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Caleb's Choice

Jun 3, 2008
During the last weekend in April, West Point cadet Caleb Campbell was drafted to serve in a different Army. He was selected in the seventh and final round of the National Football League (NFL) draft.

It is unknown whether Campbell will make the final roster of the Detroit Lions, the team that drafted him. While the Lions have conducted their off-season training activities (OTAs) in May mini-camp, the cut-down process doesn't happen until late July or early August. The chances that a seventh round pick will make the roster and remain on the team through the end of the season are less than 40 percent.

Campbell will enter the NFL through an Army policy that allows highly regarded athletes to turn pro after their graduation from West Point. This policy, enacted in 2005, a year after Campbell entered the academy as a plebe, allows the athlete to serve a portion of his military service obligation as a recruiter. Cadets who do not play intercollegiate revenue sports, by comparison, have a five year service obligation in the branch they selected at graduation; the higher your rank, the more likely you get the branch you want.

I don't blame Campbell for taking advantage of his opportunity. It's not like he chose West Point expecting it to fall in his lap. If anything, Campbell chose a more difficult path to the NFL than any player in his draft class. Every West Point cadet, regardless of major, takes a rigorous engineering curriculum along with the drills and hands-on military training during the summer. Football practice, based on a great book, John Feinstein's A Civil War, is actually a welcome break from the school routine.

I understand the objections to Campbell's decision, especially since our country is at war, but the Army has historically made special considerations for the top professional athletes. Professional baseball stars, like Joe DiMaggio served their hitches as barnstormers and fitness instructors during World War II. West Point fielded the best football teams in the nation in 1944 and 1945; back then, there was the attractive lure of being an officer versus a draftee. However, pro football did not begin to mature as a sport until after the war was over; today, its popularity is second only to NASCAR.

But the Army and the NFL have to be fair to Campbell; neither wants his decision to become an embarrassment to the man or their organization.

If the Army wishes to use Campbell as a recruiter, they should use him to help recruit athletes to West Point; he has first-hand experience with the process that makes him invaluable to the academy and especially Army's coaching staff.

The academy would not have invested alumni money -- alumni fundraising pays the head coach's salary since the federal government would not want him to earn more than the Commander-in-Chief or the Secretary of Defense - if it didn't believe success on the gridiron was important to its image. If Campbell succeeds as a rookie, then the NFL also has a feather in its cap: a citizen soldier who is also a fine athlete. No doubt his team and the league will use that to full advantage.

But if Campbell does not make the Lions, or catch on with another team before the start of the NFL season, he should begin his service in the Army Air Defense Artillery, the branch in which he will be commissioned, but serve stateside in reserve duty until the season is over. If an NFL team calls him up that season, then good for him, he should play on.

However, if he is not on a roster at the start of next season, he should be placed on active duty and get on with his military career, wherever it takes him. I'm positive that the Army policy was never intended to allow an athlete to limp along on a two or three year search to find a team while being exempt from active duty. That would be unfair to the Army and those who have served.

The NFL is not like major league baseball, where a player can go down to the minors to perfect their craft; they must prove they belong in the upper echelon from the first day of camp - just as West Pointers must do from the first day of plebe year.
About the Author
Contact Stuart Nachbar at Educated Quest, a blog on education politics, policy and technology or read about his first book, The Sex Ed Chronicle, a novel on education and politics in 1980 New Jersey, at Sex Ed Chronicles.
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