Patriot Games: Sports and the military share a powerful connection in the U.S.
- In the U.S., the connection between sports and the military goes far beyond the stadium flyover. Now, the armed forces are recognizing the value of putting young officers in uniform—on the playing field.
WHEN JOE Greenspan, a standout soccer player out of Westfield (N.J.) High, chose to attend the Naval Academy over offers from William and Mary and other Division I programs, he knew he would be pursuing one dream at risk of possibly abandoning another. Yes, he would have the opportunity to serve his country, armed with a degree in economics. But he also knew that his five-year postgraduate active duty requirement would forestall any chance of playing professional soccer. "I've always loved soccer," he says, "Wanted to play in college. Had good grades in high school. I was looking at it like, How can I give myself the best experience?"
A chiseled 6'6" center back, Greenspan played a school-record 78 games during his four years at Annapolis. He was voted the Patriot League's top defender twice and awarded the Sword of Men—an honor that is reserved for one graduating student-athlete. After helping Navy to a scoreless tie against Bucknell in November 2014, he assumed he had played his last game. But two months later the Colorado Rapids selected him with the 26th pick in the MLS draft. While civilian student-athletes can simply duck out of school and dive right into preseason camp, Greenspan points out that "you can't graduate early from any of the service academies." His pro career was over before it had begun.
Or was it?
AMERICANS LOVE their military, and Americans love their sports. The parallel between those attachments is irresistible. Here are two cultures bound by rule and hierarchy, animated by youth and steeped in history. They both work in teams, train relentlessly and thrive on aggression. Both apply strategy and, to varying degrees, force, in pursuit of a common goal: victory. "Sports and military," says outgoing Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, "have been close for a long, long time now."
Over the past 15 years, with American servicemen and women engaged in seemingly endless campaigns overseas, the country's military and sports cultures have pulled even closer. Early expressions of post-9/11 resilience—the field-sized American flags, the fighter jet flyovers, the troop tributes and camouflage uniforms—have hardened into set pieces. Military Appreciation Night, it seems, is now every night.
Not everyone, though, is rooting for this relationship, one that might be called—to borrow from that old general and avid golfer, Dwight D. Eisenhower—the military-sports complex. During a mid-September episode of HBO's Real Time, host Bill Maher lamented that sports had turned into "celebrations of militarism." Maher evoked "the flyovers of the jets and all that b-------" that some have criticized as "paid patriotism," star-spangled salutes that have cost taxpayers millions by the reckoning of a 2015 Senate report.
Still, the bond between sports and the military isn't going away. This week another golf enthusiast (albeit one without a military background) will assume the office that Ike once held. Donald J. Trump's campaign was marked by patriotic imagery and featured promises to bolster the military. The new President also has a long, if marginal, sports background. In addition to a portfolio including many golf courses, Trump once owned a USFL team, lent his name to the Tour de Trump bicycle race, joined in WrestleMania events and just last month appeared in public with Don King. Whether Trump, who also knows something about promoting, proves to be an ally in the military's efforts to build its brand through sports remains to be seen, but the service branches intend to do their part by not just putting more troops on the sidelines, but also more servicemen—and servicewomen—in the games.
WHEN THEN Secretary of Defense Ash Carter gave the keynote address at last spring's Naval Academy commencement, he began by breaking down the class—an impressive group indeed. Among the assembled midshipmen were cyber warfare majors (the academy's first ever), as well as Rhodes, Gates and Truman scholars. The class also included Annapolis's first bona fide NFL prospects in almost two decades. In the preceding few weeks, Keenan Reynolds, a Heisman candidate quarterback, had been chosen in the sixth round by the Ravens, while Chris Swain, the rugged fullback, had signed with the Chargers as an undrafted free agent.
Carter had a message for the two prospective pros. "You are cleared and approved to defer your service so you can pursue your NFL dreams," he said, over loud cheers. "Go get 'em!"
No longer would student-athletes at the nation's service academies be bound by what came to be called the "David Robinson Rule," a minimum two-year postgrad active duty requirement. Any academy athlete can now turn pro immediately, his or her two years of active duty replaced by eight to 10 years in the reserves. The policy shift could enhance service academy recruitment and the military's brand in general, providing a better p.r. boost than any amount of paid patriotism. "The value that we get far outweighs the active duty service commitment," says Mabus.
