March 2, 2024
Annapolis, US 52 F

OPINION: It’s the “Varsity” Football Team, Stupid!

Dear Annapolis,

Let’s face facts, it is finally time to discuss shuttering the Naval Academy’s “varsity”
football team. Enough is enough!

Almost exactly 30 years ago, in December 1992, 133 Midshipmen at Annapolis were accused of cheating on an engineering exam. After a two-year internal probe demanded by Congress, 29 were kicked out of the Academy. Six members of the U.S. Naval Academy’s 1993 varsity football team were among them.

The Naval Academy does not appreciate criticism, especially from within its ranks. An insightful Washingtonian article from 2020, noted about Annapolis: “In 1996, a civilian professor named James Barry wrote a critical op-ed in the Washington Post that excoriated the Academy for a series of cheating, drug, and sexual-assault problems. Barry was immediately removed from teaching. At a campus-wide meeting, the superintendent reportedly told him to stand and announced, “That man there is a liar and a traitor.” Eventually, Barry was allowed back. He left instead.”

About 14 years later, on 20 May 2010, Annapolis professor Bruce Fleming published “The Academies’ March Toward Mediocrity” in The New York Times warning that a football running back was allowed to remain at Annapolis for smoking marijuana “brings to light an unpleasant truth: the Naval Academy, where I have been a professor for 23 years, has lost its way. The same is true of the other service academies.”

Ten years after that, in December 2020, 653 Midshipmen took the final exam for General Physics, and 105–about one-sixth—were later accused of cheating. After a lengthy investigation, during August 2021 a total of 18 Annapolis Midshipmen were expelled, 82 entered into a five-month honor remediation program, and 4 were found not in violation of the Honor Code by the Brigade Honor Board. How many of the expelled were football players? Unclear. But the USNA PAO did confirm that: “Sixty-one percent of the midshipmen involved are varsity athletes. … and 66 (62.9%) midshipmen were in the bottom quarter of their class.” (Email, 15 April 2022)

Most recently, on 10 March 2022, six West Point Cadets were taken to the Fort Lauderdale hospital (a seventh later joined them) due to fentanyl poisoning linked to snorting cocaine. At least two were football players. On 19 March 2022, the NY Post published a blockbuster article “Cocaine and pain pills: Inside secret drug culture at West Point” citing a former Air Force Academy student: “Cocaine was really prevalent among the football team,” he told The Post. “They would wait until a long weekend to do it because it leaves your system quickly. Weed can stay for a long time. We were randomly tested at the academy.”

The U.S. Naval Academy, plus the other service academies, have for the past three decades repeatedly shown themselves to be incapable of making their honor codes stick; the cheating scandal in December 2020, resulting in the expulsion of 18 Annapolis midshipmen, is simply the most recent case.

The Academy honor code is not intended to be a suggestion. They are not simply “guidelines.” They are a required part of the Annapolis education. If students don’t want to follow the code then they shouldn’t attend Annapolis. If they break the code, they should be ushered out the door … immediately.

This honor code problem has been growing and getting worse over the past thirty years. Fentanyl poisoning is not the first time the service academies have had to deal with student drug use, but it is—and should be—the proverbial “last straw.” Fentanyl is now killing 100,000 youths per year, a huge problem nationally, but Maryland in particular saw opioid overdose fatalities increase by roughly 18 percent from 2019 to 2020.

To avoid more overdoses, and possible deaths, the honor code must be respected. The remedy to this long-term problem is actually quite simple: 1) Take the service academies away from the Department of Defense (DOD) and put them under 100% civilian leadership; 2) Close down immediately all the “professional” sports teams and particularly the “varsity” football teams, which are the main focus of so many of these honor code-busting disciplinary problems.

For close to 30 years now, civilian Ph.D. professors have been berated by military leaders at the academies for daring to point out the all too obvious problems with the honor code, including cheating, drugs, and sexual assault, which are all—unfortunate but true—focused more and more in the varsity sports programs, and in particular football. Everybody knows this. It is an open secret. Who can now deny it?

War with Russia over the fate of Europe appears more and more likely every day. A future naval war with China over the fate of Asia looms on the horizon. These are both existential threats. They cannot be ignored.

It is long past time for U.S. taxpayers, who are footing the bill, to take these threats seriously and to state their demands clearly: shut down the Annapolis varsity football program.

Bruce Elleman is William V. Pratt Professor of International History at the US Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island. The opinions expressed in this article are strictly his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US government, US Navy, or US Naval War College.

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