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West Point's merit is not proven on a gridiron

On Dec. 15, shortly after Army football's 12th consecutive loss to Navy, the superintendent of West Point, Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, announced that he was considering institutional changes to build a winning program. "When America puts its sons and daughters in harm's way, they do not expect us to just 'do our best' . . . but to win," he wrote. "Nothing short of victory is acceptable.''

Soon after, Army Athletic Director Boo Corrigan argued that West Point ought to take "an educated risk" by relaxing admission requirements in favor of superior football recruits. The superintendent has said that he does not intend to relax standards, but Corrigan's views are backed by powerful alumni, including retired Brig. Gen. Pete Dawkins, a Heisman Trophy winner. "I think it's crucial that West Point stand out as a place of winners," Dawkins said.

As a West Point graduate and faculty member, I find many of these arguments troubling. West Point admission standards are already relaxed for recruited athletes. Sixty-one percent of West Point's current football players matriculated through the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School, where academic risk thresholds are significantly lower than for standard academy admissions.

Internal studies conducted in the past decade show that, once at West Point, recruited football players are more than twice as likely to fail courses, more likely to leave the Army early, and less likely to be promoted to higher ranks in the Army compared with their non-recruited counterparts.

Certainly West Point has a legitimate interest in its teams being competitive. It has a far greater interest, however, in producing the best possible officers.

In 1940, West Point Superintendent Brig. Gen. Robert Eichelberger allowed a new football coach, Earl Blaik, to recruit players of lesser academic ability. Blaik famously rallied his national championship squads of 1944 and 1945 under Gen. Douglas MacArthur's dictum that "there is no substitute for victory."

In 1951, MacArthur learned that there was indeed a substitute for victory when he was fired for using the phrase to criticize President Harry Truman's Korean war aims. Soon after, 37 of Blaik's players were expelled for cheating. An internal report found that the fundamental cause was "an over-emphasis on football."

West Point leaders often quote MacArthur to emphasize the value of competitive sports because, while superintendent from 1919 to 1922, he mandated intramural athletics for all cadets, seeking to provide "the undoubted advantages" of intercollegiate sports to the entire academy. This frequently overshadows the fact that MacArthur simultaneously oversaw reinstatement of a four-year academic curriculum, a far more important reform.

Dwight Mears is an assistant professor of history at the U.S. Military Academy. He wrote this column for the Washington Post.

West Point's merit is not proven on a gridiron 02/24/14 [Last modified: Monday, February 24, 2014 4:49pm]
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