Thursday, August 08, 2013

The Battle off the Football Field

I'm turn today's CDRSalamander over to a recent graduate of the United States Naval Academy.

The arguments he present are known to regular readers here, but his ground-level view, still fresh in his mind, is presented in a way far superior than what I have done in the past, and should give pause to those who still defend the horribly corrosive agent at the soul of USNA that the unbalanced love of football at USNA has become.

Though known to me, the author has asked to remain anonymous; a wise move on his part because as many have learned over the years - football can bring the worst out of some its fans.

Shipmate, over to you.

Misconduct by committed by players, coaches and staff of college football teams is by no means unique to one university. On the contrary, a number of Division I programs have found themselves embroiled in scandal recently: Auburn, USC, Ohio State, and of course, Penn State, come to mind.

Notwithstanding the most egregious offenses by such programs, the lengths to which a university will compromise on issues of academics and integrity is often dismissed, or even accepted as necessary to obtain the level of talent required to excel at a high level.

As allegations of sexual assault against three members of the U.S. Naval Academy’s football team are taken to an Article 32 hearing, it may seem that the nation’s service academies are no exceptions to the willingness of institutions to put aside other priorities in favor of football excellence. This, however, should not be taken in stride.

The academies tout themselves as the exception to the rule, and incessantly advertise themselves as adherents to a higher moral standard. After all, graduates of these institutions go on to lead the nation’s sons and daughters in battle. At the same time, a football culture amongst its alumni and students has created a conflicting priority: a push to field a competitive Division I football program.

Though USNA claims that it vigorously applies the same standards to its players as it does to the regular student body, the truth is that expectations for the best athletes are often relaxed or ignored altogether—all for the sake of ‘Beating Army’ or going to another bowl game.

Division I football has its place in big state-schools, but amongst the comparatively small service academies it is a parasite that takes away admissions from more deserving candidates, has a harmful effect on morale for the student bodies, and is disastrous for the public image of these otherwise remarkable institutions.

For What Purpose?

The service academies are unique in their emphasis on participation in sports. Many students enter these institutions as stand-out high school athletes. Even if they do not continue to participate in intercollegiate competition, they are required to play intramural sports. The reason for this focus on sports is to imbue America’s future officers with traits that might be otherwise lost in a purely academic environment. Teamwork, selflessness and trust—all qualities essential to success in the armed forces—are developed on the playing field.

The ultimate ideal that is instilled, however, is that victory is essential. Cheers of “Beat Army”, “Beat Navy” and “Beat Air Force” echo through the halls of the service academies, and come to a head each year during the week that leads up to the hallowed Army/Navy football game. Many traditions surround the performance of the football teams, and these work together to elevate the programs to a quasi-religious status. After graduation, and in the subsequent years of military service and the civilian life that follows, Navy football remains the only connection that many alumni have to their beloved institution. This, in turn, drives the desire for a successful team higher and higher as the years pass, and the once jaded cynicism of midshipman or cadet life warms gradually to fond memories of camaraderie and cheering the team on.

All the alumni ever seem to want to talk about is beating their service academy rival. Unfortunately, in seminars and ceremonies where midshipmen are in interaction with older alumni, the topic of discussion rarely centers on the lessons learned from a career at sea, but rather who the next opponent is on the football schedule.

Many of the older alumni of USNA recall the days of Roger Staubach and Joe Bollino. Back when, arguably, the competition was not driven to the level of performance that is expected of modern Division I schools—back when all midshipmen took an identical, rigorous selection of technical courses and had little available in the way of academic tutoring other than each other. These alumni idolize their football player classmates and recall their achievements and leadership on and off of the field. Of course, these memories, regardless of whether or not they have been skewed by the bias of time, lead to the perception that the modern football team endures the same rigors as their counterparts 50 years ago did. This belief is now untrue.

At What Cost?

Of course, the immense push from the alumni for a winning program has consequences. How should the effects of decreasing admissions, academic and moral standards for these players be quantified? By no means is this article unique in decrying the perils of maintaining Division I programs at the service academies, but those also lacked any solid statistical evidence that the average football player underperformed compared to his classmates. For any state university, this performance gap should come as no surprise. But remember, these are not regular college students--these are individuals who will soon be entrusted with other people’s lives. Only the best should be expected from these individuals.

Nevertheless there is a disparity between the players and the rest of the Brigade of Midshipmen. Below is a comparison of the grade distributions of these two groups compiled from cumulative GPAs calculated at the 12 week point in the fall semester of 2012. The red line represents the minimum 2.0 score that is required to graduate; the green line is the average GPA of that particular population.

As can be seen, the football team performs rather poorly compared to the rest of the student body at the Naval Academy with respect to academics. Their average cumulative GPA is 2.403 versus 2.964 for the rest of the students. Their median grades are even lower, very close to the 2.0 minimum to remain at the Academy. Notable too, is the sheer number of individuals who fall below this mark, which is termed unsatisfactory, or “UNSAT” in academy parlance.

