Inspired by John Feinstein, I watched the Army-Navy football game today for the first time in ages. Unfortunately, it wasn't much of a game. Navy beat Army for the ninth time in a row. But on a day when a new chapter is added to the Cam Newton story, a tale that exemplifies everything that's wrong with college athletics, it's good to be reminded that the service academies embody everything that is right about them. It's been a great football year for the military academies, too. For the first time ever, Air Force, Army and Navy are all going to bowl games. As a Marylander, I am partial to Navy. Annapolis is one of my favorite towns in the whole world.
Image via World Latest News
Earlier this year, I read Feinstein's book The Last Amateurs, an account of basketball in the Patriot League, of which Army and Navy are both members. The schools in the league are all academics-first programs, highly unusual in Division I basketball, to say the least. They are the only two schools in the league which also play FBS-level football. Feinstein also wrote a book about the academies' football rivalry: A Civil War. I haven't read that one yet but it's on my to-read list.
Life at the military academies is brutal and unforgiving and the football players are spared exactly none of it. To be sure, these young men are of a different quality from those at other top-flight athletic programs. For starters, even athletes have to have good grades to gain admission. Then they must survive a system designed to drive away the timid. And, of course, there's the military commitment at the end, the trade off for the federal government footing the bill: not exactly the ideal arrangement for anyone with NFL aspirations.
In light of this, how can one help but admire these sensible people? Not only are they sacrificing the comforts they would enjoy as student-athletes elsewhere in order to serve the greater good. They have also chosen a path which will assure them of gainful employment at the end of four years, showing far more foresight than most college students, athletes or no.
Of course, the Army-Navy game is about a lot more than football. Just today, while out Christmas shopping, I overheard a conversation between two veterans about how people's attitudes towards the military have changed during their lifetimes. One, from the Vietnam era, spoke of how people used to spit on them when they came home. The other, a generation younger, spoke of how people near his base in Kentucky would pay for your gas if they knew you were in the service. I've certainly experienced that change in my own life.
Despite going to high school in Bethesda, Maryland, home to the Naval Hospital, I didn't know a lot of active military personnel growing up - certainly not many with combat experience. As it was the post-Vietnam era, there was still general mistrust of the military and in my youthful idealism, I certainly didn't give it much thought as a career path. There was one Marines recruiter who called several times during my senior year of high school. I finally had to tell him that as a scrawny, non-conforming pacifist, I probably wasn't his man.
But I did have one childhood friend who went to Annapolis. We'd had many political arguments over the years but the discussions left the realm of the abstract once he entered the academy. To say his college experience was different from mine is an absurd understatement. The philosophical conflicts came up within him, even writing to me once that he hoped he'd never actually have to kill anyone - sobering, to be sure. But he stuck it out, eventually becoming a helicopter pilot. While I was a carefree bachelor in Japan, he was flying humanitarian aid missions in Kosovo. From an actual e-mail to me at the time: "we're unarmed. I hope they know that!"
Now, as a teacher in a small town, I know quite a lot of students with parents in the military. Many have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and I can attest to the fact that stress on the families is very real. Tragically, some in the community have been killed in action. Needless to say, my own feelings about the military have changed quite a lot over the years as a result.
It's a good time of year to be thinking about those currently serving. As we all endure the stress of the holidays, we should keep in mind those who are far from home serving our country in circumstances few of us can fathom. I leave you with a song written during the Second World War for those serving abroad: