How a federal policy changes the path for service academy athletes

Bo Richter totaled 45 tackles in the 2023 season. AP Photo/Julio Cortez

ON MARCH 13, scouts from 18 NFL teams traveled to Colorado Springs, Colorado, for the Air Force Academy pro day. The event has never been a high-priority stop for talent evaluators ahead of the draft, but this time, there was an elevated sense of importance.

Part of that was obvious: Over the past three seasons, Air Force has the ninth-best winning percentage in FBS college football (.744) and the second-best mark among Group of 5 teams. And scouts were eager to see the talented players who made up such a winning program.

Another part was almost ceremonial. The academies will likely still hold NFL pro days next year, but they won't function the same way given none of the graduating seniors will be eligible to play right away. As things sit, this will be the last year the United States government will permit service academy players -- those at Army, Navy and Air Force -- to jump directly from college to professional sports. Next year, athletes will be required to serve two years in the military -- as had been a long-established process until 2019 -- before having the option to pursue professional sports, while completing the rest of their service commitment in the reserves.

"Two years being away from the game is a tremendous setback," said Chet Gladchuk, who has served as Navy's athletic director since 2001. "We don't guarantee anyone that they're going to make the pros or that they're going to get a tryout. But if you've got a young man coming up the ranks here and develops and realizes, 'I'm good enough,' why shouldn't he get to take that shot?"

The ever-changing policy has been the subject of debate over the past several years, especially since December 2022, when a passage in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) stated a "cadet may not obtain employment, including as a professional athlete, until after completing the cadet's commissioned service obligation."

It created an uproar because, at the time, Army linebacker Andre Carter II was projected as a possible first-round NFL draft pick, and it gave the impression the rug had been pulled out from under him. The response was impactful. Legislators moved quickly to adjust the language, grandfathering in those who arrived at service academies in 2019 or earlier, thereby paving the way for football players to be eligible for the 2023 and 2024 NFL drafts.

But why have the rule at all? It's something athletic department officials at all three service academies have struggled to find a good answer for and, uniformly, believe goes against the best interests of the United States military.

"It's important to keep in mind that none of them would lose or shake their obligation to serve [if they went directly to the NFL]. It's not like you're letting them off the hook," Gladchuk said. "Every one of them would still have to serve at one point or another."

GROWING UP IN suburban Chicago, Bo Richter never really gave much thought about joining the military. It wasn't until he was approached by an Air Force assistant at a camp at Northwestern that it even entered his consciousness -- and then he was dismissive.

"I said to my mom, 'It's pretty cool, the Air Force Academy,'" Richter said. "I would never go there, but that's awesome.

"Then we got the whole spiel, and we started figuring out what it was all about. Great academics, great football. It ended up being the best option for me."

Richter wasn't a recruit who fielded much Power 5 interest. He didn't start playing football in high school until his junior year and -- other than Air Force -- was primarily sought after by schools in the Ivy League, MAC and FCS going into his senior year. For a recruit of his profile, the NFL didn't factor into his decision in the slightest. He was more concerned about where he could go to prepare for a career in business.

His path is a typical one for a service academy player. Rarely do any of the three land a recruit with Power 5 offers; instead, they focus more on somewhat under-the-radar types with strong academic profiles.

"You're trying to identify somebody that's an exceptionally strong student that has the maturity and the character and the leadership qualities and someone you think can be a good Division I football player," Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. "They're hard to find. We literally recruit the whole country. We have all five time zones on our team just because we have pretty unique people.

"First thing on the transcript: Is there pre-calculus? Is there chemistry? We're still [standardized-]test-mandatory. The sheer candor of what's involved to how you're going to serve, you're 22 years old and you're going to serve on active duty. That's hard to find."

This is not Calhoun complaining. This is him laying out the reality of what has been -- and will always be -- needed to fill a roster at a service academy. For him, players such as Richter and Trey Taylor, the 2023 Jim Thorpe Award winner, will always be the model for continued success: guys who needed to develop before growing into team leaders by the back ends of their careers.

Taylor and Richter are both viewed as possible late-round picks who will surely be signed as free agents if they go undrafted. They were among the six Air Force players who worked out in front of NFL scouts.

At pro day, Richter's development was on full display. His 40-inch vertical jump and 26 reps on the bench would have ranked No. 1 among all linebackers at the combine; his broad jump of 10 feet, 4 inches would have been tied for third; and he ran a consensus 4.56 in the 40-yard dash despite pulling a hamstring on his first and only attempt. And during the season, he had incredible production, finishing with 19.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks.

