For the past several years, the military academies, Army, Navy, Air Force, have been at something of a disadvantage in sports, at least in the context of major Division I football. There’s a whole lot of reasons for that. They’ve got that unseemly burden of training both for football and for war. There’s not a lot of gut majors to work with. And as a recruiting pitch, coaches can promise high school stars guaranteed employment upon graduation, most likely in Iraq. That’s not a great sales pitch for any kid dreaming about a different kind of uniform, namely one with an NFL logo on it.
That’s why in the past decades, since the widespread glamorization of the college and pro games, the military academies have been undersized, out-manned, and every other cliché you’d use to describe a little league team in the movies. And even though there’s been some decent squads recently, including a string of winning teams down at Navy, it tends to be a whole lot of gimmick offenses and smart execution instead of the flat out athleticism you might find at, I don’t know, Texas.
And that disadvantage is about to get worse. Potentially a whole lot worse. Because unlike Alabama football, which gets its funds from TV, and tickets, and sponsors, and even smaller state schools that dip into tuition and state subsidies, the military academies are federal institutions reliant on federal funds. And as of the writing of this column, our federal government is shut down. That means that Army, and Navy, and Air Force athletics may have to shut down with it. For now, it means no game travel, furloughed coaching staffs, and an across-the-board reduction of money spend on sports. In some cases, the players themselves can’t participate because upperclassmen may technically be considered federal employees. In practical terms for this weekend, we might not get the Air Force/Navy game, while Boston College will have wait and see if Army shows up. And that goes beyond the soccer and volleyball and all the other sports that have canceled games and practices.
Assuming things stay status quo, if that even exists anymore, none of this comes easy. CBS Sports Network is lining up alternative programming. Stadiums are sold out, at least in the case of the Navy/Air Force Game. Fan travel is already paid for. Basically, not funding these games are going to cost a bunch of people a whole lot of money, which I thought was the exact opposite intent of this shutdown in the first place.
The military academies have dealt with this before. Going back a bit, the government has restricted Army football from post season bowl play, most notably during the Vietnam era, when President Nixon thought it would be in poor taste to have the Army team play during times of war. But this shutdown would be a bit unchartered, especially since they managed to soldier on and play during the last government shutdown in the Clinton era.
Look, I won’t be so naïve to think this athletic hiatus should be at the forefront of the discussion on this national crisis. I know there’s plenty of people suffering real tragedies because certain politicians can’t do their jobs. No one’s going to starve or lose their medications because BC can’t beat Army on Saturday, which is most likely what would happen.
But that aside, I’m guessing they’re not going skip the games anyway. Already, administrators at all three academies are finding ways to shift budget lines and magically finance these games. They won’t do that for cross country, mind you, but for football, especially football on national television, it seems they’ll find a way. Maybe college football constitutes essential personnel, if you will. Like air traffic controllers and five star generals. But way more important than park rangers and medical researchers. College football would come somewhere between national security and food safety. So even if you go to the game, maybe think twice before ordering a hot dog.
I’m not sure the point here, since this goes way past the problems with college sports up to the problem with our government, which sadly makes the NCAA seem like a fine oiled machine. I do hope they play, if for no other reason than to show the government they can’t ruin everything. And let’s face it, these military academy football teams have tough enough time competing as it is.
Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.
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