THE HIGHLY selective academies—the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the Naval Academy in Annapolis and the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs—were not built to mass-produce professional athletes. The men and women who enter these schools expect to be pushed academically and physically like nowhere else—and then to serve their country. "Unlike most other colleges, there isn't a lot of discussion about playing in the NFL at the academy schools," says Dishan Romine, a senior Navy slotback and returner with plausible pro aspirations. "We don't get as many football scouts at practice."
And while athletics lies at the core of the academies' tradition—recall the words of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, which still echo in the halls of West Point: "On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days, on other fields will bear the fruits of victory"—no one suits up for the Black Knights or the Midshipmen expecting to play long past their last Army-Navy game. Even for academy student-athletes of truly exceptional ability, it has not been easy getting around a five-year active duty requirement. Consider that Roger Staubach, Navy's 1963 Heisman winner, nicknamed Captain America, only landed safely with the Cowboys (as, astoundingly, a 10th-round pick) after a postgraduate tour in Vietnam as a supply corps officer.
Two decades later there was Robinson, a 6'6" basketball prospect out of Manassas, Va. Even as he grew to 6'11" and blossomed into the nation's best player, leading the Midshipmen to the Elite Eight in 1986, Robinson still believed he would be better off following in the footsteps of his father, Ambrose—a career Naval officer—than in those of Ralph Sampson, his hoops idol. "I mean," says Robinson today, "it was a guaranteed job for five years after you graduated!" It was only the reality of being picked No. 1 in the 1987 NBA draft by the Spurs that swayed him. "If I had been drafted in the fifth round or something, didn't know whether I would even make a team, I might've been a little more anxious," says the 51-year-old Robinson, who served as a civil engineer officer on a Georgia submarine base before going on to a 14-season, Hall of Fame career. "I felt like, O.K., these guys'll really wait for me.... "
In the case of Robinson, or the Admiral as he was known in his NBA heyday, it was well worth that two-year wait. For those who came after him, though, the proviso that bore his name proved every bit as daunting as Robinson's eventual 7'1" shadow.
FROM THE time Robinson logged his first pro minutes, in 1989, through the end of his career, only 15 service academy student-athletes went on to play pro sports. Fittingly, all played in the most combative league of them all, the NFL. More troops figured to get into the game when, in '05, the Army introduced the Alternative Service Option (ASO)—which allowed eligible cadets to defer their so-called Robinson Rule requirement and work in the reserves (perhaps in recruiting, as Robinson did early in his career) if they had a pro contract in hand.
Caleb Campbell, a premier safety when he graduated from West Point in 2008, was on course to become an early ASO beneficiary upon joining the Lions as a seventh-round pick. When his agent called on the eve of training camp to tell him to report to the general manager's office ASAP, Campbell assumed it was so he could sign the three-year deal Detroit had offered. Instead, he found himself on the phone, again—this time with then Army athletics director Kevin Anderson.
"Mr. Campbell," Anderson said, "I regret to tell you that there has been a change in policy. The ASO program has been voided. Report back to West Point within the next 24 hours."
Says Campbell, "I was just shocked."
As well he might have been. The ASO rule had been instituted only at West Point, and some Annapolis and Air Force Academy athletes felt that it gave Army an unfair edge, and so the program was essentially halted. It wasn't revived until last March, when Secretary Carter visited West Point and sat down to a mess hall lunch with a small group of cadets. Beside him was Kelsey Minato, a 5'8" guard on the women's basketball team and the first Black Knight in any sport to have her jersey retired on Senior Night.
"So," began Carter, "I hear you want to play basketball after you graduate."
"Yes, sir," said Minato, "if I had the opportunity to, then I would love to."
"O.K., I'll sign a waiver for you to defer your commitment so you can play."
True to Carter's word, Minato got her WNBA shot. But after joining the San Antonio Stars last summer as an undrafted free agent and logging 10 minutes in a pair of exhibition games, she was cut. But don't call it a setback. Just having the secretary of defense on her side was historic. A major boon for her peers too. They wouldn't appreciate just how major, until Navy started grabbing headlines again behind another Captain America.
