Prof.: Division I Football Killing Service Academies

Bruce Fleming is a current English professor at the United States Naval Academy who has taught at Annapolis for 23 years. This week he authored a provocative NEW YORK TIMES op-ed titled, “The Academies’ March Toward Mediocrity.

Navy Memorial Football Stadium

In the piece, Fleming cites Division I football as a prime reason for an alleged downfall of the service academies, noting, “the academy’s former pursuit of excellence seems to have been pushed aside by the all-consuming desire to beat Notre Dame at football.”

Taxpayer money to fund service academy football?

View Results

While Fleming doesn’t cite Division I athletics as the only reason for the “academies’ march toward mediocrity,“he gives specific examples as to why high profile sports is impugning the mission of those institutions.

Fleming leads the piece with this:

THE idea of a football star receiving lenient treatment after testing positive for drug use would raise no eyebrows at most colleges. But the United States Naval Academy “holds itself to a higher standard,” as its administrators are fond of saying. According to policy set by the chief of naval operations, Adm. Gary Roughead, himself a former commandant of midshipmen at the academy, we have a “zero tolerance” policy for drug use.

Yet, according to Navy Times, a running back was allowed to remain at Annapolis this term because the administration accepted his claim that he smoked a cigar that he didn’t know contained marijuana. (He was later kicked off the team for a different infraction, and has now left the academy.)

The incident brings to light an unpleasant truth: the Naval Academy, where I have been a professor for 23 years, has lost its way. The same is true of the other service academies. They are a net loss to the taxpayers who finance them, as well as a huge disappointment to their students, who come expecting reality to match reputation. They need to be fixed or abolished.

Referencing alleged preferential treatment of football players, former Middie slotback Marcus Curry in this case, as a major symptom in the overall compromising of the service academies is pretty serious stuff.

But Fleming wasn’t finished:

Meanwhile, the academy’s former pursuit of excellence seems to have been pushed aside by the all-consuming desire to beat Notre Dame at football (as Navy did last year). To keep our teams in the top divisions of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, we fill officer-candidate slots with students who have been recruited primarily for their skills at big-time sports. That means we reject candidates with much higher predictors of military success (and, yes, athletic skills that are more pertinent to military service) in favor of players who, according to many midshipmen who speak candidly to me, often have little commitment to the military itself.

It’s no surprise that recruited athletes have been at the center of recent scandals, including a linebacker who was convicted of indecent assault on a female midshipman in 2007 and a quarterback who was accused of rape and dismissed from the academy for sexual misconduct in 2006. Sports stars are flattered on campus, avoid many of the onerous duties other midshipmen must perform, and know they’re not going to be thrown out. Instead of zero tolerance, we now push for zero attrition: we “remediate” honor code offenses.

We have two choices. One is to shut down Annapolis, West Point and the other academies, and to rely on R.O.T.C. to provide officers. Or we can embrace the level of excellence we once had and have largely abandoned. This means a single set of high standards for all students in admissions, discipline and academics. If that means downgrading our football team to Division III, so be it.

Fleming does bring up an interesting question: Why is it important for the service academies to field top-flight college football teams along with Division I entries in other sports?

If those sports programs are, as the 23-year Navy Professor claims, harming the integrity of the institutions, why are taxpayers paying for Annapolis to pull out the stops for a bid to the Maytag Dishwasher Bowl every December?

The choice, at least from my perspective, between generally mediocre, gadget play-impaired football or turning out the best United States military personnel possible is an easy one.

If the service academies need Division I football teams that badly help recruiting and morale, perhaps Fleming is indeed onto something.