The football team constitutes only 3% of the overall population of Navy and yet it comprises 18% of all individuals who are in this probationary category. Many of these individuals, mostly from the freshman and sophomore classes, will wash out due to academic issues. Ironically, this contributes to the degradation of the overall 4 year graduation rate—a metric that the academy aggressively attempts to maintain as high as possible.

Of course, if these underperforming students are removed before they are commissioned as officers, has not the academy performed its job of weeding out the unprepared? Unfortunately, these dismissals come as a very last resort, and oftentimes individuals are retained who would otherwise be swiftly shown the door if they were not deemed integral to the team. Again, the desire for a high graduation rate creates a conflicting interest that keeps many individuals for much longer than should be tolerated. There is, of course, this double standard that lends much leniency to these protected athletes. What is also concerning is that these failures from the academy took another applicants position—almost always one who was more academically, physically and morally qualified.

Unsurprisingly, this caste system of football players versus the remainder of the cadets and midshipmen extends not solely to academics, but to all aspects of academy life. Violations of the conduct code by star players, that would otherwise had led to a swift departure for lesser valued midshipmen or cadets, have at times been met with extreme leniency.

One outstanding example of this two-tiered system was so flagrant that it prompted media attention. In 2010, Marcus Curry, a stand-out running back was retained by the Superintendant (equivalent to the president of the university) despite testing positive for marijuana use.

Of course, USNA, as well as the whole Department of Defense has a strict no-tolerance policy towards drug use. For anyone familiar with the academy, they know that using illicit substances, regardless of how stellar of a student you are will lead to expulsion within a week of a positive test—by far the fastest ticket out of the institution. Curry’s retention over this issue (he later resigned after another, unrelated conduct issue) highlighted the academy leadership’s blinding infatuation with the football program.

The Pressure to Perform

Balancing the academic and physical load of the service academies while simultaneously abiding by their strict honor and conduct codes is no easy task. Compound this difficulty with having to compete versus other Division I football teams who endure half of the requirements of the service academies, and you have what seems to be an almost insurmountable tasking. Shouldn’t the football players have lower performance with their additional pressure to perform at such a high level? Shouldn’t they be cut some slack?

Let’s compare them to some other sports at Navy. Heavyweight and lightweight men’s crew season is year-round. They average two practices a day, two and a half hours each—of rowing or erging, not including competitions. This sport places a greater time requirement on its athletes than football does over the course of an academic year. Thus, they should also underperform the remainder of the Brigade, right? Take a look at their grade distribution:

As it turns out, the crew team vastly outperforms the football team in grades. In fact, it does much better than the average midshipmen. This is not an isolated case either. Take, for instance, the sprint football team at Navy: they too exceed the performance of the Brigade. Taken altogether, varsity athletes at USNA actually perform better than the average non-athlete. Considering that many (but certainly not all) are as demanding in their practice schedules as football is, the pressure to concentrate on the playing field

instead of the classroom no longer remains a valid excuse for the consistent underperformance of the team. Thus, there are other factors at play that reduce the quality of academic success for these individuals.

For the most part, the gap between the football team and the remainder of the student body is due to two factors: relaxed admissions standards for promising athletes and an institutional culture of immunity from punishment. The latter factor has wide-ranging consequences that extend much farther than just the academic domain. This poisonous mindset leads to transgressions of honor and conduct, and a general apathy towards all aspects of the Academy. Perhaps more harmful is the effect it has on the morale of the rest of the Brigade.

With such a system of double standards in place, the football program is responsible for a great deal of disillusionment and cynicism amongst the Brigade. Expectations of high standards and fairness in academy regulations quickly dissolve away to the political realities: very little gets in the way of “Beating Army” on the football field; academic shortcomings and misconduct are accepted as byproducts of a successful program. The mission, “To develop midshipmen morally, mentally and physically” need only apply to the midshipmen. The football players are in their own category.

Academics are not everything…

Of course, to these statistics, a counterpoint is that academic performance does not correlate to excellence in officership. On the contrary, many argue that there is an inverse correlation between doing well at the academies and excelling in the officer corps.

Why then do we bother to require our officers have a college education? Outside of the academies, ROTC and OCS proportionally spend much more time devoted to regular academic study than they do performing military duties. Certainly they are not also wasting their time frivolously with academia. The fact of the matter is that the officers of the U.S. military are charged with making decisions and thinking critically. Of course, leadership abilities are essential, but who would follow a leader who is charismatic but otherwise a complete buffoon?

Academic success is not everything, but it is a large component of what should be expected in a future leader. To excel in college requires discipline, dedication and intelligence towards all pursuits. Dedicating oneself to football exclusively is not enough to mold the attributes of a well rounded leader.

