DOD rescinds policy that allowed pro athletes to defer service

The U.S. Department of Defense has rescinded a year-old policy that allowed military service academy athletes such as Keenan Reynolds to play professionally immediately upon graduation.

Athletes will have to serve two years of active duty before applying for reserve status to pursue a pro career. It’s unclear how the order, signed April 29 by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, will affect former Navy standouts such as Reynolds. The wide receiver, entering his second year with the Ravens, is expected to attend the team’s rookie minicamp this weekend.

“Our military academies exist to develop future officers who enhance the readiness and the lethality of our military services. Graduates enjoy the extraordinary benefit of a military academy education at taxpayer expense. Therefore, upon graduation, officers will serve as military officers for their minimum commitment of two years,” Pentagon chief spokesman Dana W. White said May 1 in a statement.

White added that the Defense Department “has a long history of officer athletes who served their nation before going to the pros including Roger Staubach, Chad Hennings, and David Robinson.”

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U.S. Naval Academy quarterback Keenan Reynolds was named most valuable player after throwing for 130 yards and a running the ball in for a touchdown in the Army Navy football game, 2012. (Department of Defense photo by Marv Lynchard)

The policy change was an unexpected blow to NFL prospects not only in Annapolis but also at the Air Force Academy and West Point. Midshipman wide receiver Jamir Tillman was not taken in last week’s NFL draft, but his agent had said he’d drawn interest from NFL teams. The Navy athletic department declined to comment on the policy reversal.

Air Force wide receiver Jalen Robinette, who led the NCAA in yards per catch last season and is on track to graduate this month, was expected to be a midround selection but wasn’t chosen after academy officials were told April 27 that the Air Force wouldn’t allow him to go straight to the NFL.

Robinette was informed of this decision about an hour into the three-day, seven-round draft. The academy said it wanted to let NFL teams know about the policy’s reversal so teams would know he won’t be available until 2019.

Also read: 5 sports stars who saw heavy combat in the US military

Robinette led the country with 27.4 yards per catch in 2016 and was the first Air Force player ever invited to the East-West Shrine Game, the Senior Bowl and the NFL scouting combine. Starting in January, he maintained a full class load while commuting 100 miles six days a week to train with other hopefuls, including top-10 pick Christian McCaffrey, in suburban Denver.

Robinette had prepared for the draft believing he’d be allowed to play in the NFL right away because of a Defense Department decision in the summer of 2016.

After the Ravens drafted Reynolds, a record-breaking triple-option quarterback, in the sixth round in 2016, the department changed its policy for service academy athletes who are offered the opportunity to play professionally, saying they could receive reserve appointments upon graduation and start their pro careers immediately. (All applications for the ready reserve were reviewed on a case-by-case basis.)

Neither the Pentagon nor Reynolds could be reached May 1 to comment on the new order’s effect on his military status. Former Navy fullback Chris Swain and former Air Force tight end Garrett Graham, who spent most of last year on NFL practice squads, also were allowed under the previous policy to defer their active duty last season.

Defense Department officials announced the new order May 1; the Air Force football team arrived in Washington the same day. The Falcons were scheduled to receive the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy at a White House ceremony on May 2.

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