The path from military academies to professional athletics became a little easier this month.
The Associated Press obtained a memo signed by United States Defense Secretary Mark Esper that states athletes can immediately pursue professional sports as long as they have received approval from the defense secretary. Upon completion of their athletic career, they must fulfill their military obligation or repay the costs of their education.
The process began when President Donald Trump was presenting the Army football team with the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy in May. Trump announced he was considering allowing athletes a waiver to play professional sports. In June, Trump gave the Pentagon four months to find a way for military athletes to play professionally immediately after graduating, citing the limited time athletes have to “take advantage of their athletic talents."
Traditionally, military academy athletes have been required to serve five years prior to pursuing outside options such as professional sports. The new path to the professional ranks begins when a military service secretary nominates an athlete for a waiver after determining the athlete can serve the military in a nontraditional way. The memo stats that the waiver is an option when there is a “a strong expectation that a Military Service Academy cadet or midshipman’s future professional sports employment will provide the DoD with significant favorable media exposure likely to enhance national level recruiting or public affairs missions.”
Once the defense secretary approves the waiver, the athlete must commit to returning to the military and serving their time – typically five years. If they fail to pass the required medical standards, they are asked to serve in a civilian post within the department for at least five years. Otherwise, they’ll be asked to repay their school expenses.
The government has experimented with similar ideas in the past. Former President Barack Obama’s administration passed a policy that allowed some athletes to defer their military service, which led to Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds being drafted to the NFL in 2016. The defense department rescinded the policy in April 2017, with then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis stating service academies “exist to develop future officers,” and graduates that received an education at the taxpayers’ expense should carry out those career expectations.