A RUN-PASS threat who stands just 5'10", Keenan Reynolds might never have commanded a college football huddle if he had gone to, say, Middle Tennessee. At Navy, though, leading a triple-option offense that played to his talents, he distinguished himself as one of the nation's premier signal-callers. In 2015 he led the Midshipmen to an 11--2 record while smashing FBS career marks for touchdowns (88) and quarterback rushing yards (4,559). All that brought him serious Heisman consideration—the first time a Navy player had gotten within a stiff-arm's reach of the statue since Staubach claimed it.
Ultimately, Reynolds finished fifth in the voting, just missing an invitation to the Heisman ceremony in New York City. "I thought the Heisman [committee] made a terrible mistake not having him there," Mabus says. "He represents exactly what the Heisman is looking for."
Mabus further supported Reynolds when he declared for last April's draft. Scouted as an offensive tweener and special teams contributor, Reynolds went to Baltimore with the 182nd pick. But his eligibility to play wasn't official until Carter gave the go-ahead at graduation. Two months later the Pentagon announced that it would allow service-athletes to commission as reservists and pursue pro careers on a case-by-case basis.
Of course, not everyone is cheering this play—which has stoked fears among the academies' traditionalists of a larger takeover by the jockocracy. But Mabus is quick to note that this new DoD exemption isn't confined to athletes: "If you're a great cello player and you make the New York Philharmonic, and you'll go recruit for us? In a very different community? I'll take that case to give you a waiver too."
Reynolds and Swain—practice squad contributors both (Swain landed with the Jets late last season)—aren't the only NFL prospects to receive special dispensation. There's also tight end Garrett Griffin, a rookie out of Air Force whom the Saints have stashed on their practice squad. There's also Joe Cardona, a second-year long snapper with the Patriots. As a rookie last year he juggled that job with another as a command duty officer at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, R.I.
So the new DoD policy is a golden opportunity. You'd think that those given such a chance would be more inclined to take advantage of their good fortune. But they largely keep their heads down, like troopers. Like Joe Greenspan.
WHEN THE Colorado Rapids chose the center back with the 26th pick, Greenspan was caught on the back foot. The Academy granted him extended holiday leave over Presidents' Day weekend and the ensuing spring break to meet and train with Colorado. Meanwhile, school brass grappled with how to handle things going forward. With the situations of Reynolds and Swain a year away from fully playing out, Greenspan was initially designated as a Robinson Rule case. After graduation he was given a temporary assignment of duty in Denver, enabling him to spend his rookie season with the Rapids while on active duty as a Navy recruiter.
Following the 2015 MLS season, in which he played three games, Greenspan was assigned to a four-month post aboard the San Diego--based USS Sampson—a destroyer that aided in the search for an AirAsia jet that went missing over the Java Sea in 2014.
His specific job, surface warfare officer, is among the more high-stress positions in the Navy. "It's long days, hard work," says Greenspan, who plays down the toll the job had on his soccer conditioning. "I can't complain too much, considering I only had to do it for a couple of months compared to my counterparts."
Once back on shore Greenspan approached the task of rebuilding his fitness like a third job. Stationed in San Diego, he drove to Encinitas after work five or six days a week to train with ex-NFL kicker John Carney. It wasn't until Carter hinted at the end of the Robinson Rule during his 2016 Naval Academy commencement address that Greenspan could really see his life changing.
FOR REYNOLDS and his football brethren, taking the golden ticket is a no-brainer. In the NFL the starting salary is six figures. It was also an easy call for Minato, the plucky West Point guard. WNBA compensation, while modest, is nonetheless competitive for 3½ month's work. What's more, it sets players up to pocket even more overseas during the off-season.
The earning potential in MLS, however, is much different. Rank-and-file players, in particular homegrown ones like Greenspan, start out at about $50,000 a year—only a little above his Navy pay grade. True, the load would be lighter, but it wasn't about that for him. It was about "chasing my dream," he says. That he could do so while also continuing to serve his country in a recruiting capacity is ultimately what compelled him to keep going. Last summer, following 18 months of active duty service, Greenspan played just one minute for the Rapids during the 2016 MLS season while practicing himself back into playing shape and making recruiting appearances on the Navy's behalf in between.
