Politics

Pentagon shrugs off Trump's call to reverse student athlete policy at service academies

Key Points
  • The Pentagon is standing firm on its deferment policy for service academy athletes who go pro — even after President Trump said Monday that he was considering reversing it.
  • Trump says he's "going to look at doing a waiver for service academy athletes" who can join professional leagues. "They'll serve their time after they're finished."
  • Pentagon spokeswoman Jessica Maxwell tells CNBC that the Defense Department is currently following the 2017 guidance, which requires military academy athletes to complete two full years of active-duty service before going into pro sports.
President Donald Trump speaks during the ceremony to present the Commander in Chief's Trophy during a White House event with the Army Black Knights in the Rose Garden.
Scott Taetsch | USA TODAY Sports

The Pentagon stood firm Monday on its policy of prohibiting service academy athletes from getting deferments from their active-duty service requirements in order to play pro sports — even after President Donald Trump said earlier in the day that he was considering reversing it.

In a speech at the White House honoring the U.S. Military Academy's football team, Trump said that he was "going to look at doing a waiver for service academy athletes who can get into the major leagues like the NFL, hockey, baseball."

The president said that those athletes should be able to defer their required service so they can play professional sports. "I think it sounds good," Trump said of reversing the policy. "They'll serve their time after they're finished."

The policy that Trump talked up in the Rose Garden, which allowed military academy athletes to request reserve status in order to clinch pro sports contracts, was expanded by the Obama administration in 2016. One year later, however, Trump's own Defense Department abruptly rescinded it.

On Monday, Trump clearly expressed his preference for a return to the old deferment policy, adding that he had mentioned it to West Point football coach Jeff Monken. "I mentioned this to the coach, and it's a big deal," Trump said.

"Can you imagine this incredible coach with that little asset?" Trump said. "I think it sounds good, right?"

Shortly after Trump's comments, Pentagon spokeswoman Jessica Maxwell told CNBC that the Defense Department is currently following the 2017 guidance, which requires military academy athletes to complete two full years of active-duty service before going into pro sports.

"No service shall make unique or special arrangements pertaining to the initial assignments for [military service academies] or [Reserve Officer Training Corps] graduates that are not typically available to other such graduates," Maxwell said.

The White House did not respond to CNBC's inquiry about what had changed, if anything, about the president's thinking on the service policy. The Pentagon did not immediately say whether Trump had been informed of the 2017 policy change at the time it was made.

A shifting policy

The apparent disagreement Monday between the president and the Pentagon was only the latest chapter in the decades-long saga of whether to allow student athletes at service academies — where, like all students, their tuition is free — to defer their active-duty service to play pro sports.

For most of the 20th century, the policy was simple: Everyone served on active duty, regardless of their athletic prospects. But starting in the 1980's the military began granting waivers to some star athletes to go pro right away. At the time, the military justified the waivers as a good public relations move for the service academies.

Waivers continued to be granted to star athletes during the next 30 years, but only in select cases, and only for two years. Then, as now, a lot depended on who was in charge in Washington.

In 2016, the Obama administration expanded the waivers to include up to five years of deferment, not just two. As part of the expansion, then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced at the Naval Academy graduation ceremony in May that recently drafted quarterback Keenan Reynolds would be allowed to defer his active-duty service to play for the Baltimore Ravens.

"Keenan . . . you are cleared and approved to defer your service so you can pursue your NFL dreams. Go get 'em," Carter said to Reynolds, prompting the audience to burst into cheers.

Fast forward one year to the spring of 2017, just days before the National Football League's annual draft.

At the Air Force Academy in Colorado, two football players who expected to be drafted and granted waivers to play in the NFL were stunned to learn their waivers had been denied. At the time they got the news, there had been no formal announcement of a policy switch.

But on April 29, the final day of the 2017 draft, then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis signed a memo requiring that all service academy graduates serve a minimum of two years active duty upon graduation. With a stroke of his pen, Mattis had effectively ended three decades of selective waivers granted to star athletes.

It was unclear late Monday what the next steps might be for the Pentagon's current policy.