice Adm. Sean Buck, the Naval Academy superintendent, from having to explain at Republican-led congressional hearings next year why 18 mids were denied exceptions from the shots on religious grounds.
But messing with football right before the big game just seems mean, and if there is any doubt, read the explanation in the “Joint Explanatory Statement to Accompany the James M. Imhofe National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023.”
I warned you there would be jargon.
“Service academy appointments are a zero sum game,” lawmakers wrote. “Every appointment that goes to a graduate who does not complete his or her Active Duty service obligation to pursue professional athletics, could have been awarded to many other qualified young people who would have happily served their country on Active Duty. We hope that the Department will finally adhere to this latest reiteration of congressional intent.”
Army fans might consider this the Andre Carter II amendment to the legislation. The Army linebacker from Texas is considered the most likely athlete to ask for a deferment on his service obligation in either academy.
This policy has gone back and forth for years, probably starting 35 years ago when David Robinson was a 7-foot, 1-inch center dominating the college basketball court. The Navy at first denied his request to play pro basketball, then cut his service obligation to two years. Robinson, nicknamed “The Admiral,” went on to an MVP career with the San Antonio Spurs over the next 14 years.
There was similar language in committee four years ago — making me think this was a Republican thing — but it apparently didn’t take. In 2019, then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper cleared the way for athletes at the academies to delay their service commitments and play pro sports after graduation with approval by the DOD.
Navy quarterback Matthew Perry, who became the first person to get a waiver under the new policy, was drafted by the Miami Dolphins and then spent time on the New England Patriots bench for a while before leaving the NFL this year for the Marine Corps.
Navy pitcher Noah Song, the possessor of a 90 mph fastball, didn’t get the waiver. He still got drafted by the Boston Red Sox for its farm system, and even though he remains on active duty, his contract was traded this week to the Philadelphia Phillies.
Four Navy athletes were given waivers in May, among them linebacker Diego Fagot. He was signed by the Baltimore Ravens but released in August. Now, he’s with the XFL Houston Roughnecks.
Look, I’m not a sports columnist. Over the years, I’ve heard arguments for this both ways.
Having top Navy athletes go pro is great for attracting top athletes with the brains to get into the Naval Academy. Does having Jennifer Coleman playing guard for the Washington Mystics this season or Matt Nocita with MLS’s New York Red Bulls make the academy or the Navy more attractive?
And who the heck are the Houston Roughnecks, anyway? For that matter, what is the XFL?
You can’t deny, academy athletes understand the commitment to serve when they sign up for one of the best college educations in the world for free.
None of these recent athletes, no matter how good they are, is a Robinson or a Roger Staubach (the 1965 Naval Academy grad who went on to serve four years in the Navy, including a tour of duty in Vietnam, before he started winning Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys). And the college transfer portal is likely to take some of the pressure off waivers.
I’d still stay prepared for a change in this policy the next time a once-in-a-generation athlete graduates from Navy or Army (Air Force? Nah. Never happen).
COVID policy ended
Now about those religious exemptions for COVID shots at the academy … they no longer matter.
“The agreement includes a provision that would require the Secretary of Defense to rescind the mandate that members of the Armed Forces be vaccinated against COVID-19,” lawmakers wrote.
Then, they incongruously added this: “We believe in the importance of the Secretary following public health guidance in order to protect the health and welfare of servicemembers and their families, to include mandating vaccines based on readiness requirements.”
COVID sickened hundreds of midshipmen in Annapolis two years ago, and forced a year of remote classes and spreading mids out through measures like leasing dorm space at nearby St. John’s College. All that was gone this year, as COVID numbers dropped, just as they did in the wider population.
In October, U.S. Rep. Greg Steube of Florida went on Fox News and complained that one of his constituents was denied a diploma because he or she had religious objections to the vaccines. He and seven other Republican members of Congress wrote Buck in November, demanding an explanation.
Buck wrote back a few days later and laid out what was going on.
“To date, no unvaccinated midshipmen have been denied a diploma,” he wrote.
Eighteen mids applied for an exception, and Buck said he passed them onto the command structure created by the DOD policy for everyone in the service. Two are still awaiting a decision from the chief of naval operations, and the rest have been denied.
Five of the Republicans who signed the letter are members of the House Armed Services Committee, which has oversight of the academy and the military in general. That makes Buck a nice target for a visit to the committee next year when Republicans take over the House, and discussions of religious freedoms versus public health will be so much fun.
The NDAA now goes to the Senate for a vote next week, and because this is a compromise intended to get the defense budget done before the end of this Congress, it’s likely both these changes will stand.
A spokesperson for U.S. Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin said that schools have had lists of mandated vaccines for decades and that Republicans’ efforts to inject politics into public health cost lives over the course of the pandemic.
My guess is that at least some of the Republicans who signed that letter knew the act might include a reversal of the vaccine mandate and that this was just a sideshow and, more important, an opportunity to go on Fox News and be outraged rather than an actual policy dispute.