Still, there are times when Greenspan can't help but feel guilty, as if he had turned his back on his brothers—including his actual older brother, Alex, a Navy petty officer, second class. "It weighs on me," he says. "Why do I get to play a game for a living right now? Yeah, I'm still serving in the reserves, but it's not the same as my classmates and my teammates on active duty."
Even as he put in for reserve duty under the new policy, Greenspan kept it on the down low. "My [commanding officer] was just like, Work your butt off and focus on what you have in front of you here and hopefully we'll get you back to playing soccer in the near future," he recalls. As word of his efforts began spreading among his peers, "there was animosity here and there."
Greenspan wouldn't get into specifics. But Campbell, the gridiron Cadet who was called back to West Point, did. Before his 2008 graduation from Army, as his effort to go pro (behind the Academy's ASO exemption) was becoming national news, he received an anonymous handwritten letter. "I want you to muster up the balls to walk over to the West Point cemetery and stand in front of each headstone of recent graduates who were killed in Iraq or Afghanistan and tell them that you are going to face just as much pressure as they did," it read. "I doubt you'll do that. You'll kiss them off like you're kissing off your classmates."
The trolling might've broken Campbell, now 32, if he hadn't also been so strongly backed. "People can scrutinize, but they were not sitting at a round table with two-, three-, four-star generals," he says. "And then there were all my superior officers from the United States Military Academy, giving me advice, telling me what I should be doing. And I'm just saying, 'O.K., I'll go for it."
In the end, though, perhaps it was better for Campbell that he was called back to West Point. That year the Lions became the first NFL team to lose 16 games in a season. For the next two years he operated on the fringes of the Robinson Rule—first as a grad assistant on the West Point coaching staff, then as a bobsledder in the Army's World Class Athlete Program (an Olympic and Paralympic training ground), then in officer school at Fort Sill, in southwest Oklahoma.
In 2010, upon satisfying his active duty obligation, Campbell circled back to Detroit, signing a one-year contract. Relegated to special teams, he played three games before being cut in '11. From there he bounced from Indianapolis to Kansas City—sabotaging himself, he says, at every stop. "I was so afraid of being exposed as this person that didn't have what it took to make it in the NFL," he recalls. "But if I can sabotage my career, I'll always have an excuse on why I didn't make it. I can sleep at night saying, well, if I would've studied, I guarantee I would've made it in the NFL. At the end of the day I just didn't have the balls to quit."
In August 2012 the Chiefs put Campbell out of his misery, serving him a final NFL pink slip. He resettled in Buffalo, found work with a marketing and design firm and joined a church just across the Niagara River, in Fort Erie, Ont. There, he would become so rehearsed in sharing his testimony—a soul-searching allegory—that he would respin it into a side career as a motivational speaker.
Not surprisingly, Campbell, because of his Army experience, views the abandonment of the Robinson Rule more diplomatically than most. "For us to continue to have the maximum influence [as an institution], I think it's pivotal that we are able to recruit better athletes," he says. "For us to be able to compete at the Division I level, it's necessary for us to recruit."
What's more, the policy change could encourage more pro scouts, who've long been discouraged by the Robinson Rule, to visit academy campuses. One player who's already drawing more looks is Jamir Tillman, a senior wideout who led Navy in receiving in each of the last three seasons. He was invited to play in the NFLPA's All-Star Game on Jan. 21. Time will tell whether that leads to an opportunity to play on Sunday.
Still, there's a comfort in knowing his football career isn't over yet. "I felt good for Swain and Keenan," Tillman says. "It gave me hope. But at the same time we know that it's a privilege—like anything in the military."
Joe Greenspan understands. Although his pro soccer career hasn't quite taken off yet, a recent trade to Minnesota United could be just the break he's been waiting for. And it didn't compromise his love for country. "If I'm on the bench or on the field at halftime, warming up, I'm always on my feet applauding the men and women who are celebrated at the halftime of our games," he says. "I just think it brings a positive light upon the people who make sacrifices every day. Fans can recognize what they do—or at least think about it for a second instead of just taking everything for granted."