From the Vault: Timing Pattern: Department of Defense Decision on Caleb Campbell Lacks Thought, Fairness

The Detroit Lions have begun their Organized Team Activities (OTAs), which typically provide opportunities for rookies and free agent acquisitions to distinguish themselves prior to training camp.  One of the rookies looking to impress the Lions will be Caleb Campbell, who apparently has been cleared by the US Army to pursue a football career.  I wrote about Campbell back in August 2008, and wish him the best of luck with the Lions.

By now, the story of Caleb Campbell is quite familiar.  Campbell, a standout safety at Army, was drafted by the Detroit Lions this year’s NFL Draft (7th round, 218th overall).  Before the draft, it was made clear that Army policy allowed cadets with unique and extraordinary talents to serve as recruiters rather than offices in combat.  The theory was that athletes or entertainers could boost recruiting efforts by pursuing their talents on a public stage.  Thus, Campbell could play in the NFL immediately, without having to first fulfill his military commitment.

Campbell attended the NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.  When he was drafted by the Lions, the crowd gave Campbell a standing ovation and burst into the chant “U-S-A, U-S-A!”.  The media took notice and Campbell’s story was everywhere.  The Army basked in the light shone upon it.

On the eve of his rookie training camp with the Lions, Campbell learned that his NFL dream would be put on hold.  The Department of Defense apparently disliked the Army’s policy (and the Navy reportedly complained that it presented a recruiting advantage).  Campbell would have to serve his military obligation immediately.

Whether the Army’s policy was proper is debatable, but certainly justifiable – as was the Department of Defense’s decision.  But the timing of the decision was simply thoughtless.  And not providing an exception for Campbell was inexcusable.

You see, Campbell first learned of the policy after his sophomore season at Army – the season after which Cadets can transfer without penalty.  Coming off an exceptional season, Campbell had realized he had a chance to play football at the highest levels.  He took his transfer papers to Army Head Coach Bobby Ross.  But Ross convinced Campbell to stay – citing the Army’s policy for cadets with extraordinary talents.  Campbell stayed at West Point and made it to the NFL.  But on the eve of his first training camp, the rug was pulled out from underneath him.

The Department of Defense has the right to change policies.  But it is patently unfair to change policies midstream without grandfathering those who began under, and relied upon the old policy.  It is not unlike the NCAA’s decision to change the transfer rules for baseball players and institute the change one year too early, so that players recruited under the old system were restricted from transferring under the new rules.   Although we’ve come to expect such head-scratching decisions from the NCAA, doesn’t our military operate on a higher plane?  Was a supposed recruiting imbalance more important than the Army keeping its word to one of its cadets?

The Army publically used Caleb for publicity during the NFL draft and promised him that he could pursue a dream.  Now the Army has gone back on its word.  Strange, since through all Caleb’s years at the academy, the academy stressed that honor and keeping your word are paramount to a successful career as an officer.  -Kevin Lynch, a former co-captain of the Army rugby team

There’s not much honor in the way Campbell was treated.

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