There is some merit to both rationales, but I’d also like to suggest a third possibility: Navy’s gaming the system.
For instance, have you ever heard of the Naval Academy Preparatory School, or NAPS as it’s called? In Newport, R.I., close to the Naval War College, NAPS was founded in 1915 as a place where enlisted men with officer potential could get up to speed academically before entering the Naval Academy.
By the late 1960s, NAPS had opened its doors to civilians. This was partly a diversity effort, but it was also a way to get in the children of alumni or politicians who didn’t have the grades or SAT scores to be admitted into the Naval Academy directly from high school. Once in NAPS, which is tuition-free, students were essentially guaranteed a spot in the Naval Academy the next year. According to a Naval Academy spokesman, Cmdr. David McKinney, the prep school costs taxpayers around $14 million a year.
In the 1980s, Navy noticed that the Air Force Academy, which was regularly trouncing it in football, was placing recruited athletes in its prep school. Indeed, in 2003, Fisher DeBerry, the longtime coach of the Falcons, told The Colorado Springs Gazette that the prep school “has had a major impact on the success of our football team.”
Eager to turn the tide against its rival, Navy began to copy DeBerry’s methods. Sure enough, NAPS is now a means by which Navy launders underqualified athletes into the Naval Academy.
Jim Kenney, a retired Navy captain who was the commanding officer of the Navy prep school from 1978-82, recalled that in his era maybe four football players had been enrolled. “Today,” he said, “it is dominated by athletes.”
McKinney says that recruited athletes made up only 35 percent of the current NAPS class. But their effect on Navy athletics is huge. Seventy-five percent of the current football team got into the Naval Academy through NAPS, according to the Midshipmen football media guide. More than half the men’s basketball team went to NAPS, and 60 percent of the women’s basketball team. There have been years when 80 percent of the lacrosse team’s players were NAPS graduates.
In addition to a free education, the Navy gives NAPS students $1,000 a month.
Ordinarily, this would be a violation of N.C.A.A. rules. Because NAPS students are being paid for being in the military, the N.C.A.A. has granted a waiver allowing the stipend. (The same is true at the Air Force and Army prep schools.)
What was NAPS like for the athletes? The athletics were intense, and the academics none too stressful, recalled Peter Banos, who played basketball there in 2008. “There was all sorts of tutoring,” he said, “but really, it was like another year of high school.”
Banos added: “We had cars, we could visit friends, and we were flush with cash. It was high school kids getting paid.” And if, after a year at NAPS, a student decided not to go the academy, the Navy didn’t ask for its money back. Banos left the Naval Academy after his freshman year.
The Naval Academy said that many NAPS athletes go on to succeed at the academy and in the Navy. Three former Navy football players from the class of 1998, all of whom went through NAPS, are in important command posts seeking terrorists.
There is a second way that Navy lands athletes who would normally be rejected through the admissions process. The Naval Academy Foundation, an entity founded in 1944 to support Navy athletics, pays for scholarships to send athletes to a private prep school, usually one with a heavy emphasis on sports. In return, the athletes are expected to go to the Naval Academy the next year. The donors to the foundation are almost all Naval Academy alumni.
Let’s dwell on this for a second. Imagine if some Ohio State boosters paid to send recruited athletes to a private prep school for a year before they went to the university. It would be an out-and-out scandal — exactly the kind of booster bribery the N.C.A.A. wants to stamp out. Yet, once again, the military academies have been given a waiver by the association.
Those height and weight restrictions I mentioned earlier? They are waived for athletes — at least until their eligibility is used up. At that point, those 280 pounds that made a Navy lineman so valuable to the team become a huge liability. They are suddenly under tremendous pressure to lose 50, 60, 70 pounds, depending on their height. And if they don’t — or simply can’t — their careers suffer, and sometimes end prematurely.
As for that required five years of military service, there once was a time when even the best Navy athletes had to put in time after graduation before going on to a professional career. Roger Staubach, who won the Heisman Trophy as a junior in 1963, didn’t join the Dallas Cowboys until 1969. His Navy tour included a year in Vietnam.
Recently, athletes good enough to become professionals haven’t had to put in five years of military service. In May, the secretary of the Navy granted waivers to four Navy athletes, allowing them to play while serving in the Reserve. They included Keenan Reynolds, last season’s quarterback, who is now with the Baltimore Ravens, and Joe Cardona, who is the long snapper for the New England Patriots.
The good news, I suppose, is that, aside from the cost of NAPS, Navy athletics doesn’t cost the taxpayer very much money. The government allocates only $3.9 million to the Navy athletic department. The rest of Navy’s athletic budget comes from an organization called the Naval Academy Athletic Association. Although the N.A.A.A. describes itself as a “nongovernment agency,” the majority of its board members are Naval Academy personnel, including Chet Gladchuk, the athletic director. Its offices are on campus. It uses the Naval Academy’s email system. And so on.
And it doesn’t just finance the athletic department. It runs it. The N.A.A.A. employs and pays the coaches. (Navy’s football coach, Ken Niumatalolo, makes $1.6 million.) It manages the stadium. It negotiates the media contracts. And it rustles up sponsors. In all, Navy’s athletic budget is over $40 million, in the same range as the budgets at Hawaii, Boise State and New Mexico.
Are the compromises Navy makes to remain competitive in big-time college football any worse than other Division I schools? Not really. But that’s not the point.
The military academies do something critical for our nation: They “train and educate junior officers in the Navy and Marine Corps,” said Barry Relinger, a Naval Academy alumnus. “They should be dedicated to that purpose and not trying to achieve greatness of Division I sports.”
No one is saying sports shouldn’t matter at the Naval Academy. The Navy believes that sports can build character and imbue leadership qualities that are important for officers. I’m not going to disagree.
But to its critics, the gamesmanship required for the Naval Academy to be able to play football competitively with the likes of Notre Dame has hurt its ability to turn out the best officers possible.
“I think competition is very important,” said David Tuma, an alumnus who has long been critical of Navy athletics. “But you don’t have to be in Division I to stir the competitive spirit.”
On Saturday afternoon, the annual Army-Navy game will be a hard-fought, patriotic spectacle. It will be fun to watch. Would we feel any different about it if the two schools didn’t park athletes in their prep schools? If the linemen weighed 230 instead of 280? If they were in Division III instead of Division I? I doubt it.
If only the Navy believed that.
An earlier version of this article misstated the number of consecutive years Navy will have beaten Army if Navy wins Saturday. It is 15, not 14. The article also misstated Roger Staubach’s year at Navy when he won the Heisman Trophy. It was his junior year, not his senior year.