The timing is bizarre, cruel, inexplicable and inexcusable. Other than those faults, the Air Force ruling that ruined Jalen Robinette’s chances in the 2017 draft is absolutely wonderful.
Robinette spent his senior year at the Air Force Academy preparing to play in the NFL. This ambition made sense. The Department of Defense had delivered, in May 2016, a fresh chance for service-academy athletes to waive their active duty status and immediately play professional sports.
On Thursday, without explanation, the Air Force reversed course and said Robinette, and other academy athletes, would be required to serve two years in active duty before applying for Ready Reserve and the chance to play pro sports.
You can argue about the merits of academy athletes heading straight to the NFL or NHL or NBA. I listened last week as Chad Hennings, the finest defensive player in Falcon history, expressed unease about Robinette’s immediate (at the time) route to the NFL. Hennings had serious weight behind his words. He flew 45 combat missions in four years of service before embarking on his nine-season career with the Dallas Cowboys.
Should the academy resist the temptation to march toward the perilous path of becoming yet another football factory? That’s a legit, complicated question.
You can’t argue about the timing of the ruling. There’s no excuse for waiting until the literal last minute to demolish Robinette’s draft chances. The academy hosted a pro day in March, largely to show off Robinette’s skills to NFL scouts.
The ultra-late announcement to tank Robinette makes the Air Force look confused, mean, foolish and inconsistent.
I talked with Robinette in Tucson, Ariz., a few minutes after his final AFA game, a bowl victory Dec. 30 over South Alabama. He said he was hoping it wasn’t his final game.
He wanted to play at the highest level there is.
At the time, his pursuit remained unlikely. The full range of Robinette’s talent had been difficult to see while he played in Air Force’s run-obsessed offense.
He soon revealed all, dazzling scouts at the East-West all-star game and later at the NFL Combine. Scouts saw a physical, aggressive, high-flying receiver blessed with huge hands and a vicious desire to grab every pass that flew near him. He went from a draft long shot to virtual sure thing. He was expected to be selected between the second and fifth rounds.
On Saturday morning, I talked briefly with a quiet and disappointed Robinette.
“I really don’t know what to tell you honestly,” Robinette said.
There’s not much to say. Robinette was led astray, and betrayed, by Air Force leadership. I’m not talking about academy athletic director Jim Knowlton or football coach Troy Calhoun. I’m talking about the top brass, the big shots who dwell in Washington, D.C.
Robinette deserved better. Much, much better.
The ruling leaves a trail of questions, most of them destructive to the future of Air Force athletics.
High school athletes have been recruited by Calhoun and hockey coach Frank Serratore and other coaches over the past year with the understanding an immediate arrival in the professional ranks was possible.
After Air Force’s ruling, will those high school athletes remain committed?
Army and Navy military leaders have not said if they plan to follow Air Force’s lead and decline to allow athletes to head straight to the pros.
Will Army’s and Navy’s policy be different than Air Force’s policy? If the answer is yes, Army and Navy coaches have been gifted with a massive, and unfair, recruiting advantage.
In April, Air Force hockey’s sophomore goaltender Shane Starrett announced he had signed a $325,000 two-season contract to play in the Edmonton Oilers’ minor-league system. At the time, I believed Starrett made a mistake by turning his back on an Air Force diploma and the probability of fatter contract that would be waiting for him in two years.
A bizarre, cruel, inexplicable and inexcusable ruling has changed my view of Starrett’s departure.
Believing in a consistent, comprehensible version of the Air Force has been proven as a mistake.