By Thomas Hauser
Caleb Campbell (United States Military Academy, Class of 2008) is 23 years old and was captain of the 2007 Army football team. Less admirably, he is a prime example of the hypocrisy that attends the war currently being waged at the behest of his commander-in-chief.
Virtually all of Campbell’s classmates will be serving in Iraq or Afghanistan by the end of this year. That’s in keeping with the requirement that West Point cadets commit to five years of active military duty in return for their education.
Students at the Naval and Air Force academies incur a similar obligation. Roger Staubach spent four years in the Navy (including a tour of duty in Vietnam) before beginning his Hall of Fame career with the Dallas Cowboys. David Robinson also served on active naval duty before achieving superstar status with the San Antonio Spurs. Air Force Academy graduate Chad Hennings was on active duty in his branch of the service before playing in the National Football League.
This obligation, shared by young men and women at the service academies, is a bond that transcends the normal ties between student-athletes. Cadets do more than play on the same team; they have a common future. Seniors in the Army-Navy football game know that they’re competing with and against each other for the last time before serving in common cause.
However, in March 2005, the United States Military Academy adopted an “alternative service option” for athletes. This program releases cadets who have “unique talents and abilities” (i.e. are good enough to play in a major professional sports league) from their commitment to serve five years of active duty in the Army. In return, the cadet must, for two years, “participate in activities with potential recruiting or public affairs benefit to the Army” at the same time he’s pursuing his pro sports career. He may then erase the remaining three years of his active-duty commitment by serving in the Army Reserve.
In other words, if Caleb Campbell makes a National Football League roster, rather than risk his life in Iraq or Afghanistan, he can speak to young people and seek to recruit them to serve in his stead.
The purpose of the “Alternative Service Option” was to resurrect the football program at West Point. In the five years prior to its adoption, Army’s gridiron record was a pitiful 5 wins and 53 losses. Coaches at West Point can now recruit elite high school athletes with the sales pitch, “Come to West Point. If you’re good enough to play in the NFL, you can avoid military combat.”
That’s a far cry from World War II and the Korean War, when the United States asked great athletes like Ted Williams to serve in the armed forces alongside everyone else.
The most disturbing aspect of all this is the light it sheds on our priorities as a nation. The United States Military Academy is, in effect, saying that it considers entertaining sports fans to be more important than the war in Iraq. How else can one construe giving a young man the choice of (a) living up to his commitment to serve his country or (b) playing in the National Football League?