"Playing at the professional level is something that was a dream that I had no idea how realistic it was going to be until I got to this point," said Richter, who was not a highly recruited high school player. "And now it looks like it's a realistic one."

After all, there are only six service academy players on active NFL rosters.

Richter plans on taking football as far as he can, but also spoke proudly of the assignment that awaits him as a commissioner officer working as a financial manager at Eglin Air Force Base whenever that time comes.

For Calhoun, others that come along in that mold -- who come in unheralded before developing into potential NFL players -- should also be given the opportunity to see how far football can take them.

THE NDAA FOR fiscal year 2024 was approved by both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate in December and was signed into law by President Joe Biden on Dec. 22.

Tucked deep in that bill was the call for the Secretary of Defense to submit a report to the committees on armed services of the Senate and the House of Representatives by March 1. The report would include a legislative proposal to "update and clarify the legislative framework related to the ability of Service Academy graduates to pursue employment as a professional athlete prior to serving at least five years on active duty; and retain the existing requirement that all Service Academy graduates must serve for two years on active duty before affiliating with the reserves to pursue employment as a professional athlete."

It also required a report that included every service academy graduate released or deferred from active service to participate in professional sports and a description of their career progress.

Spokespersons for the committees on armed services of the Senate and the House of Representatives did not reply to multiple messages from ESPN seeking copies of the reports and inquiring about the professional sports pathway for service academy graduates. A Department of Defense spokesperson declined to make anyone available for comment.

"It would've been nice if the athletic directors were engaged in the thought process a little bit more," Gladchuk said. "It was pretty much handled at a level that was well above our influence."

DURING THE SEASON, before the NDAA was finalized, Calhoun held out hope there would be another reversal, paving the way for players to head directly to the NFL.

On the possibility of keeping the two-year service term before attempting to go pro, Calhoun said, "Candidly, I think that would be a mistake for our country."

Navy coach Brian Newberry is in a similar boat.

"It's frustrating," Newberry said. "A lot of players that we recruit, they're not delusional about their ability to play in the NFL, but there's certainly a large amount of kids that we recruit that have those ambitions and at least want the opportunity if it presents itself."

It might be easy to write that off as a football coach looking for a competitive advantage, and while that is certainly part of it, there's more to it.

"I don't understand it. I think, for a lot of reasons, it would actually be good for the academies [to send players to the NFL]," Newberry said. "If, by chance, we have a player that can play in the NFL, what a great marketing tool for the academies and for the military. What great ambassadors they would be, and what you get out of that side of it far outweighs the deferment of their service.

"To me, it just doesn't make a whole lot of sense. I hear the arguments on both sides, but I just think that the argument on the other side is uninformed."

That argument boils down to this: When someone is admitted to a service academy, their military obligation is all that matters. The academies don't exist to develop professional athletes.

After the two-year service period was reinstated in 2022, Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., issued a statement in support of the reversal.

"While I wish all service academy athletes who wish to go pro the best, the fact is U.S. military service academies exist to produce warfighters, not professional athletes," he said. "By enrolling in one of these institutions, they took a spot from one of the thousands of other highly qualified Americans whose dream was to attend a service academy and serve their country in uniform."

But to those on the campuses, that stance lacks nuance and implies these athletes are attempting to circumvent their service obligation, something that has never been on the table. They believe giving football players an NFL runway straight out of school actually functions as an extension of their military commitment.

Take Carter, for example. Even though his draft stock slipped and he ended up going undrafted, he still signed with the Minnesota Vikings last year and appeared in 12 games as a rookie. For the duration of his NFL career, he'll carry significant value as a marketing asset for West Point and the U.S. Army.

Consider this: Last month, the Army released its 2025 fiscal year budget overview that called for a 10% increase to its recruiting and advertising budget, bringing it to $1.1 billion.

"Andre Carter's best opportunity to help the Army's recruiting is for him to lead the league in sacks as a Minnesota Viking," said Mike Buddie, the athletic director at West Point. "If you win a Rhodes Scholarship, we pause your military responsibility and let you pursue the Rhodes Scholarship because that's the best use of your skills. I view professional athletes very similarly to medical school and to Rhodes Scholarships. Especially with the fact that they've all agreed and they all understand that the minute that their professional sports career is over, their five-year clock starts ticking."

And at that point, they've been around a professional setting and are, perhaps, more prepared to serve as a commission officer.

Added Newberry: "The amount of kids that actually have that opportunity [to play in the NFL] is so minuscule that I don't think it impacts what the academies' missions are in the long term.

"They're not trying to get out of their service. I think that's the most important thing to understand, is these kids come here, they choose to serve, they want to serve. But that window for them is so small, so to require a two-year delay just makes no sense."