Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Another view of Annapolis athletics – and the consequences for our military

Something to think about from the land of L Co., 3/7 Marines. I like the argument for flexibility, and for keeping an eye on outcomes instead of processes. By Matt Collins Best Defense boat school Marine monitor The mess with Admiral Fowler and the various football player scandals came about because of the Academy’s strange ...

USMC
USMC
USMC

Something to think about from the land of L Co., 3/7 Marines. I like the argument for flexibility, and for keeping an eye on outcomes instead of processes.

By Matt Collins

Best Defense boat school Marine monitor

Something to think about from the land of L Co., 3/7 Marines. I like the argument for flexibility, and for keeping an eye on outcomes instead of processes.

By Matt Collins

Best Defense boat school Marine monitor

The mess with Admiral Fowler and the various football player scandals came about because of the Academy’s strange amalgamation of being a military commissioning source, a recruiting organization and a public university. At the center of this controversy is the football team, which both the largest source and recipient of funds from the Athletic Association. It also raises questions about using sports as a recruiting tool.

Service academies recruit separately from the military. They are expected to bring in high-quality 18-year-olds who are not only good students but good citizens and who ultimately will make good officers. Unlike civilian colleges, they must recruit from every congressional district in the country, every ethnic group and both genders. In recent years, the Navy and Marine Corps enlisted ranks have been overrepresented by minorities, but underrepresented in the officer corps. The naval academy and the related prep school are supposed to help remedy that. The Army/Navy game is seen as the biggest free recruiting event of the year. There have been troubles, but there also have been some unheralded successes from sports recruiting.

Case in point: Dominque Neal. He was an African American recruited to run track. He was a great guy and a good athlete — and a terrible engineering student. Neal’s grades were so bad that he was held back and did not graduate with his classmates. Usually, students in his situation are kicked out. Occasionally, the Academy will allow such academic underachievers to graduate a few months late. Neal was so highly regarded by the officers and academic staff that he was given an extra year and a half before he was commissioned into the Marine Corps. He was the first academy grad in history to be given such latitude.

Here’s the rest of the story. He also would become the first person in his class to command a company. He would earn this distinction amid the worst possible circumstances, as the XO of a Rifle Company in the Anbar Province in April of 2004, when his commander, Capt. Richard Gannon, was killed. Instead of finding a captain to replace him, General Mattis frocked 1st Lt. Neal to captain and gave him command of the company. The Marine Corps PAO office noted that this was the first time such turnover that had happened since Vietnam. Neal’s success as a commander fighting at Husaybah would be chronicled in David Danelo’s Blood Stripes.

Had Neal not been recruited to run track at the Naval Academy, it is anyone’s guess whether he would have pursued a career in the military. Had the Academy’s staff not been so rightfully impressed with Neal’s character and leadership, it is doubtful that another top tier university would have given such a terrible student so many second chances. Neal wasn’t that great of a track star.

Having a Division I sports program brings a lot of baggage. Football players have a much different experience than the rest of the student body. Football brings in money and publicity that pays for itself. Clearly, that money shouldn’t have been used for lavish parties for the football team. However, the recruiting videos it bought clearly targeted women and minorities.  Having a Division I athletic program allows service academies to recruit from a broader segment of society than they would have otherwise, including track recruits who could barely swim when they arrived. There is a reason Academy grads joke about coming from the Land of the Tall, Skinny White Dudes. Personally, I think one shady admiral and few worthless football players are worth it if it gives the Marine Corps one Dominique Neal.

Matthew Collins is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. He spent ten years as a Marine Intelligence Officer, including tours with 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion, the British Army and the Joint Staff J-2 Iraq Office. He is currently a contract Middle East analyst with the Marine Corps Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning. 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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