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Acting Navy Secretary blocks Naval Academy grad’s request to defer service to play in NFL

Cameron Kinley. (U.S. Naval Academy, YouTube screenshot)
June 16, 2021

On Tuesday, acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Harker informed Congress of his decision to block a Naval Academy graduate’s request to defer his mandatory Navy service so that he can play in the NFL.

Cameron Kinley, an ensign and president of his graduating class at the Annapolis Naval Academy, signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent and requested to defer his military service so he could play for the team, Military.com reported. Harker told Congress that he, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger, reviewed Kinley’s case but ultimately decided in a May 25 final decision to deny his request.

Kinley must instead report immediately for military duty.

Explaining his decision, Harker said “I looked at this case. I looked at the significant investment the taxpayers make in every midshipman and our expectation and their expectation is that midshipmen will graduate and be commissioned with the Navy and the Marine Corps.”

In the past, some service academy graduates have been permitted to delay their military service for a chance to play for professional sports teams. The provisions for whether service academy graduates can defer their service have changed repeatedly over the years.

In 2016, under President Obama, the Department of Defense put in place a rule that allowed student-athletes enrolled at service academies to defer their two-year mandatory active-duty service for a chance to play professional sports.

In 2017, the Department of Defence, under President Donald Trump, rescinded that provision, but in December 2019, Trump changed course once more, allowing athletes to play for professional sports teams before reporting for their mandatory military service, with the permission of their respective service secretaries.

In 2020, Naval Academy quarterback Malcolm Perry, was allowed to join the Miami Dolphins. This year, Jon Rhattigan, a West Point U.S. Military Academy graduate signed as a rookie linebacker with the Seattle Seahawks. Air Force Academy graduates Nolan Laufenberg signed as a free agent with the Denver Broncos, Parker Ferguson with the New York Jets and George Silvanic with the Los Angeles Rams.

By contrast, with Harker’s latest decision, Kinley will have to serve five years on active duty before he can play for the NFL.

In his decision, Harker noted one of the Naval Academy’s most famous football players, Roger Staubach, completed his mandatory service before becoming a legendary quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. Harker also noted San Antonio Spurs basketball player David Robinson also served two years, under an agreement with then Navy Secretary John Lehman in the 80s.

Last week, Kinley told the Washington Post that he didn’t lack a desire to commission in the Navy and to serve, “But I felt like somebody had snatched away a piece of me because it goes back to just all the hard work and all the adversity I had to overcome to get to that point. And for somebody to just be able to take that opportunity away from me, it just didn’t sit well, especially with no explanation.”

Responding to Harker, Rep. Austin Scott (R-GA) said he didn’t understand the decision and said Kinley should be able to appeal his case. Scott also noted the examples of Military and Air Force Academy students allowed to defer their service for a chance to play football at the professional level.

“I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, but I do know there should be a uniform standard,” Scott said. “If it is an accommodation that is going to be granted to West Point and Air Force Academy grads, it should be an accommodation for Naval Academy grads.”