Navy opens a back door and in come athletes, and victories

Published Dec. 9, 2016

It's been another good year for Navy football.

Even after last week's loss to Temple in the American Athletic Conference's title game, the Midshipmen are 9-3, with victories over Notre Dame and Houston. They are favored to beat archrival Army on Saturday (3 p.m., Ch. 10) for the 15th consecutive year. And Dec. 23, Navy will end its season by playing Louisiana Tech in the Armed Forces Bowl, which has a payout of $600,000 per team.

This season is not an anomaly. The U.S. Naval Academy may not be Alabama or Michigan, but it plays a serious brand of Division I football. Last year, the Blue and Gold went 11-2, soundly defeating Pittsburgh in the Military Bowl ($1 million payout for each team). In 2014, the team was 8-5, including a victory over San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl ($750,000 payout). Its 2013 record was 9-4, with a season-ending win … well, you get the picture. The last time Navy had a losing season was 2011.

But how does Navy do it? Aren't there height and weight restrictions that would limit the Midshipmen's ability to recruit the kind of athletes you need to succeed in Division I football? (There are.) Isn't the federal government stingy in giving tax dollars to the military academies for athletics? (It is.) Aren't the academies, charged with training the nation's military leadership, supposed to maintain their admissions and academic standards even if it means passing on football players? (Yep.) And aren't Naval Academy graduates required to put in five years of military service after graduation, which would seem to preclude attracting athletes with pro potential? (Yes again.)

The Naval Academy will tell you that because athletics is such an important part of the school's culture — it has 33 varsity teams, and every midshipman on campus plays a sport, even if it's intramurals — that it naturally attracts good athletes. Plus, there's that indomitable Navy spirit. As Dorse DuBois, a Naval Academy alumnus, put it recently on Facebook:

"Football is a polite and unarmed version of warfare, played as though there's no second place." He added: "Yeah, we're a small school, our players are usually smaller, too. But we're very physical, very disciplined and approach every game with the urgency required to win a battle."

There is some merit to both rationales, but here is a third possibility: Navy is gaming the system.

For instance, have you ever heard of the Naval Academy Preparatory School, or NAPS as it's called? In Newport, Rhode Island, close to the Naval War College, NAPS was founded in 1915 as a place where enlisted men with officer potential could get up to speed academically before entering the Naval Academy.

By the late 1960s, NAPS had opened its doors to civilians. This was partly a diversity effort, but it was also a way to get in the children of alumni or politicians who didn't have the grades or SAT scores to be admitted into the Naval Academy directly from high school. Once in NAPS, which is tuition-free, students were essentially guaranteed a spot in the Naval Academy the next year. According to a Naval Academy spokesman, Cmdr. David McKinney, the prep school costs taxpayers about $14 million a year.

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In the 1980s, Navy noticed that the Air Force Academy, which was regularly trouncing it in football, was placing recruited athletes in its prep school. Indeed, in 2003, Fisher DeBerry, the longtime coach of the Falcons, told the Colorado Springs Gazette that the prep school "has had a major impact on the success of our football team." The Gazette noted that DeBerry "picked the prep football coach, and that coach uses Air Force's offensive and defensive schemes." The school became known as "Fisher's farm team."

Eager to turn the tide against its rival, Navy began to copy DeBerry's methods. Sure enough, NAPS is now a means by which Navy launders underqualified athletes into the Naval Academy.

Jim Kenney, a retired Navy captain who was the commanding officer of the Navy prep school from 1978-82, recalled that in his era maybe four football players had been enrolled. "Today," he said, "it is dominated by athletes."

McKinney claimed that recruited athletes made up only 35 percent of the current NAPS class. But their effect on Navy athletics is huge. Seventy-five percent of the current football team got into the Naval Academy through NAPS, according to the Midshipmen football media guide. More than half the men's basketball team went to NAPS, and 60 percent of the women's basketball team. There have been years when 80 percent of the lacrosse team's players were NAPS graduates.

In addition to a free education, the Navy gives NAPS students $1,000 a month.

Ordinarily, of course, this would be a pretty big violation of NCAA rules. Because NAPS students are being paid for being in the military, the NCAA has granted a waiver allowing the stipend. (The same is true at the Air Force and Army prep schools.)