The successful alumni of the service academy football teams are often lauded as counterexamples to complaints against the mediocrity of the programs. The recent Academic All-Americans like John Dowd and Keegan Wetzel deserve all of the praise that they have received. Such athletes are truly beneficial to the academy and Navy. Unfortunately, in recent times, these individuals are in the minority. Moreover, the issue here is not the success of these standouts: these individuals would excel at the academy in the absence of a football program. The former football players who find success in the Fleet are those who both maintained interest in their sport as well as the profession they would soon find themselves in. The issue at hand is the individuals who are at the institution--and remain there despite repeated problems--merely because of their affiliation with the team. Scandals

The reverence afforded to these programs oftentimes instills a feeling of invincibility amongst the players and those affiliated with the team. When people do not believe they will be held fully accountable for their actions, misbehavior ensues. The current accusations leveled at three members of the team are by no means the only scandal to beset the program.

Kenney Ray Morrison, a past member of the Navy Football team was convicted of sexual assault charges in 2007.

The starting quarterback of the team, Lamar Owens, was acquitted of similar charges but convicted of conduct unbecoming and disobeying a direct order in a 2006 court martial.

Kyle Eckel, a standout fullback at USNA, was administratively separated from the Navy after only 17 months of service. His younger brother, initially retained by the Academy after having missed over 50 classes in one semester without an excuse (an offense that would have any other midshipman dismissed immediately) was finally kicked out after an honor offense during the summer of 2011.

In the summer of 2010, a Navy Inspector General report chastised the leadership of the Naval Academy for permitting the creation of a slush fund that aided recruitment for football and enabled parties for its coaching staff. The list of misconduct goes on.

While not all of the indiscretions perpetrated by the team are newsworthy, the incidents that do occur threaten the reputation of the Academy and the Naval Service. Unfortunately, these incidents will continue to occur as long as the players are held less accountable for their actions than the rest of the Brigade.

If imposing the high standards of the Naval Academy upon the football team would adversely affect their performance, then perhaps the team should be competing at a different level. The mission of the Academy is to produce officers, after all—not to field a winning football team.

Affecting Change

Though the service academies’ football programs are not without some benefit, their current state and future headings have, and will continue, to have a net negative effect of their respective institutions. Their cultures will continue to breed subpar midshipmen, indifferent officers, and in the worst cases, outright criminals. Unfortunately, rather than downplaying the importance of Division I football at USNA, the administration has chosen to elevate its significance by going from an independent affiliation to the Big East Conference. This will contribute to higher pressure to recruit high value athletes, and enable the team to better justify relaxed standards for its members.

The three service academies should be taking the opposite direction with their football programs. Though it is sad to think that programs that were once amongst the most competitive in the nation should be downgraded or eliminated, it is the proper step to take. The academies love to draw comparisons with the most esteemed academic institutions in the country, like Harvard, Dartmouth or Cornell, so why doesn’t it compete against them in football? Navy could choose to play in the Division I Football Championship (formerly I-AA), like the Ivy League schools and compete at this level in the Patriot League like the remainder of the school’s sports. Why, with such different institutional aims and mindsets does it choose to compete at the same level as Alabama and Florida?

Of course, any change to the current programs at one of the three D-I service academies must be met with the same change at the other two. Rivalry will never permit Navy to step down to Division III while West Point continues to compete at Division I. The alumni would not tolerate it. Who then is charged with the decision to alter these programs? Change from within is almost unthinkable.

At USNA, the athletic association wields immense power and the Commandant is normally sympathetic to the football team (the current and former Commandants have both been NAPS graduates and football players). It is unlikely that any Superintendant would step out against the will of many powerful alumni and unilaterally change the program. Thus, the responsibility to change the service academies most likely falls upon Congress.

Many would argue, however, that since much of the football team’s activities are privately funded, that no governmental entity from the academy administration up to Congress should have authority to modify or eliminate the programs. Unfortunately, what these individuals fail to realize is that regardless of the funding, the football team represents a very public entity. Its actions reflect on the Navy, Department of Defense and government as a whole by bearing its name. Its shortcomings and misconduct threaten the reputation of so much more than just a football program.

Football has been, by all accounts, an integral component of service academy culture for well over a century. Regardless of the football division at which the service academies play, the spirit of the rivalry between the academies will remain the same. Beating Army or Beating Navy in football is ultimately what matters to cadets, midshipmen and alumni. Even if this takes place at a lower division, the sentiment will be just as strong. Thus, to improve the quality of the service academies, lowering the NCAA division in which they compete has become imperative.

UPDATE: MilitaryTimes' After Action Military Sports Report has picked up the story. He get's to the core subject of the post and reminds us,
It’s unlikely the proposal will get much traction at a school that’s in the midst of stadium expansion and will host a bowl game in December.
Very true.

I don't think we've seen this much interest in Navy football here since ... when .... oh yea;

UPDATE II - Electric Boogaloo: the 26 AUG 13 edition of Navy Times picked up the story. Ahem.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

what happened to all the comments?