What was NAPS like for the athletes? The athletics were intense, and the academics none too stressful, recalled Peter Banos, who played basketball there in 2008.

"There was all sorts of tutoring," he said, "but really, it was like another year of high school."

Banos added: "We had cars, we could visit friends, and we were flush with cash. It was high school kids getting paid."

And if, after a year at NAPS, a student decided not to go the academy, the Navy didn't ask for its money back. Banos left the Naval Academy after his freshman year.

The Naval Academy points out that many NAPS athletes go on to succeed at both the academy and in the Navy itself. Indeed, three former Navy football players from the class of 1998, all of whom went through NAPS, are now in important command posts searching for terrorists.

There is a second way that Navy lands athletes who would normally be rejected through the admissions process. The Naval Academy Foundation, an entity founded in 1944 to support Navy athletics, pays for scholarships to send athletes to a private prep school, usually one with a heavy emphasis on sports. In return, the athletes are expected to go to the Naval Academy the next year. The donors to the foundation are almost all Naval Academy alumni.

Let's dwell on this for a second. Imagine if a handful of Ohio State boosters paid to send recruited athletes to a private prep school for a year before they went to the university. It would be an out-and-out scandal — exactly the kind of booster bribery the NCAA wants to stamp out. Yet, once again, the military academies have been given a waiver by the association.

Those height and weight restrictions I mentioned earlier? They are waived for athletes — at least until their eligibility is used up. At that point, those 280 pounds that made a Navy lineman so valuable to the team become a huge liability. They are suddenly under tremendous pressure to lose 50, 60, 70 pounds, depending on their height. And if they don't — or simply can't — their careers suffer, and sometimes end prematurely.

As for that required five years of military service, there once was a time when even the best Navy athletes had to put in time after graduation before going on to a professional career. Roger Staubach, who won the Heisman Trophy as a junior in 1963, didn't join the Dallas Cowboys until 1969. His Navy tour included a year in Vietnam.

Recently, athletes good enough to become professionals haven't had to put in five years of military service. In May, the secretary of the Navy granted waivers to four Navy athletes, allowing them to play while serving in the Reserve. They included Keenan Reynolds, last season's quarterback, who is now with the Baltimore Ravens, and Joe Cardona, who is the long snapper for the New England Patriots.

The good news, I suppose, is that, aside from the cost of NAPS, Navy athletics doesn't cost the taxpayer very much money. The government allocates only $3.9 million to the Navy athletic department. The rest of Navy's athletic budget comes from an organization called the Naval Academy Athletic Association. Although the NAAA describes itself as a "nongovernment agency," the majority of its board members are Naval Academy personnel, including Chet Gladchuk, the athletic director. Its offices are on campus. It uses the Naval Academy's email system. And so on.

And it doesn't just finance the athletic department. It runs it. The NAAA employs and pays the coaches. (Navy's football coach, Ken Niumatalolo, makes $1.6 million.) It manages the stadium. It negotiates the media contracts. And it rustles up sponsors. In all, Navy's athletic budget is more than $40 million, in the same range as the budgets at Hawaii, Boise State and New Mexico.

Are the compromises Navy makes to remain competitive in big-time college football any worse than other Division I schools? Not really. But that's not the point.

The military academies do something critical for our nation: They "train and educate junior officers in the Navy and Marine Corps," said Barry Relinger, a Naval Academy alumnus. "They should be dedicated to that purpose and not trying to achieve greatness of Division I sports."

No one is saying sports shouldn't matter at the Naval Academy. The Navy firmly believes that participating in a sport can build character and imbue leadership qualities that are important for military officers. I'm not going to disagree.

But to its critics, the gamesmanship required for the Naval Academy to be able to play football competitively with the likes of Notre Dame has hurt its ability to turn out the best officers possible.

"I think competition is very important," said David Tuma, an alumnus who has long been critical of Navy athletics. "But you don't have to be in Division I to stir the competitive spirit."

On Saturday afternoon, the annual Army-Navy game will be a hard-fought, patriotic spectacle. It will be fun to watch. Would we feel any different about it if the two schools didn't park athletes in their prep schools? If the linemen weighed 230 instead of 280? If they were in Division III instead of Division I? I doubt it.

If only the Navy believed that.